Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Momma Sue, the bodhisattva with three shopping trolleys

She’s an unusual kind of bodhisattva. Slightly overweight, she huffs and puffs as she works her way through the all-too familiar supermarket aisles. No golden robes, no halo of pure, white light. Just an oversized t-shirt and the harried look of a mum with too much to do. She’s pushing not one, but three shopping trolleys, brimming over with tins, boxes and bottles - enough food to fill the thirteen bellies of her adopted family.

“I didn’t plan to do this”, she says, “I didn’t wake up one day and think, I know, I’ll adopt thirteen kids with disabilities. It began with one. And then the agency kept asking…. And well, once you have seven mouths to feed, what difference does an eighth make? Then a ninth, then a tenth…”

I’ve been told by Buddhist teachers that a bodhisattva is someone who, out of compassion, has devoted their life to easing the suffering of all living beings. I’ve seen lots of paintings of Tibetan representations of them. They have soft, still eyes, serene smiles. They sit in the full lotus, wear brocaded robes and float in clear blue skies. I’ve heard talks about their fearlessness, generosity, their endless compassion. But, you know, it’s a bit hard to model yourself on someone who sits on a cloud in the sky. So I’m always on the look out for real, living bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas in human disguise.

And yesterday, watching a great documentary called ‘My flesh and blood’, I met one. Her name is Sue. And she’s a single mum living in a Californian suburb who has made a home for thirteen children from all over the world, all with disabilities.

There is Faith, now 8 years old. Sue adopted her when she was two and recovering from an accident where a blanket over her crib caught on fire and fell on Faith’s head, badly burning her, and leaving her whole head and face severely scarred. Her mouth can’t open very well, and her nose and ears are almost entirely gone. Her clear, bright eyes peer out through folds of skin that are pink, cracked and rippled. Faith was taken away from her neglectful parents, and Sue received yet another call from the adoption agency.

We first meet her when Sue is cutting the children’s hair. Faith, left entirely bald by the accident, jumps up onto the stool and Sue begins to mock cut away, a snip here, a snip there. “A little bit shorter?” she asks, “hold still now, these scissors are sharp”. Faith giggles with glee. I look at her laughing, scarred face, and tears start to fall from my eyes. The enormity of the beauty of this moment breaks something inside me, and my heart just falls open. Faith’s joyful giggle echoes around in there, as I pause the DVD and just breathe.

Then I met Anthony, who is in a wheelchair and might just be the most courageous 20 year old I’ve ever seen. He’s spent his whole life coping with a rare disease where his skin doesn’t stay on his body. He is covered in sores, and his eyelids constantly flicker in readiness for the next shockwave of pain. We see Sue giving him the four- hour meticulously slow bath she has given him twice a week since she became his Mum 19 years ago. With every cup of water she pours to protect his raw body from infection, he winces, but still manages to smile his soft eyes at the camera. She picks up a handful of soap and styles his hair into a quiff, “look….Elvis”, she smiles.

My tears, still flowing from the meeting with fabulous Faith, turn into a downpour as I take in Anthony’s eyes, unfathomably strong in their softness. His minute-to-minute suffering is unbearable to watch, his bravery totally captivating. Later I see him performing in the leading role in the school play, his school mates cheering him in a standing ovation, and everything in me becomes pure applause for him, for his brave soul, meeting each moment with those soft eyes.

Then, with a crash, in comes 15 year old Joe, and he hasn’t taken his Ritalin to manage his ADHD. He storms around the house, children cry, plates fly and torrents of curse-filled insults pepper the air. I learn about his crack-addicted birth mother, and the bi-monthly, fortnight-long periods he spends hooked up to a drip and oxygen mask to manage his Cystic Fibrosis. And I figure that I would be pretty fucking angry too.

Catanya and her sister from Russia, burst into the room, vibrating with humour and the squeals of teenage girl laughter, and both without legs. They navigate deftly around the cameraman, propelling themselves with their strong arms. There is some great comic relief when Catanya decides to dress up as a magician’s victim for Halloween. She sits on a makeshift table, aligned with some faked legs - a stuffed pair of jeans. Enter the magician, Sue, with a fake saw. “And now”, Catanya announces, “the magician will cut me in half.” Her mum saws, in between her body and fake legs to Catanya’s theatrical screams.

Since nearly every waking hour is spent tending to the wide variety of needs of her thirteen children, the camera finally catches some alone time with Sue late at night. She confesses that she is utterly strung out, exhausted, stressed and deeply in need of someone to take care of her needs. We sit with her as she scrolls through internet dating sites, dreaming of a man she can cuddle in bed with at the end of each long day.

Some people live in retreat centres, devoting their lives to meditating their way above the cat and mouse game of pleasure and suffering. But Sue is right here. In the thick of it all. Washing mountains of clothes, filling thirteen bellies and soothing pains that people this young should never have to bear.

Somehow she meets Joe’s hot fat explosions of anger with the pacifyingly patient recognition of the pain that births them. Somehow she holds Anthony’s suffering in one hand, and a bucketful of light-hearted humour in the other. Somehow she knows that this world won’t be able to accept Faith’s wounded face, and at the same time trusts that it can see her beauty.

And my tears of disbelief, shock and joy mingle and ask myself “is that not a bodhisattva I am looking at?”. Someone who can hold the paradox of love and suffering, joy and pain in day-to-day life with so much grace and heart. I wonder why I don’t hear more about these living heroes, and how many more of them exist. And I think about how the place where love meets actual suffering in the world is the place true compassion is born. It’s what those Tibetan paintings represent, but it’s what Sue is heroically living; bringing love, where there was none, family where there was none, hope where there was none. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Amma: The woman who's hugging the world

To some, Amma, or Mata Amritananda Mayi, is a living incarnation of a goddess. I’m still figuring what she is, but I sure am amazed by what she does. This is a description of my time at her pink palace ashram in India…

From the balcony of the 12th floor candyfloss-coloured appartment block I’m calling home right now, all I can see is coconut palms. They slink all the way into the smoky distant horizon, and the wide, open sea. I can almost hear Amma's throaty giggle as she chose the paint for the walls of all the buildings here. Of course the 'mother of the universe's' house is baby pink. Below me is a temple dedicated to Kali, the Hindu Black Goddess of birth and death. On the roof are little meditation shacks housing white clothed devotees and the occasional black raven surveying the dusty grounds of the ashram.

I guess around 5000 people are filling the walkways, food canteens, temples and great halls of this bustling village. On my first day here, I found myself in a state that I can only describe as drunk. I was unaware that places like this existed.  Love is really ‘in the air’.
Indian people hold hands with each other, and their heads wobble in this wonderful way which seems to indicate neither no, nor yes. And boy do Indian people love to sing. It’s the main devotional practice here – thousands gather every night in front of a stage where Amma sits, singing songs to the Hindu Gods and Goddesses. I sit there on the floor in amazement amongst the 3000 strong choir, singing my little heart out.  

I am learning what a woman can be. The force of Amma’s living, unconditional love has made her organisation an amazingly efficient redistributer of wealth. With donations from her ‘devotees’ worldwide, she was able to give $50million for aid relief to Asian countries after the Tsunami, as well as millions to Haiti, Africa and even New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.

She walks her talk. Sometimes she spends 15 hours straight hugging people in her 'darshan' sessions. Yesterday I walked through the hall where Amma was hugging, many times throughout the day…

12pm - On my way to lunch - I look up at the stage. Amma is hugging a mother and child tight to her chest, her eyes squeezed shut, smiling face.

2pm - On my way to yoga - I look up at the stage. Amma is listening intently to three men. To her, they are the only people on earth right now.

5pm - On my way to dinner - I look up at the stage. Amma is cuddling an elderly man as if he was her long-lost love.

8pm – On my way to get water - I look up at the stage. And suddenly I get it. She treats at everyone as if they were her long-lost love! I remember once talking to my dear friend Dustin about what it would be like to love everyone as much as you did your 'first love'. I think Amma might know the answer.

She walks on stage at night like a lioness, beating time with her stick, hand on her hip, jaw firm. It's a tough love she gives out, to everyone. One that wakes up the parts of us which need watering whilst encouraging the budding plants already thriving in our hearts to flourish into an Eden with space for everyone.

I’m going to hug more.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Drinking Yogi tea with Mother Theresa

Mother Theresa would have been 101 years old this year. 

I learnt that whilst walking through the supermarket, from the cover of Time magazine. It was so refreshing to see her face smiling at me from the shelf. So many lines carved out by a life richly lived. Eyes that seem to have invented the twinkle. I read this birthday special edition dedicated to her life, cover-to-cover in one sitting.

This morning I was reading it again, sipping my tea and thinking about this post. And as if the yogi teabag could read my mind, it’s label announced, ‘Let love elevate you to excellence’.

It’s probably what most people think of when they remember Mother Theresa. Her huge capacity to love. And the excellent work she did in the world because of it. What else makes it possible to work day after day caring for the poorest of the poor, creating 517 missions all over the world?

However, Time Magazine also revealed something that I didn’t know about this saintly nun. Something that changed how I see her, in a radical way. She was already one of my heroines, this took my admiration to a new level.

She spent her life of service unable to feel the presence of God.


This woman who gave and gave of herself didn’t have some kind of deal going on with the big guy?? Apparently not. I was amazed to read her letters to her superiors – telling of a day-to-day loneliness, feelings of abandonment, a deep sense of loss.

When I read this about Teresa, I felt so much closer to her. She became more human. Not less saintly, just more human. It also reminded me of one of the darkest times in my life - when my own sense of connection fell away. And keeping faith felt almost impossible. Actually I’m still in the process of putting it back together.

It began when I was helping to run a yoga school a couple of years ago. I lived in a little concrete room, with a straw mattress and a swarm of mosquitos to keep me company. I poured all my waking hours into that school. There was a constant stream of students to help, floors to sweep, classes to teach, lectures to prepare, accounts to balance…

Life was a grind, and yet, it felt blooming brilliant. Effortless. Like I was being blown about the place by a huge, invisible fan. I saw the work as a way to live out my faith in the mystery that is ‘God’. It seemed to make even sweeping floors feel mystical.

And then the bubble popped. After going like a steam train for five months, I was knocked flat on my back for weeks. Things didn’t feel so blissful anymore. I couldn’t even move my body. But worse than that, someone had turned off the God fan! The flow of divine amrita stopped. And I felt emptier than a fuel tank on empty.

Reading Mother Theresa’s letters helped me to understand what happened. 

In the past, when I heard the word ‘Saint’, I imagined someone who never feels the negative emotions I feel. Someone who has an intravenous tap from God. Teresa has changed my mind about that. I don’t think her saintliness came from some kind of secret deal with God. I think she was a saint because she felt as hopeless and abandoned as most of us have felt, she continued to serve through her loneliness. And her faith never went walkabout.

So thank you Mother Theresa, for your incredible faith. It’s bringing me back to my own. And happy birthday! I hope you’re having the party you deserve.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dancing on lava with a dakini - Vajrayogini

On a trip to Hawaii recently, where fast-flowing lava rivers carve up the landscape, I decided to paint the fiery goddess Vajrayogini. I had just finished when my man, Way came back from a volcano hike. He took one look and with wide eyes said,
‘Woah. She’s stunning and savage and sexy and scary.”

Vajrayogini isn’t technically a person, but she is still a heroine of mine. Anyway, if she was a person, you probably wouldn’t want to go near her. She’s not the kind of girl you could visit next door to ask for a cup of sugar. Like a cross between Tina Turner in the middle of a live show, and that volcano Way just climbed, erupting.

A Tibetan Buddhist deity, she is a Dakini – a wisdom goddess. She’s naked, wild, armed with fangs, a spear and what looks like a meat cleaver, although the Tibetans call it a vajra-chopper. She is always pictured dancing with wild abandon and she carries a cup made from a skull.

When I first heard about her I nearly ran a mile. I was new to Buddhism, and was frolicking at the wonderful Buddhafields festival in Devon…

After an afternoon of ecstatic dancing, I heard there was a Vajrayogini Buddhist ritual happening. Which sounded like a good way to relax for a while. Very wrong. I poked my head around the tent flap to gusts of incense, heaving crowds of people and drums banging. And I nearly walked right back out of there. Horns were blowing, hands clapping, bodies swaying. It was a bit like the dance scene in The Matrix, just a little more British. Every now and then the madness would quieten and a polite, well-spoken voice would lead us onto the next part…

“and now we imagine Vajrayogini dancing, drinking the blood-red nectar from her skull cup…”

Before long, I was mesmerized. Buddhism suddenly became a lot more interesting. Who was this red, wild, dancing woman? Adrenalin still pumping through my body from my afternoon of jiving, I could relate to her. Much more easily than with the Buddha sitting calmly under his tree. But how could a polite English girl like me, be like her?

Over the next few years I’ve got to know Vajrayogini a little more. I learnt that the skulls around her neck represent wisdom overcoming illusion. That the ‘blood’ she drinks is a symbol of the delicious nectar of truth. Yet I admit I’m still a little terrified of her ferocity.

One of the traditional places to meditate on the dakinis is on an active volcano. So, in Hawaii, I walked to a mile away from the glowing lava flow and sat on the freshly laid black rock. It was still warm from the magmas latest adventure to the sea. The warmth felt both comforting and frightening - any minute the volcano could decide to lay another layer of 3000 degree molten rock. Over me.

I took in the burnt, barren landscape. Great black chasms and red rips in the earth’s crust. And I thought about how life sometimes requires this determined ferociousness.

I remembered Way’s second comment about my Vajrayogini painting…
“it looks like she wouldn’t suffer fools gladly… or take anything but the deepest truth and integrity”.

And I realized why I was so attracted to Vajrayogini, and why I wanted to be like her. She isn’t just fierce. She is fiercely confident, fiercely brave. Because she is on a fierce quest for truth and goodness, and she won’t stand for anything less. And in a world where I all too often swallow my own truth, to make it ok for others, that is something I could do with copying.

Can I lay my lava down, even though it might not be polite? I looked down at the new, green, sprouting ferns already taking root in the charred swirls and cracks, and realized I could. And that I should. Now where did I put that vajra-chopper…?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

How to be a nun and a mum - Tsultrim Allione

This woman is serious heroine material. In fact, it is her book, ‘Women of Wisdom’ that impelled me to write this blog.

Tsultrim Allione was one of the first American women to become a Tibetan Buddhist nun. At the age of 25, when no-one in the West had even heard of Buddhism, she travelled alone to India. She shaved her head and took the maroon robes. After many years of strict practice and teachings from the head honchos of Tibetan Buddhism however, she decided to leave the order. She married, gave birth to four children in five years. She now divides her time between her retreat centre in the US and India. Visiting Tibetan lamas, with her children.

There is one story about her that has been written with a laser in my mind. 

During her time as a nun, Tsultrim developed a friendship with the Dalai Lama, and was recently invited by him to speak at a conference for Tibetan Buddhist leaders to discuss the role of women in modern Buddhism.

What she did at this conference both terrifies and inspires me. She sat, in front of the lamas and asked them to close their eyes and perform a visualisation. Wow, this woman had guts. She began to guide them…

Imagine you’re walking into a beautiful shrine room, you look around at the paintings on the walls - images of a captivating, young woman in mediation. She is surrounded by dancing female figures and women mediating…

At the front of the room, you see a huge, gold statue, the Buddha, a vision of wisdom, a perfectly attained woman…

In the middle of the room, facing you, is a Nun on a throne in full regalia, leading the ritual. To her left and right, nuns sit in robes chanting…

Then, something catches your eye, at the back you see a few rows of men, monks….

Ahh, you send them compassion. You pray that they practice well, that next lifetime they will earn the right to be reborn as women, so that they may too attain enlightenment…”

She paused for a while and finally, when she looked up, she saw that the Dalai Lama had begun to cry.

At around the same time, one of my friends came into my bedroom and looked at the space I was using as an altar. He said, ‘Soph, where are the women?’. I realized that I had filled my walls with images of my heroes. Gandhi, Yogananda, Milarepa, Jesus, the Buddha. But somewhere along the way, I had forgotten my heroines.

So I began to look for them, asking my friends, reading books, and I found so many heroic women that I want to shout them from the rooftops. Poetesses, saintesses, nuns, mothers. And now, thanks to Lama Tsultrim - nuns that have become mothers. 

So, I am finding my heroines. Hearing their stories inspires me. And they give depth to my own.