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Thank you, and remember

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On the last day of the trip, we squeezed a final bit of awesome into the day. There was a hermitage built into the side of a mountain. Complete with with a cave church. Ermitage Saint Antoine de Galamus is striking visually, energetically, and spiritually.
The entire day had been beautiful, and by the time we got to the hermitage I was filled to the brim with emotion. I could feel the tears brewing and knew that if I saw one more beautiful thing I was going to pop.
It was the end of the day, end of the week, end of a cycle. I had come on this trip to enjoy myself. I wanted to climb down out of my head, stop trying figure anything out, and just allow myself to be. Thanks to the amazing group of people I was with, and the alchemy of our shared practice each morning, all of that and more had occurred. As I walked through the hermitage, I wondered how to take this joy of being home with me. How would I assimilate all of these experiences and weave this deeper level of self acceptance into the life that was waiting for me at home? How would I bring this energy into teaching…helping people to experience the value spending more time just being?
The answer came when I stepped into the grotto church. The air was cool and moist, but energetically it felt like a womb…a place of gestation where the love and nurturing of the mother divine was palpable. I dropped into the nearest pew, as the tears came rushing to my eyes. Just sitting in the room, it was as if we were all being held, with the light at the top of the church resting on each person like a mother’s gaze.
My heart had split open and I liked it that way! This week I had experienced the world differently, as a place that could be trusted. I believed that shift had come about externally because of what had changed internally. But how to stay open, how to leave the armor off?
The cave church had an answer. Through my tears I looked to the left and there were plaques placed by people who had been praying to St. Anthony. The one immediately to my left was “Merci.” Thank you was hanging from the wall of the cave, in a dozen different languages. Only one other word was inscribed: remember.
That was how I would maintain the energy from the week’s experiences: gratitude and remembrance. When the armor started to reattach or when the self doubt crept up again, a sense of gratitude and remembering all that has opened up inside would be the pathway back to the love that was now overflowing in my heart.
The last message in the cave church was sangha. Lynda came over and started talking to me, and when she saw I was crying she stopped. And just held my hand. It was a reminder that I didn’t have to go it alone.
Gratitude. Remembrance. And friends.
What a beautiful way to experience life as a gift.

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Everything is epic

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You know it’s going to be an epic day when it begins in a field is sunflowers. On our last day, Friday, we stopped in the sunflower fields to enjoy them and to take some photos. Many of the sunflowers were taller than me, and the fields were filled with bees doing their work. It was glorious to spend a few minutes surrounded by those light beings.
We had great fun on the ride to our destination, Gorges de Galamus. Our plan was to hike down the river until we found a space deep enough to swim in. The little hike was exhilarating, and quite unsexy as I slipped all over the place and kept my socks on. Here I am rockin’ the business socks.

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The water was clear and refreshing. The rocks had just enough of a flat plane for us all to find a place to sit. There were trout swimming next to us, fascinated by these giant interlopers in their waters. Lynda taught me a naughty French song about a bird and a fish who fell in love. When we were quiet, silence filled the space like a comfortable blanket as everyone drifted into their inner world. At some point I broke the silence, arms lifted, yelling, we have found the mothership! I can’t quite remember why…perhaps it seemed like a places aliens would like to check out.
I felt grateful for the contentment I felt deep in my heart. Grateful for my new friends, co-creating this experience with me. Grateful for the entire week, which had removed blocks to a deeper level of inner peace that hadn’t I felt in a long time.
Rather than hike back through the water, we decide to go right up the rocks. I was the last one up, and in the middle of the giant boulder, I panicked. I couldn’t see where to put my hand or foot next. Rob came down and showed me how to locate and choose the next place to step. When I got to the top I was shaking and had tears in my eyes. It was the third time on the trip where I wasn’t sure what to do next and then help came quickly, and I accepted it. In almost every area of life right now, I’m in uncharted waters. My experiences on the trip had served to break down my resistance to accepting help or guidance. Also, at some fundamental level, I was trusting the process…trusting the universe. I saw that when I get to a place where I don’t know what to do next, I don’t have to revert to my old method of coming out swinging. I could pause and wait for inner guidance, or accept the help that comes.
We were ravenous and so we had lunch at Au Vieux Moulins. Aside from the delicious Blanquette, omelette and frites, there was the equally delectable Phillipe. Bossy, hilarious, and hot. The trifecta. Wow.
It was hard to say goodbye to him but even more beautiful adventures were waiting.

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I had started out the morning marveling at the epic nature of the day. Everything is epic when you’re fully present, from the most sensual experience to the most subtle.

The last stronghold

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Thursday we visited Chateau de Queribus. This castle sits on the top of a hill, and when I saw it a small Frenchman in my head murmured, c’est formidable! Apparently it was the last stronghold of the region. Tiny windows where only a fraction of light comes through were used to shoot weapons at intruders. Listening to the audio tour, I heard that every room in the castle was built with battle in mind.
It was a glorious day. I felt like the battle that had been raging inside of me for months was completed at the top of the mountain the previous day. All sides laid down their arms and the resulting internal peace was quite beautiful.
There was nothing to do, except for what we were doing.
That was a relief. Even when I’m traveling, part of my motivation is to see as much a possible. There’s usually a hidden measuring stick by which I’m evaluating my experience.
It was nice, at the last stronghold, to let that go and to feel that all that mattered was what we were engaged with in that moment. I felt permeated by a sense of calm vibrancy.
We continued on to a delicious wine tasting in the Maury region. We stopped at one vineyard and were told they weren’t doing any more tours, but the owner flagged us down and led us through a tasting. His red tasted like a delicious port, and his white was a soft desert wine that tasted of honey.
On the ride home we stopped at the bread shop (fournil) in La Serpent. The town is so small that in off hours you walk in, leave your cash, and go home with amazing loaves, all on the honor system.

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I wondered about living life with that level of trust, in the universe, in the source of all things, in myself. What would it be like stop living under self imposed lock and key, to be like the fournil, which seemed to be based on principles of abundance? There was enough bread to go around, and if there wasn’t, more would be made the next day. There was enough trust that people would pay for what they took, and there was no need to worry about people taking more than they gave. The Source of the bread was so sustaining that values like more or less became meaningless.
We hopped back into the car, feeling the sweet abundance of the region nestling in our hearts.
It was now my favorite time of day: Blanquette-o’clock.

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Wednesday we hiked one of the mountains that makes up the Pyrenees. I knew the journey was going to be magical when I saw the group of wild horses at the base of the mountain. Horse medicine is about freedom, and if freedom was being acknowledged at the foot of the mountain, what would present itself at the top?
We began our ascent. I hadn’t hiked with a group before, and I enjoyed the pulsation of coming together and then walking solo for a while, and then coming together again. The rhythm was quite natural and there was no obligation to stay with anyone or to go it alone.
When I was a child I collected rocks. I thought they were so beautiful and magical and I had a closet with buckets filled with rocks that I’d taken home. I remember feeling like they were alive, and I remember thinking that they were friends I was watching over. Back in Philadelphia I’d been hiking a lot and starting to feel that deep connection to rocks again. Here in the Pyrenees, that love of rocks was bursting out of my heart. The crunch of the rocks underfoot, the way they glistened when the light hit them, each one seeming to say, pick me, pick me! By the end of the hike, I’d found 3 beauties as remembrances.
We kept walking. My heart overflowed, trying to take in all of the beauty of the mountain flowers, being on the same level of the clouds, the crisp, clean smell of the air, and the stark realization of, oh, I’m hiking on a mountain in the South of France.
I stopped and looked out at view. I was hiking the Pyrenees. There was nothing for me to do, nothing to figure out or make sense of. I had been reading so many books before I left Philadelphia driving myself crazy trying to understand my mind and why the last year had been so intense, trying to find words in a book that would help me forgive myself for getting a divorce, forgive myself for not being able to fix it. Maybe I could find the words that would show me how to avoid ever feeling that sad again or causing that sadness for another.
As those thoughts streamed through my mind, I keep walking. The elevation was high and my breath had gotten choppy. My legs were tired and half of our group was way in front of me and half were behind. One person had already gone back to the car. I was near the first peak, maybe 10 minutes away. By now I was above the clouds. I had never seen anything like this landscape with my own eyes. The thought crossed my mind, you’re higher than you’ve ever been. You’re tired. This could be enough. Then my dad popped into my head, the way when we’re walking sometimes he will jokingly call out left, right, left, right, like a military guy. I drank some water and then I kept walking, saying softly to myself, left, right, left, right, with each step.
I felt a burst of energy and then I heard one of our group, Rob, say, it gets easier over here! And sure enough the ground leveled out for a while and it was indeed easier to hike and easier to breathe. I was giddy. We were almost at the top. My eyes were glued to the path, which had again gotten pretty rocky. I climbed over rocks and was going around the side of the mountain where the drop off looked kind of steep. I could hear Rob, but I could no longer see him. And somehow the path seemed to come to an end. I couldn’t see a way up from where I was. I was pissed off. I followed the trail and then it just disappeared? What the fuck? Others had gone this way! Why the hell couldn’t I figure it out? I tried a step here, a step there but I seemed to have run out of options that wouldn’t result in my falling splat against the mountain. So I turned around, walking back the way I came, and I saw Gillain. She said, I thought you were up there already, and I told her I’d lost the path. She said, it’s right here, and when I looked down, it was plain as day, and the path I’d taken had branched off of the clear path. I’d been so intent on it that I hadn’t noticed that it forked.
It was the second time during the trip where I’d lost my way and then I’d followed the voice or sight of someone from our group and that led me back on track. My “I don’t need anyone” persona was definitely getting a different perspective.
I picked a flower as an offering to the Goddess at the pseudo peak. I called it that because it looked like the top, but there was a bit of a higher peak just next to it. When I got to the top of the first peak, I had a good cry. My legs hurt, I’d lost my way for a second, I was exhausted, but I’d done it. There was a beautiful structure made out of rocks. To me it looked like an altar, so I laid my flower on the altar and bowed my head to the earth. I was on the top of a mountain Alone, bowing to the earth. I could’ve stayed there forever. The other peak was another few minutes, and part of me just wanted to stop walking.
Only I heard heavy breathing, and it wasn’t me. I slowly peeled my head off of the ground, and stood up. Oh hai hot guy with a hiking pack!
“Hello, welcome to the top of the mountain!” I said.
We both started cracking up. His name was Milo (which was weird because that’s what I’d named the dog from the previous day). He was from Paris, and he and his peeps had camped the previous night and were finishing up their hike today. We took a mountain peak selfie and then I continued on to the real peak.
It was astounding. See for yourself,

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Michelle and Rob were doing cool yoga poses, Gillian and Neil were taking pictures and enjoying the scenery, and I was just sitting there, taking it all in, feeling grateful, happy, and strong.
We took a different path down. I kept slipping, and my knees were aching, but it was an easy descent. It took us half the amount of time and the landscape was totally different than other other path, so there was much to see and admire.
When we got to the bottom, I felt around in my pocket for the rocks. The friction of rubbing against my jacket pocket had created a hole and one of the rocks had fallen out. A small offering to the goddess of the Pyrenees. I wondered what else I had left up there.
We got back to the car just as the mist got heavy and you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you. The wild horses were sleeping. The babies lay on their sides, and the adults slept standing up.
That night we dined al fresco, by candlelight, on fresh truffles with pasta and mountains of Indian food. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so thoroughly comfortable in my own skin.

The beautiful and the terrible

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Tuesday started off with a bang. Michelle, our yoga teacher, led us through some amazing chanting, and all of our voices soared together to call in and appreciate the energy of love and devotion. We then transformed the energy of sound into the fuel needed to shine fully during a kick ass Jivamukti yoga practice. Afterward I wrote a little bit, took some time alone to read and integrate all the amazing experiences this far.
Our destination for the day was Rennes les Bains. The town was formed around some healing natural hot springs. There are people who believe the baths are connected to Christian mythology.
We enjoyed a fabulous picnic on the banks of the river. A beautiful dog hung around us and for some weird reason I named him Milo. The food, the good company, the sights, the cool air…I could feel myself expanding to contain all of that awesomeness.
So it was funny, when it came time to put on my bikini, how quickly my mind defaulted to judgment about my body, how automatic the self deprecating comments were about how I looked having eaten so much cheese and bread. That human moment of saying something diminishing out loud, as If to beat anyone to it who might be thinking it.
Lynda said, you’re beautiful, and we played paparazzi while she took a bunch of photos. She invited me to really get into it and to have fun. When she handed me my camera, I was astonished at how the photos came out.
I saw myself through her eyes. I saw the beauty of not diminishing myself, the beauty of having pure fun, the joy of dropping the habit of shrinking in order to feel safe. I saw what I look like when I give myself permission to just be, the way that light shines through when I take the dark blankets off of her windows.
I felt so grateful to Lynda for lending me her eyes so I could see myself differently. Then I walked down to the pool and fell completely on my ass in front of everyone as I slipped on a rock. ULP!
After a while at the baths, we gathered ourselves and went to Rennes-le-Chateau. If you saw/read DaVinci Code, you’ll have heard of this place.
The castle was cool, but the church was not my cup of tea. Over the entrance are the words (in Latin) This place is terrible. And inside the church, to the left, is a giant statue of a demon. The stages of the cross are there, but apparently they’ve been altered in some way that has created hundreds of weird conspiracy theories. I am highly sensitive to energy and what I felt in that church was a darkness that repulsed me. So I left in search of the light. Oddly enough, I found it on a bench near a giant rock thought to have been used for sacrifices. The bench overlooked a beautiful vista, and it was so peaceful to just sit in silence and appreciation.
It was interesting, the beauty of the baths, the heaviness of the church, the light in the darkness and the darkness in the light. I noticed my energy contract, as I made the church “wrong,” and I noticed a release when I stopped viewing it as wrong, but just not a place I chose to be in. Funny how the removal of judgment creates so much space.
We capped the night off in Limoux, dining al freco with a gorgeous view of the night market in the center of the square. Not only was the Blanquette exquisite, since it hails from Limoux, but I also availed myself to the soupe au chocolate. Imagine a creamy chocolate soup, ladled over bits of meringue and a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream.
Jaysus.

Radical appreciation

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Today an older gentleman on the street stopped and said to me, You are quite beautiful.
I thanked him and kept walking, but the way he said it kept coming back to me.
He said it like it was SERIOUS BUSINESS.
Like it was the most important thing he would say all day.
So I received it in kind.
He reminded me that appreciating each other is serious business in that it is important.
When we appreciate each other’s qualities, from the most external to the most inherent, we are saying, I see you. We are acknowledging someone’s being. We are reminding them (and ourselves) of their (and our) innate light.
It’s so important to let each other know, you’ve been seen. In doing so, we see ourselves more clearly. And we let people know that they matter.
There’s so much in the news right now about depression and getting help for mental illness. Letting people know that they are seen and that their existence matters may have an impact far behind what you can see in the moment.

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People in my age cohort will remember the movie Fern Gully. On Monday we went to what I am referring to as French Fern Gully. If you want to read about this place from the perspective of a logical human being, click here for factual information. What follows is the ramblings of someone who fell in love with Labyrinthe Vert. Easily translated into Green Labyrinth, the name belies its sheer magnificence. All of my childhood fantasies came to bear on this place that looks like what would happen if Fern Gully and the Shire got together and created a labyrinth in the south of France. Wow. Lush green, weird trail markings, the amazing scent of the deep forest, and a silence so full and complete that it felt like being in a sacred place.
It was a sacred place. As we went deeper and deeper into the path leading to the labyrinth, it became apparent to me that the entire place was a sacred shrine to Mother Nature. I guess you could say that about any beautiful place, but the energy here felt so specific to communing with the divine in the form of Nature.
It evoked in me a deep appreciation for being alive. That such a place exists, where you can experience it so deeply on a sensual level, where you can be with your peeps but also alone, where you can chant to the Goddess and feel her/your appreciation, where nature is reflecting back to you the inherent resilience, aliveness, and deathness in all things, where you can touch the plants and trees and feel the energy exchanged…it was a complete marvel.
Our hosts surprised us with an amazing picnic lunch on the most unique rock formation I’d ever seen. Imagine hiking through picturesque trails and feeling satiated energetically but physically hungry, and then a huge spread with fresh squeezed juice, veggie patties, smoked salmon salad, olive tapenade, baba ganoush, cole slaw, bread, and more food that I can’t presently remember. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, a magical toddler with a laugh that sounded like music came up to us, mischievous like a lil leprechaun, eyes so bright and smile so wide that I wondered for a moment if I could pick him up and just never let him go. Wow.
I decide to go ahead of the group. Our guide, Neal, says the labyrinth is just up ahead so stop when I get there.
It’s spooky,being there alone. I see the sign for the labyrinth and I enter it. It’s natural, rather than manmade, but there are colored marks meant to keep you on track. I squeeze through some rocks, and I go this way and that, noticing that even though I followed one set of marks, I ended up in the same place as the other set of marks. Weird. Finally I get to a butterfly symbol. When I turn left there’s an X which means not to go that way, and when I turn right there’s an X too. Huh? I turn around to start waking back, but now that the symbols are pointing everywhere I’m a little scared I won’t find the group. I feel a little panic, so I take a deep breath and I go to that place in me where I know everything is going to be okay. I’m still scared but I know I will be fine. And then I hear voices, and it’s my peeps.
Relief!
We continue walking and we come to this rock. There’s some powerful energy in this rock. It’s a few inches taller than I am, it’s wide, and there’s a crown of leaves at the base. I lean against it and it’s like it turns something on in me. So much energy is pulsing in my spine, and my whole back gets hot like I just leaned against a heating pad. What an amazing feeling, to be in communion with that ancient rock. We all took turns leaning against it, and it was cool how everyone experienced it in their own way.
There were many other amazing structures and trees and rocks that you could tell had huge significance.
When we left, I felt filled to the brim with love and forest energy. Every day of this trip has offered some sort of peak experience and a reminder of the magic of living.

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Sunday was Market day. I popped awake at six and got the chance to watch the mist roll through the Pyrenees. Lovely, luxurious practice before everyone started moving about the house. Oiling your body while softly chanting feels so much more decadent when you’re gazing at 30 shades of green along a French countryside. And after that deliciousness, we journeyed to the market.
Living in Philly, I’m no stranger amazing outdoor markets and summertime. In Esperaza, Picture that, but a mash-up so that some people are buying their fruit, bread, and meat for the week while others are trying on clothes or looking at necklaces. The sound of people speaking French, Dutch, English vied for my attention as much as the cacophony of smells and famillar and not so familiar sights. Lunch at a dal truck brought home the taste of India. I was so content to just walk around and see the types of wares overflowing in the different stands.
Musically, I felt enchanted. A brass band rocked the house, blasting out a song that made me feel ld just heard the French Version of Fela Kuti. A French young Bob Dylan played on one corner, and a Spanish Black Eyed peas played on the next.
From that market we continued onto the organic fair, which was part artisanal fair, part foodie delight, part political cause rally. Fresh squeezed apple juice spiked with ginger? Word!
The evening ended with a picnic in the mountains. Spreads and salads and breads so delicious you couldn’t believe you were eating it in the rolling hills with a backdrop that looked so perfect it didn’t seem real.
The evening was capped off by horse medicine. I remembered from my animal totem cards that Horses represent freedom. According to one web site, “Freedom is the most sacred and spiritual meaning of what it is to be the Horse. Freedom in every sense of the word; mind body and spirit.”
How perfect! On our walk back from the picnic, horses came out of the woods and up to us, nuzzling our hands, curious about these new people in their space. We gave them the remaining food, which they ate with glee. I like to think that we became their friends for life.
The moments here are so full. I think moments are always full but when you’re on holiday it’s easier to be present for all of them. Perhaps when traveling it’s easier to give yourself permission to be free. Out of the regular routine, it’s easier to just be without trying to hit any internally or externally imposed mark.
Come to think of it, horses were very present on my Cabo retreat earlier this year as well. I think according to the Chinese calendar it’s the year of the horse. Maybe this is the year we all access that internal freedom, the freedom of mind that allows us to feel the unfettered joy that pulses at the center of human life.
If your mind was free from self-imposed limits, what would your life look like? Right now, I’m in that question.

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Saturday night we had an amazing dinner of savory and sweet crepes. The textures and tastes involved in the crisp crepe, covered with spinach, mushroom, and creamed leeks — c’est magnifique!
Our hosts shared the story of sparkling white wine from the region: Blanquette.
The story is that Dom Perignon created Blanquette, the most fabulous sparkling white wine. He moved to the champagne region and started to make it there, calling it Blanquette, but the locals from this area balked. Lawyers were involved, So he changed the name to champagne.
How funny! The name had changed, but the form was the same. I had never heard of Blanquette. But I was pleased to make her acquaintance. Add to that the crepes, amazing company, and beaucoup de laughs, and we created an amazing first night in the South of France, in a little town called Esperaza. Or maybe it was Limoux.
In the morning, while doing yoga nidra, I wondered about sensual experiences, how enjoyable they are, and how to experience life to the fullest without getting stuck in trying to replicate pleasure over and over again.
What came rushing in was, you are That. The experience you’re trying to merge with, you already are that thing. It’s essence and your essence are the same. So there’s no reason to grasp or keep reaching for more because you already are that joy that you seek. And it’s the resting in yourself, as you move through your day, that lets you experience that inherent comfort, so you appreciate it when it’s through an experience, but you also that’s within you whether you’re in a French Creperie or not. Thank goodness!

Gaudi Gaudi Gaudi!

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One super plus about traveling solo is you can nerd out hard core. I love Gaudi. He created a number of amazing buildings in Barcelona. Last time I was here I visited Sagrada Familia, his famous church, and Parc Guell, which is so colorful it looks like a child’s dream. I imagine pretty much anyone who sees his buildings feels the same. Who wouldn’t like a building that evoked an image of melted ice cream? I think Philadelphians especially would love the Palais Guell, which I visited yesterday. The mosaic style, bedazzled chimneys are reminiscent of the Magic Gardens on South Street.
Anyway. Something about Gaudi’s buildings just feels so delicious to me. I was immediately reminded of the word sukkha, which means good space in Sanskrit. Yes, the form of the building seems conceived to give you an experience of good space.
I deeply enjoyed nerding out, listening to the descriptions of the architectural techniques employed in each room. The level of thoughtfulness was astounding. There’s literally no element in the design that is not well thought out. Witnessing that level of mastery was inspiring.
I took a zillion pictures and fantasized about creating a line of clothing inspired by Gaudi’s imaginative color palette. I had the thought, you know fuck all about clothing! And then, ahh, that’s how you shut yourself down, that’s how creativity gets squelched. It’s a beautiful thing, to be inspired. Don’t rip yourself off of that experience. Maybe it’s less about clothing and more about letting your mind out seemingly disparate shapes and colors together in ways that stretch your imagination.
So my thing for this week, when seemingly left field fantasies pop into my mind is to ask myself, and then what happened? Let my mind have free reign to stretch and contemplate the possibilities.
This seems like a week to Dream Bigger.

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