Shining Light in Shadowland

Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
Ever since the election, in spite of attempts to stay centered in a positive outlook, I often wake up in the morning with sadness and apprehension. As much as I try to avoid it, I find that I have to come to terms with a new presidential administration that is displaying the underside of human thought and behavior: racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, elitism. Exclusion that sees “them” instead of “we.” This is the shadow of humanity that has existed for thousands of years as hatred of “otherness.” Yet, now it is in our faces, even more so than in past administrations, which were not exactly stellar either. Electing Barack Obama seemed a step toward inclusiveness and diversity, yet even then, the country was almost evenly split, as it has been for many years now. True, the electoral college is not a fair instrument for representing the will of the people, but changing that will not erase the shadow. We have to face the huge division that exists in this country.

The United States is not united. Nor has it ever been, really. This is a country that has always been made up of people from different countries, cultures, races, religions, and belief systems. The first explorers and colonists—the first “immigrants”—imposed their lives upon the people who already lived here, the Native Americans. The formation of a new country was rooted in exclusion and appropriation.* That shadow has always been there, even as waves of immigrants from countless countries came here seeking freedom and liberation from oppression. Slavery was the most extreme manifestation of the shadow, and racism continues in its wake. The United States has always embodied dual, contradictory aspects: open arms and closed doors; freedom and injustice.

This election has brought to the surface all the fear-based shadows in this country, shadows that exist worldwide as well: intolerance, separation, inability to accept difference. And here is the hard part: As the shadow of humanity is on full display all around us, we have to look at its presence within us as well. Where do we see “other” instead of brother or sister? Where do we judge, condemn, or exclude people from our lives? In what ways do we tell ourselves that the world would be so much better if certain people just didn’t exist? Do we live with an open heart or a closed mind? Do we live in love or in fear?

On the morning after the election, I was traveling to Florida to attend Panache Desai’s annual global gathering. My state of mind was heavy, to say the least. As I found my seat on the plane to Charlotte, where I would change planes, the woman next to me whispered, “Governor Romney is over there.” “Who?” I asked, still in my own thoughts. “Mitt Romney,” she answered, pointing a few rows up, to first class. Finally, it registered, and in exasperation, I replied, “Oh, great, that’s just what I need today.” The woman looked a bit puzzled, and suddenly, it all struck me as very funny, and I began to laugh. (She chuckled a little, but I’m sure she had no idea why I was laughing.) Encountering yet another conservative former presidential candidate seemed to me like a comical cosmic wink or wake-up call. The message: “There will always be someone you disagree with on the plane of life.” In this out-of-the-ordinary occurrence, I was being reminded that from the perspective of global oneness, there is no “other.” No one is excluded.

And that is precisely why we are here on the planet at this time: To break the toxic habit of “otherness.” To find common humanity even when there appears to be none. To love in the face of hate, hope in the face of despair, have courage in the face of fear. You and I are being called to shine our own peaceful light ever more dynamically in the world, no matter what else is going on. To speak out for human rights and universal sister/brotherhood as we hold unconditional love for all in our hearts. (This is the basis of many nonviolent movements for social change.) In seeing every single “other” as another “one” in oneness, we come into greater balance and harmony, both individually and collectively.

Even when it seems unrealistic or emotionally impossible, take a deep breath and express the truth of your soul, which is love, which is kindness. Find the inner strength and compassion to keep expanding your heart until the shadow of separation falls away and you see yourself reflected in every face you encounter. That is the loving connection that holds our very diverse humanity together, in spite of the conflicts that pull us apart. In the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Love is the strongest force the world possesses.”

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*This continues today at Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, where Native Americans are protesting a proposed oil pipeline as an environmental hazard and a threat to their sacred lands.

African Dreams

Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
In October, I spent two weeks in South Africa. After I returned, I woke each morning disoriented, thinking I was still there—bird calls and animal sounds filling the air. My own bedroom seemed unfamiliar, and as I lay in a half-awake/half-asleep state, I dreamed of elephants walking slowly with majestic, graceful intent, just as they did when I saw them in the hot, dry African savanna. Gradually, when I awoke fully, I realized I was back home in Massachusetts, where it was cold and rainy, and autumn leaves covered the ground. Yet the elephants are still with me. Africa inhabits my consciousness now, never far way in memory or awareness. I close my eyes, and I see again the enduring, yet somehow fragile beauty of the land and the people and animals who live there.

It was one of my life’s greatest blessings to travel to South Africa, where the animals are like nowhere else on Earth. Elephants, giraffes, zebras, impala, kudu, sable, lions, wildebeests, wart hogs, buffalo, nyala, waterbuck, crocodile, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, baboons, monkeys, bush babies, honey badgers, and many more. The birds too are unique: bee-eaters, hornbills, storks, spoonbills, ostriches. The grey go-away bird and the Egyptian goose with bright pink legs and feet. All miraculous beings living in a world that has drastically changed because of human activities and population growth.

The wild animals of Africa can no longer survive outside of reserves, where they are protected, in theory, from game hunters, poachers, and those who see them as a threat to farms and villages. Still, poachers find ways to enter the reserves (by helicopter) to kill elephants for their tusks and rhinoceroses for their horns. There is a high price paid in various countries for them. The animals face food and water shortages because of drought and the fact that fences block them from following their age-old migration routes across Africa. The heartbreaking worldwide dilemma of humans and animals inhabiting the same areas and using the same scarce resources is nowhere as dramatically visible as in Africa. Foreign investors buy up land to raise rhinos for their horns; private game reserves offer hunting for those who can pay for the “pleasure” of killing exotic animals. Colonialism has not disappeared; it has just taken new forms. You can see it in the everywhere-visible electrified wire fences “protecting” houses, land, and supposedly animals.

Photograph © 2016 Anne Katzeff
Photograph © 2016 Anne Katzeff

I came to South Africa to volunteer at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Daktari Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage and then to see the magnificent animals in the wild. This was not a usual tourist trip, but one where we learned about the enormous challenges faced by the people as well as the animals. Daktari offers an intensive teaching curriculum for 10-11 underprivileged students a week (grade 8) from neighboring schools. They receive class instruction from volunteers (with special focus on the environment and wildlife) and learn firsthand about animals by helping to care for them (they are often afraid of them at first). They also learn about possible future jobs in Africa’s animal reserves.

The students arrive shy and reluctant to speak and usually leave with more self-confidence and a greater ability to express themselves. Still, when we visited the daycare centers and schools that they came from, we saw the uphill battles they face. Schools with hundreds of students and only a handful of teachers; many classrooms with no teachers at all. When they finish school, many encounter either unemployment or jobs that are mostly low income. Racism and poverty have not disappeared with the end of apartheid.* In spite of the odds stacked against them, however, the students we met wanted to make a difference in their communities.

Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger

We heard various stories about the animals in the reserves. Some of the staff at Moholoholo and Daktari told us that the two-year drought is drying up both food and water, and animals are dying. That there are far too many of some animals in the reserves (because they are prevented from migrating), and culling operations often kill off the “excess.” Still, many are starving, and some are driven to break through fences to get to food and water, where they are killed by farmers protecting their crops.** A tragic situation. Meanwhile, the rangers at Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest animal reserves (7,523 sq. mi.), told us that drought is normal, part of Africa’s savanna climate cycle, and that culling is infrequently necessary. Of course, this is the softer picture presented to tourists, so that they will continue to come to Africa.

So we as visitors who wanted to help, but also tourists in spite of ourselves, did what we could while we were there–offered our love and support to the children and animals and the people we met. A small gesture within a huge continent facing huge conflicts and challenges, within an even bigger world that often sees this unique land only in terms of the money that can be made by exploiting it and the people who live there. We who visit can only know a part of the larger picture, but even so, we can speak about what we have experienced—about the extraordinary beauty of the land, the animals, and the people, and about how precious they are in the greater landscape we all inhabit. Until we can see every part of this world as part of us, we cannot live in oneness. It begins with seeing other people as like ourselves, by seeing every living creature as a sentient being, and by honoring the Earth as sacred ground. To live with good heart upon this planet, wherever we are and whomever we meet. From the African word ubuntu: compassion, humanity, kindness for all. In so many ways, visible and invisible, we are all connected.

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*Just as racism and poverty have not disappeared in the United States in spite of the civil rights laws passed in the 1960s

**Just as wolves are killed by ranchers in the western United States when they leave the protection of national parks

 

Background Bliss

Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
One of the most profound universal spiritual teachings is that we are divine at our core. The sacred soul self within us is made up of God’s essence, which is pure peace and love. When we are connected to that part of us, we feel a bliss that encompasses all of our life’s experiences, whether happy or sad, crisis or celebration. Bliss that is not ecstatic joy but instead a full embrace of the poignant beauty of life. Divine connection, once accessed, can never be lost or superseded. It is eternal, and it carries us through everything that we may face in our lives, including death. It is always in the background, like a soft comforting presence. Many years ago, I experienced my first taste of this kind of background bliss before I encountered that particular teaching. I lived its truth before I heard it articulated. This occurred at the deaths of each of my parents.

First, let me say that I am an only child who was always very close to my parents. I feared their future deaths for most of my life. I thought I would lose my mind when they died. The irony is that “losing your mind” is often the best thing that could happen. The spiritual quest I began several years prior to their deaths put me in touch with something beyond my mind. The dissolution of a solely mental framework in favor of a greater awareness was exactly what helped me through the experience of their deaths.

My mother died at the age of 81. She had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital in Illinois. I received a call in Boston in the middle of the night and flew there the next day. I spent five days sitting by her hospital bed, slowly coming to terms with the fact that she wouldn’t recover. Because my father was 86, I also needed to look out for his physical and emotional needs, convincing him to go home to rest at night. The nurses, knowing I was an only child, were exceedingly kind. Two of them stayed with me by her bedside at the very end. My mother passed away as I held her hand, telling her I loved her. Her final goodbye was a spiked heartbeat on the monitor when I said her name—then she was gone. I was alone but surrounded by love—from the nurses, my friends, my parents’ friends. Long-distance calls kept coming to the house in support of me and my dad, who was devastated without her. My partner flew to Illinois to help us both. I was grieving but somehow okay because of everyone’s kindness. Something greater was being shared: my mother’s love had merged with God’s love, and I could feel it within and all around me.

My father died nine years later. During that time, I flew back and forth to the Midwest, caring for him long-distance. Once again, I received a late-night call: he had been taken to the hospital with pneumonia. It took me two days to reach him because I was at a retreat center in western Massachusetts. He managed to stay alive until I could get there, which was the greatest gift he ever gave me. He recognized me through his oxygen mask, and we exchanged “I love you’s” as I sat holding his hand. Within five hours of my arrival, he took his last breath and passed peacefully away. In that moment, I could feel my mother’s presence, my father’s presence, and also a greater Presence that encompassed us all. It manifested itself in the loving-kindness of everyone I encountered. The waitress in the hotel restaurant sat and told me about her own father’s passing; the shuttle driver gave me a “remembrance angel.” Close friends and family called to express sympathy and love. And as my plane back to Boston lifted into the skies, I looked down and saw a rainbow corona encircling the plane’s shadow on the clouds below. I was so clearly not alone.

When my parents died, I felt great loss, but I did not feel lost…or crazy. I actually felt blessed to have been present as each of them passed. It felt like a sacred gift of love, from them and from God. I was given the chance to see through the veil and to understand that death is transition not finality. To experience at a very deep level the magnificent ways in which spirit fills our lives and surrounds us all with love in every single moment. I knew firsthand what it was like to feel grief right alongside gratitude. My heart, opened by sorrow, knew the bliss of divine connection, of presence within absence. When we think we are most alone, we are actually part of something so much greater.

Fear and Its Disguises

Photograph © 2012 Peggy Kornegger
Photograph © 2012 Peggy Kornegger
The presence of fear is not always recognizable as such. Yes, it can be the jolt to the gut, adrenaline coursing through your body, at a near-miss in traffic or sudden turbulence mid-flight. Obvious. Unmistakable. But most fear is more subtle than that, more hidden. It lurks in your subconscious and disguises itself as other things when it emerges. Anger, sadness, negativity, shyness, humility, resentment—all these are perfect covers for fear.

A friend of mine feels angry when she’s in a situation that frightens her, such as running out of gas on the highway in the middle of nowhere. Anger comes up first; irritation. Next could be self-blame or regret. But really the root feeling is fear. Another friend experiences depression or sadness instead of active fear when facing a potentially difficult turn of events or future circumstances. Yet another friend recently wrote about how he now realizes that his spiritual “humility” has concealed a fear of standing out, of being fully himself in the world. I can relate to all of these experiences.

I’ve also had disguised fear directed at me in the form of well-meaning, but basically negative advice or warnings about something I plan to do. Naysaying. Actually, we live in a naysaying world dominated by fear and a mainstream media that promulgates it. We learn to internalize it and then pass it on to others. Our news sources rely on sensationalism to attract an audience with frightening new dramas every day: murder, disease, abuse, scams. Those who financially sponsor the media use fear to control people, to keep them distracted, apprehensive, and unquestioning.

Conscious awareness can shift everything, however. Once we recognize the sources of external fear in our lives, we begin to recognize it within ourselves. Some fear may come from past experiences, which needs to surface and be released, and some may come from present events and how they are perceived. When we become more aware, we realize that the world is not all mayhem and catastrophe. Positive solutions also exist, and we can become part of that wave of positivity on this planet. When we are not stopped by internalized fear, so much becomes possible. We can step into our own greatness: the fully realized humans we came here to be.

My own fear of “being great” has hidden behind childhood shyness and then adult political and spiritual beliefs about equality and humility. I’ve never liked the existing hierarchical paradigm in which individuals battle for top-dog status at the expense of others. I envision a world in which self-actualization is possible for all. To be humble is to know we are connected to everyone else, and what each of us does affects the whole. As I evolve spiritually, I have come to see that becoming my own greatest self does not negate humility but can actually enhance it when I align with my connection to all beings everywhere. That’s the magic; that’s the miracle.

Becoming your full-out magnificent self and also being aware you are part of a whole involves a delicate balancing. But that’s the humility of oneness. No self-abnegation or belittling of self, but instead, expansive creativity within a framework of collective brilliance. We can be fabulous with inclusivity, not exclusivity. We can inspire others without causing them to feel small. Because we are all inspiring when we allow our souls to step to the fore. So don’t let fear stop you, no matter what disguise it wears. See through the masquerade to the soaring spirit at the core of everything and everyone.

Is Pain Godly?

Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
What role does pain play in our lives, if any? Certainly it can be a reminder at the physical level that we may need to pay more attention to our own health or stress level. But beyond that, what function does it serve? If looked at from a spiritual perspective, pain is present for a greater reason, as is everything that appears in our lives. There are no accidents or coincidences. No alien beings possessing our bodies against our will. If everything is God, then how exactly is pain godly in our lives? Good question, especially for me, as I have spent most of my adult life living with recurring pain in the form of migraine headaches. For many years, I also carried a heavily weighted wish for them to disappear and leave me in peace.

It was an interesting thought: that I couldn’t be at peace if I was in pain. True? Not really. I can be at peace if I let go of suffering on all levels, including the physical. If I am in pain but not suffering, peace is present. Which comes first, peace or letting go of suffering? Actually, they are closely linked, like the loops in a Celtic infinity knot. The soul is always at peace; if the personality consciously aligns with the soul, it too is at peace and suffering fades. When I stop resisting the pain and just breathe into it, peace arises from my soul. Within peace, pain lessens and sometimes disappears entirely. So any way you want to approach it, peace and pain are not actually in opposition to each other. As my spiritual journey deepens, I continue to learn the truth of this.

I also learn about pain’s hidden gifts—how it can highlight the blessings in life, bringing into my conscious awareness how precious each moment is. After a two-day headache ends, I feel such immense appreciation for life’s small wonders. It also teaches me compassion and resilience: to have heartfelt empathy for others’ pain and to be able to spring back from adversity or trauma. Pain is the dancing spirit, like Kokopelli and his flute, that reminds me to embrace all of life’s experiences, even when they hurt. Life on Earth at this time is not easy. Every one of us has to face pain in some form, physical, emotional, psychological—even spiritual (the dark night of the soul).

There is a heightened energy now that is immersing us all in intense transformation within our day-to-day lives, and we are constantly adjusting to and integrating it, whether we are aware of it or not. Sometimes these adjustments, as we evolve and expand into light-filled human be-ings, can cause physical pain, emotional turmoil, or psychological distress. When we allow ourselves to fully feel whatever arises and let it pass through us without resistance, we move forward more freely with greater awareness, trust, and inner strength. We let go of the old and open to the new on the deepest possible level.

So, are my headaches related to planetary change? Perhaps my physical form is adjusting to embodying a higher vibration, an expansiveness that is continually creating new neural pathways. That may be pain’s ultimate hidden gift: an elevation of the human/divine experience. Still, on some level, it continues to be a mystery to me. But the mysterious, in all its wondrous manifestations, can be the gateway to spiritual insight. When I look through the eyes of my soul, I see with increasing clarity the oneness, the seamlessness, of all of life. Each experience I have is intricately interwoven with every other.

There is truly nothing in this universe that is not God, or godly. All of nature, all people, all events, all experiences, are interconnected. When we open to this truth, we learn to welcome everything as part of our growth and evolution. That is one of the blessings of the times we are living in. Gradually, we are beginning to recognize the presence of grace and perfection in every aspect of our lives, including what we can’t understand with the mind or have labeled “pain.”

“Inside my pain is the seed of my strength…
No mistakes have been made in God.”
—Rickie Byars Beckwith