Celebrating Solitude

Photograph © 2018 Peggy Kornegger
Even though I’ve been in a couple for 35 years, I love being alone. It’s been a part of my life since childhood. I grew up as an only child on five acres in rural Illinois, where I spent a good portion of my childhood playing outdoors alone (or with my dog) and sitting in trees reading. I don’t ever remember feeling lonely. My parents and I were close, so I was with them a lot too, and I had school friends who came to visit, but at the core of my life was time spent in solitude. It became the peaceful center from which I lived outward into the world. As an adult, I always relied on time alone to come back to myself, away from jobs and social situations. Don’t get me wrong—I loved my friends, but there was a certain point at which I had to step away and be alone. It was like breathing to me.

I have so many memories that involve finding joy in being by myself. One of the most vivid was when I worked for a senator as a student intern in Washington, DC, in college. One lunch hour I wandered around outside the Capitol Building alone and then sat in the sun in a quiet spot where no one else was walking. I can remember having a sudden flash of absolute exhilaration when the thought crossed my mind, “No one else on Earth knows where I am right now.” There was something incredibly exciting about that to a 19-year-old living in a new city, trying out grown-up life on her own. I’ve never forgotten that feeling—of being an alive, independent, free spirit in the world.

When I took up bird-watching many years later, I felt a similar thrill being alone in nature: a magical aura that surrounded a sudden encounter with a migrating bird in a bush or tree. If I were absolutely still and silent, the birds came closer and continued with their bird lives as if I weren’t there. It was a precious gift. There were even times when a wood thrush or warbler would land in a branch close to me and sing its heart out. Some kind of special connection occurred then—a living awareness that passed between us. I treasured those moments. It was perhaps my first conscious experience of the spirit of life that is in all beings.

After I embarked on a spiritual path in my 30s, time spent alone in meditation or contemplation became central to my journey. I found it absolutely key to have those daily periods of solitude in order to connect with my own soul and with God. In solitary silence, “stillness speaks,” as Eckhart Tolle has written. Divine connection is an inner experience that comes only when we set aside all external distractions and open our hearts and souls to something greater, beyond the material world.

These quiet moments are extremely precious to me. They are at the core of my life as a human/spirit on this Earth. Ultimately, too, they bring me closer to those around me. I am fortunate in having a life partner who understands and supports my wish to have alone time. She too needs time to herself. When we come together from our separate solitudes, our connection is even deeper and more loving.

Words are often unnecessary with friends and family who share this kind of connection. Something beyond verbal language is passing between us. We recognize and celebrate one another’s souls when we are together and carry our heart connection with us when we are apart. This is life on Earth at its most expansive and wonderful. To me, time spent alone is an essential part of being human, of being conscious spirit in physical form, which is why we incarnated at this particular time on this particular planet. The world is full of so many distractions. It is only in stepping aside and looking inward that we find the true nature of who we are in this extraordinary universe. Every day I say a prayer of gratitude for the solitude that is a sanctuary of peace in my life.

 

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Raking Leaves: Connection

Photograph © 2015 Peggy Kornegger
In autumn here in Massachusetts, I often preempt the landscapers hired by our landlord and rake the leaves in our yard myself. In doing so, I not only avoid the gas fumes and deafening noise of their leaf-blowers, I also step into a kind of spiritual practice. Raking leaves, in the quiet of a crisp fall day, is sweetness for the soul. The slow movements back and forth are deeply meditative. My body moves gently and unhurriedly with the natural rhythm of the seasons. I listen to the sounds of blue jays and chickadees calling and pause silently to watch when a butterfly or bumblebee alights on the periwinkle ageratum flowers. Gratitude fills my heart. I feel intensely the beauty of nature all around me. The sun on my face and hands, the slightly cool breeze, the smell of fallen leaves and the earth itself. At times like these, I am fully present, fully connected to the spirit within me and everywhere around me.

We miss this connection when we fill our lives with machines and technology (leaf-blowers, snow-blowers, cell phones, WiFi, etc.). The health hazards associated with them are now more widely known, and the toll on our physical and spiritual bodies is great. So much better to adopt life-affirming practices such as raking leaves or hanging freshly washed clothes to dry instead of saturating them with chemically created smells from dryer sheets. Choosing organic locally grown produce instead of commercially grown GMO-ridden foods. Cutting back on cell-phone use and social media habits and talking to our neighbors and friends in person. All these are sacred spiritual practices really. Ways of living in harmony with others and with our Mother Earth instead of thoughtlessly using her to fulfill our manufactured desires for short cuts and convenience.

Life in essence is not fast food or fast cars. It’s not noise and frenetic multi-tasking. It’s the contemplative moments of connection to something greater—nature, God, mystery—that we will recall at the end of our lives, not what we have “owned” or achieved. The rush to consume and fill our lives with objects leaves us empty-handed in the end. Life and death are one continuous process, nothing ever lost or gained but awareness. We learn this when we align ourselves with the seasons; when we garden, or shovel snow, or rake leaves. “Chop wood, carry water,” before and after enlightenment, as the saying goes.

As we become more conscious and aware, we open ourselves to more natural, life-affirming ways of living on Earth. We connect more personally and less superficially with the people in our lives. We start to eat more wisely from natural healthy sources. Sometimes we walk or bike instead of drive. Intentionally, we begin to opt out of the easy solution or quick fix in favor of the more integrated and holistic choice. In other words, your version, whatever it is, of raking leaves in the fall. It’s not hard to find ways of coming into balance with life and nature. The harmony you will experience within your heart and soul will fill your life with a new sense of connection to all lives everywhere.

Saving Grace—Elephants, Dolphins, and Whales

Elephants, dolphins, and whales are three of the most intelligent, grace-filled beings on Earth. In this week’s video blog, I talk about my own experiences with them and offer a prayer/plea for their survival. May we humans open our awareness and step away from cruel and heartless behaviors that endanger the lives and well-being of these magnificent creatures we share the planet with. Save the elephants. Save the dolphins. Save the whales. Save all animals. And in doing so, save the sweet grace they embody in their lives.

Butterfly Effects

Photograph © 2017 Peggy Kornegger
The aptly named “butterfly effect” has become well known in recent years as people begin to take seriously the interconnectedness of all life on our planet, as well as the nature of energy itself. The name refers to the possibility that the movement of a butterfly’s wings affects the world around it in unforeseen ways. The greater truth of this idea resonates within my own life again and again, often quite literally.

Several weeks ago, I reread Sharon Salzberg’s book Faith, published in 2002. I had read it then, but I was moved to take it off the shelf again because its title called to me strongly. As my spiritual journey has deepened, I have found myself repeatedly stepping off the edge of certainty (or the illusion of it) into the unknown. Over the past two months, everything seemed to fall away until I realized that I was being asked to move forward completely on “faith.” Thus my reason for rereading Sharon’s book. With each chapter, I saw how much more deeply I connected with it than I had 15 years before.

Sharon’s personal stories and insights met me right at the center of my own current experience. In her words: “Whatever takes us to our edge, to our outer limits, leads us to the heart of life’s mystery, and there we find faith.” Faith is in essence “the ability to move forward even without knowing.” Which, ultimately, we are all called to do in life, however we may resist it by building an iron-clad belief system or distracting ourselves with what we think are facts. In their wisdom, Native Americans called life “the Great Mystery.” Over the preceding weeks, I had found myself spiraling at the center of that mystery. I kept moving forward inch by inch until finally a wider perspective presented itself in the one word faith. I understood that I may never know with my mind, but I will always know with my soul. And it was my soul that guided me to Sharon’s book.

Photograph © 2017 Peggy Kornegger

I decided to read the last few chapters of Faith sitting out in my backyard. When I walked out the door, book in hand, the first thing I saw was a monarch butterfly flying from flower to flower in my garden, my first sighting of the year. Monarchs have become less frequent visitors lately as their numbers diminish because of destruction of their habitat. However, its very presence, its brilliantly colored radiance, attested to the miracle of its survival in spite of all odds. My heart skipped a beat when it lifted its wings and soared right over my head and then circled back to land on another flower. Sheer magic.

After a time of just standing and watching the monarch in wonder, I settled into a lawn chair to read nearby. For more than two hours, it visited flower after flower. Periodically I looked up and gazed at its delicate beauty. As I read the last page, I could feel faith in the unseen divinity that is at the core of all life flood my soul with love and awareness. My small butterfly visitor embodied that blessing. It had come to renew my faith as it lifted its wings and my heart simultaneously. And this is also part of the butterfly effect: The butterfly’s divine life force and magical beauty moves our hearts into alignment with the grace of God’s presence, where faith resides, always. From that place, we too can share our own beautiful life force with others and lift their hearts.

 

First, Last…Now

Photograph © 2017 Peggy Kornegger
There are moments in our lives when we are completely immersed in what we are doing. So much so that the past and future do not exist. Everything is fresh, new, and fascinating. We are seeing with what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” as if for the first time. Babies and small children see this way. People at the end of their lives often see this way too, as if for the last time. At either end of the first-last spectrum, it’s the immediacy of the experience that is so powerful. We are not lost in thought or distracted by irrelevant details. Life presents itself front and center, and it has our full attention. The question then becomes “how do we live like that all the time?” Is it even possible? I believe it is, but it is definitely a practice, not a casual, passing wish. You have to align yourself with it, make a promise within your own heart not to get lost in forgetfulness.

When I visited South Africa last fall, I lived each moment intensely throughout the trip. No past, no future, just one continuous stream of present-moment awareness. Traveling is often like that. Because everything is unknown, never-before-seen, your mind focuses intently on what is happening now; nothing else exists. In the African bush, I was alert and super-aware all the time. As I learned to carefully look around for the eyes of predators when leaving my hut or tent at night, I found that my senses were sharply focused on every detail of my environment.

Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger

Riding in a safari jeep, in close proximity to elephants, giraffes, and zebras, was an experience I had only imagined having, yet there I was living a reality vastly more vivid that my imagination. From a riverboat at sunset, I saw buffalo, waterbuck, crocodile, and saddle-billed storks along the river’s edge, and then as the sky darkened, thousands of fireflies lighting up the African night. During those two weeks, there was no need to think about living in the moment—there just was nothing else.

Upon returning to the U.S., I used my meditation practice to bridge the immediacy and novelty of adventurous travel with the habits of daily life. I focused on my breath and opened up to that timeless space within that is pure awareness. Every day when I went for a walk, I reminded myself to look for something different and to choose new routes. In my garden each morning, I noticed every newly opened flower—orange lilies, purple spiderwort, yellow coreopsis. The key was to keep “seeing with fresh eyes” in order to step out of routine. To reinvent the ordinary in whatever way I could so that I was constantly stepping into the unknown, the unexpected, in every moment.

It’s not really difficult to live focused in the present. Your physical senses automatically show you how to do it when extraordinary beauty or sudden danger crosses your path. You are immediately aware and intensely alive in those moments. At other times, you can expand your awareness by giving yourself memory mantras, as Thich Nhat Hanh does when he repeats “present moment, wonderful moment” in his mindfulness practice. The breath too is a built-in tool for re-centering in the now. The more I embrace the idea that there really is nothing but the present moment, the more aware I become of how precious it is. So then, whether I’m in the African bush or in my own backyard, everything around me is new and exciting—a first-last, once-in-a-lifetime experience.