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.


Amazing Grace—Africa’s Animals

Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger
I noticed it first in the elephants. From the safari jeep, we saw them in the near distance, walking through the South African bush. Their movement was steady, serene, focused—moving forward with purpose and utmost clarity, undeterred by distraction. They embodied grace in a way I had never seen before, a grace that filled them and emanated forth from them. They were living their unique beingness on Earth, fully and completely, and with a simple beauty that made my breath catch in my throat and tears fill my eyes when I looked at them. It was God’s grace and presence I was witnessing—it filled them so sweetly and divinely. That is the way we were all meant to walk upon this Earth.

The giraffes too walked in this manner, slowly and purposefully, their elongated necks reaching elegantly out and up to eat leaves from the trees. Like the elephants, their shoulders moved fluidly and powerfully with each step. There was no hurry, no rush to reach a goal. They were just living their lives as they were created to be. When they bent to drink from a river, their legs splayed outward to accommodate the downward bending of their long neck to reach the water source. It looked both awkward and graceful simultaneously because it was real, uncontrived. Living yoga. Meditation in motion.

Photograph © 2016 Peggy Kornegger

Soon I realized that all the wild animals I saw in Africa moved with this graceful quality—the impalas and water bucks walking or running together in groups; the baboons and monkeys swinging from branch to branch, from tree to tree; the wart hogs trotting along like large odd-looking pigs; the zebras drinking together at a water hole, their heads moving up and down to watch for predators. And even when startled by the possibility of a predator, all the animals ran with fluid grace and focused alertness. No wasted movement. It was if everything had been choreographed perfectly according to some grand design—and of course it was. Life in its natural state has a beauty that defies artifice.

Even at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, where the animals have been injured or orphaned and live in fenced areas, this quality had not been entirely lost. As volunteers, we were given a tour of all the different animals with a brief history of why they were there. It was difficult for me to see these wild creatures behind fences, but I did understand that their lives had been saved by the center and they were being protected there. Still, at times, my heart went out to them. As we passed a male lion walking up and down within a large fenced expanse, I watched him as he watched all of us. Just a few feet away, on the other side of the fence, his eyes surveyed us, one by one, as we walked by. When his eyes reached mine, they stopped, and I stopped. Something passed between us—awareness perhaps: I was aware of him and he was aware of me, a human and a lion meeting, eye to eye, for one moment in time. Chills covered my arms, and tears came to my eyes. Then we each moved on. Yet I will never forget his golden grace-filled wild lion eyes.

The wild animals of Africa live in our imagination long before we see them in person, if we are fortunate enough to do so. They seem to embody a connection to life’s mysteries and magic, something we have lost in our urban world full of cars and concrete. They walk with a living grace that causes us to pause and remember how precious they are in this world. How precious all animals are, everywhere. Their very being, so different from ours, reminds us of the incredible variety of creatures that we are blessed to share the planet with. Each one is unique, unrepeatable. May we celebrate them by protecting their habitat, their freedom, and their infinitely graceful lives.

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.


*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


Morning Glory

Photograph © 2015 Peggy Kornegger
Photograph © 2015 Peggy Kornegger
“Everything is sacred.”—Panache Desai

The morning glories outside my door have been nearly tropical in their lush profusion this year. Huge heart-shaped leaves and purple flowers cover the porch ironwork in the rising sun. Each morning when I go outside, I feel a sense of awe at this breathtaking beauty coming from a few small seeds planted in the late spring. There are moments when gardeners feel like magicians, making bouquets of flowers appear out of thin air. Of course, the gardener is just the conduit, the helping hand that opens wide enough for living energy to flow through it. Mother Nature is the true magician, the source of glorious life here on Earth. As a gardener, I learn this on a daily basis—the absolutely unparalleled sacredness of everything around me. It is an awareness that keeps arising everywhere in my life, and in so many of our lives, these days. I consider it one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

This past July I spent a week at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, taking part in a weeklong workshop/retreat with Panache Desai, whose programs and events I’ve been attending for several years.* This particular week seemed to be an expansion of all that I’ve experienced with him and with the other people who attend, many of whom are good friends now. As a group, we reached a deeper level of oneness and soul connection than ever before. The divine energy moving through all of us was so intense that it could not be contained within time or space. Seeing the sacred everywhere, in every moment, became a constant. Each person’s eyes shone with light and love. Conversations during and between sessions were deeply meaningful, rich with laughter, tears, and heart-full sharing. As I walked down the hill to the dining hall each day, I saw before me a dazzling world: The color spectrum itself seemed to widen to include new shades and hues. At the end of the week, I felt wide open; life flowed through me without impediments—soulfully, sacredly.

A few weeks later, my partner and I took the train to New York to see Fun Home, lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s tragicomic 2006 memoir turned into an extremely powerful and moving Broadway musical. In it, “Alison” looks back at her complicated relationship with her closeted gay father who committed suicide. Because it was theatre in the round, it was a fairly intimate setting (we were in the first row), and it almost seemed as if we were living the heart-wrenching events along with the characters. At the end, as everyone stood and cheered, and the actors took their bows, the raw emotion we were all feeling was reflected back and forth on the faces, and in the eyes, of actors and audience alike. I couldn’t stop crying, because of the story and because of the people around me, on and off stage. It was a moment of shared humanity and oneness that seemed truly sacred to me.

More and more, we are being moved to embrace all of life in moments like these. A friend or family member will unexpectedly speak their heart’s truth in a sudden rush of vulnerability and honesty. A complete stranger will share a smile or a gesture of generosity. The sun will rise, or set, in stunning pinks and golds. A cat or dog companion will gaze into our eyes with pure love. Someone dear to us may become ill or die. Life will touch us in a thousand different ways, both joyful and painful, during the course of any given day. And at last we are opening to receive the sweetness and power of those moments. We are becoming fully present for life as it moves through us, giving us the greatest show on Earth. Morning glory, evening gratitude. Everything sacred—everywhere, in every moment.

* I’ve written about my experiences with Panache in several other blog posts and in my book Lose Your Mind, Open Your Heart.

The Silent Nature of All Things

Haleakala photograph © Peggy Kornegger
Haleakala photograph © Peggy Kornegger
“Allow nature to teach you stillness.”
—Eckhart Tolle

I spend countless hours outdoors in my yard every day in the spring- and summertime. It is a deep inner calling that brings me peace of mind, heart connection, and balance between being and doing. Nature in its silent presence teaches me stillness and reminds me of that same place inside myself. When I stand quietly within the natural world at my doorstep, I am a part of all that I see, and I feel the stillness at the heart of everything, whether stone, tree, bird, bee, butterfly, human, cloud, rain, wind, star, or planet.

Indeed, the universe itself is complete stillness at its core. I experienced this primordial silence in a very powerful and unforgettable way once when I was hiking into the dormant volcano Haleakala on Maui. If you walk a ways down the trail that winds gradually to the bottom of the crater and then pause to listen, you hear absolutely nothing. No sound at all—no wind, no birds, no human activity. Nothing. I felt as if I were present at the birth of the planet, before anything existed except sandy red lava fragments, ocean, and sky. I’ve never forgotten that profound sense of eternity in the silence, and now I recognize it within all things, everywhere—if I pause long enough to feel it within myself, in my own breath.

That inner stillness is the spirit of life, our soul’s home. It is what calms and soothes us on our human journey. In silence, the soul witnesses our actions, thoughts, experiences, and emotions; our challenges and celebrations; our pain and joy. When we become lost in stress or suffering, often some mysterious force leads us to turn inward, to seek the silent solace of the soul. The human soul or the soul of nature, one and the same. We live at a time in which an increasing number of us are hearing the call to connect with our innermost being, a part of All That Is. A shift in consciousness is occurring, an awareness that opens us to choosing harmony and balance in our lives. I find it a hopeful sign that people are evolving to the tipping point of remembering the being part of human being.

I sense that thread of hope and remembering within my own life. When I balance activity or action with timeless time in nature or meditation, then I begin to live a seamless oneness of being and doing that are not in opposition to each other but exist naturally side by side. Doing that arises from being, not imposed by the mind’s tendency to overthink and plan, but organically part of the creative flow of all life, within and without. I experience internal harmony when I include moments of silent connection and presence continually throughout my day.

In fact, continual (“intermittent”) is gradually becoming continuous (“ongoing”). As my awareness expands and evolves, along with everyone else’s, the separations and distinctions of a world based in polarity and duality are fading into the background. Life becomes a divinely inspired stream instead of an on/off spigot that we think we control. And the source of it all is a peaceful stillness that we can access in each moment of our lives just by taking a deep breath and observing the true nature of what is right in front of us.