The Firebird (2004 article) – a response to the aftermath of terrorism

The Eiffel Tower from Pont Neuf, October 2015

The Eiffel Tower from Pont Neuf, October 2015

As daylight spreads over the scenes of yesterday evening’s unspeakably horrific series of terrorist attacks in Paris, people all over the world struggle to find a response in their own minds and hearts. I’ve seen varied reactions on social media in the past several hours. Most of my friends and acquaintances have answered with a combination of deep compassion, bafflement, and helplessness. Some people have used these recent events to blame religion in general for everything that’s broken in this world. Others have expressed fear and anxiety about traveling in Europe. Luckily, the Parisians themselves have responded beautifully, including rather famously opening their doors to anyone caught out in the open. The residents of my favourite city are strong and committed to one another in the way New Yorkers were in 2001.

The question on many people’s minds is, “What can I do to change anything?”

Eleven years ago, while engaged as solo horn in the Flemish Radio Orchestra (now the Brussels Philharmonic,) we went on tour to Spain right after the atrocious attacks in Madrid. I visited Atocha Station, the site of the bombings, and had a powerful spiritual experience there that taught me something new about healing and transformation. My article on this ran in the German Reiki Magazin. You can read it here. I am including here the original English text. Though my article uses many Buddhist symbols and concepts, I think the feeling behind it is universal. Since writing this, I completed my Reiki master training with Don Alexander in 2006. Mastery is, however, a lifelong journey, and in reality we are all beginners, all the time.

“What can I do to change anything?” Here was my response back then. Perhaps it will resonate with you now.

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The Firebird (2004)S1110031

An experience in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings

In March, my orchestra, the Flemish Radio Orchestra, was invited to perform two concerts in Spain, the last of the two at the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid on March 17. We were quite excited at the prospect of a few days in the sun away from the bleak Belgian late winter drizzle. On the program was Stravinsky’s incomparable Firebird Suite, one of my favorite pieces, and I also looked forward to celebrating my birthday in Madrid.

A couple of days before our departure, I turned on the news and learned that Madrid had been the target of terrorist attacks, with heavy losses of life. I, along with the rest of my orchestra, was heartbroken and also extremely anxious about traveling to Spain, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if it would be safe to go, wondering whether it was appropriate to play a concert in Madrid under those circumstances. I thought about it for a long time and realized that the best response to terror and destruction would be an affirmation of life. Music could bring healing into a place of pain, and I thought, who knows, maybe I could do something with Reiki there that would also help. At the time I had no real idea of what that might be.

At the concert, we began with a moment of silence to show our solidarity with those who had lost their lives and those still living who were injured or grieving, and then we launched into our program. The Firebird is mythologically linked to the Phoenix, who explodes in flame and then rises, reborn, from its own ashes. There is a beautiful passage for the solo horn (my part) at the beginning of the finale that represents this rising: slowly, gently, yet full of power. The melody builds and bursts into a glorious coda. After the concert, I felt the clear need to visit one of the sites of the bomb attacks the next day, to try and make sense of what lies beneath the surface of such destruction, to just be there and find a way to offer healing. If it were not possible to offer healing to the souls who had died there, then at least I could bring healing to my own pain and confusion about this attack. I was motivated by a desire to see, understand, to know, to heal. I hoped that I would know what to do when I arrived.

When I walked over to the front of the Atocha station where some of the worst damage had been, I was greeted by a fence separating the street from massive piles of rubble, twisted metal, construction equipment already clearing away some of the debris. The fence was plastered with poems, photographs of victims, banners and messages from around the world, candles lining the sidewalk – much the same as what I saw at the site of the World Trade Center bombings in New York a few years ago.

This was the external view. Beyond this, I could sense panic, grief, confusion, unrest. The sound of the construction equipment faded in my ears into screams. I stood glued to the spot for about half an hour, fascinated, horrified, just breathing, centering, being there. I opened myself to whatever was there in that moment. It was not the presence of evil but of something else.

As I opened my heart and body, the pain I was sensing so palpably around me came to the inside of me. I became a bowl into which the pain, violence, suffering, rage, and also memory was being poured. And I began to burn.

As I turned away from the scene to go to the botanical gardens for some peace, the pain I felt inside my gut echoed all the pain and loss I had ever known on a personal level, but it was as if I grew much larger to contain the feelings I felt at that moment. It was no longer personal but a great force. I began to burn with the flames of wrath, but it was not wrath at those who had perpetrated the attacks. The rage was a white-hot flashing of light, which burned away something of my individual self as I became a vessel for the collective suffering. In that time, I was both myself and not me – I was something beyond the borders of my identity. Deep wrath and deep compassion, both burning in my breast with a terrible intensity.

A few hundred meters away were the Royal Botanical Gardens of Madrid, and it was here that I walked to be in nature. Underneath my sunglasses, a part of me was weeping. I wandered through the nearly deserted gardens, just being with all that was going on inside me, and eventually came to a beautiful, strong tree (the sign said its native home was in the Himalayas.) I placed both my hands on the trunk of this tree and began very quietly to chant the Kotodama of one of the Reiki symbols. For several minutes I remained like this, and the black sticky heaviness of the suffering in the vessel I had become began to transform. At the still center of the pain was a brilliant point of light, even ecstasy, which spread rapidly to all within the vessel. The pain did not vanish, it was more that at the heart of the pain lay something sacred and holy. Gradually I released the tree and was released from the contents of the vessel, left with a profound sense of peace and gratitude.

The sun shone brightly, and all around me were signs of early spring – bright green leaves, tender new shoots and blossoms. The first bees of the season were gathering pollen. I marveled at how death and life could exist so vibrantly side by side, and at this point I saw a bumblebee on the ground crawling near the base of another tree. I stopped to watch it for a few moments. He was obviously having difficulty moving, struggling towards a twig on the ground. As he reached this twig, he moved one of his legs and then stopped moving altogether. With his death came a wave of understanding and gratitude. It was in the keen awareness of death that I experienced most vividly the power and unspeakable beauty of life.

Having trained for my first and second Reiki degrees in the Takata tradition, I believed that Reiki was this force that flowed gently through myself and all things, bringing light and healing, like a clear stream of water. I learned that my conceptions were rather tame in light of the way I was used in Madrid. Breathing the darkness and suffering into myself, containing and burning it all within, there the healing occurred.

Fudo Myoo is at the very heart of these aspects of Reiki practice, as I have learned from Don Alexander. His rage is inextricably entwined with his utmost compassion. We experience Fudo Myoo as Karma or the world, particularly in its painful aspects.  Through truly living, seeing, working courageously through the most painful experiences of life, we are shown the highest love.

Upon returning home, I was browsing through a book on Japanese painting I had kept from my Japanese art history couse at university, when I found a portrait of Fudo Myoo. His face and bearing had their usual ferocious aspect, and he was surrounded with flames. Yet there was something special about the form of these flames, and as I read the description of the painting, I discovered that they were actually painted in the form of garudas, or the Japanese version of the firebird. After all that I experienced during our orchestra tour with the piece of that same name, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

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Notes:

Fudo Myoo is known in Japan and in other eastern cultures as one of the “5 wrathful kings,” the guardians of the wisdom of Buddha.  Fudo is the central figure of these five – he is also known as the Immovable One.  He sits on a rock with a sword in his right hand and a rope in the other.  He is not the teacher of the Dharma or the Way, is not a meditative Buddha, but is rather the teacher of Karma, of life, of the action of living.  The sword he uses to cut through our illusions about life, and the rope he uses to catch demons, or our nightmares and terrors that come from living.  When we understand his wisdom and message, we can become one with his essence ourselves and be purified through the fire in which he himself sits, one with the cleansing flames. Fudo Myoo is also a shamanistic figure and represents the point of union between Buddhism and shamanism.  He is the patron deity of the martial arts.

Kotodamas are like mantras, but they consist of mostly the vowel sounds of a particular mantra and are especially powerful when used in meditation (or prayer, as I sometimes think of it.)

The garuda is a sort of Phoenix, the holy bird that symbolizes spiritual purification. It heals through consuming poisons and evils and transforming them inside its own body.  It is often associated with Fudo Myoo and is also seen as an aspect of that essence.

Out of the Closet

 

Every September in Luxembourg, local residents find a large, orange transparent sack shoved through the mailbox (or sometimes, dumped unceremoniously on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of the front door.)  This is the time to go through closets, locate items we no longer wear and wish to donate to charity, and pack them into the bag for pickup, usually scheduled for the first day of autumn.  Whether this is coincidence or deliberate seasonal gesture, the timing is fortuitous.

In our neighborhood we also have a giant orange container for the same purpose, next to the bins for recycled glass and paper, perched outside our local Portuguese greengrocer’s shop.  On the afternoon the orange bag arrived (this year, still clinging stubbornly by one corner to the mailbox), I got excited.  My natural impulse to give things away and to clear space kicked in with a sort of frenzy, and soon I was happily laying waste to my closet and chest of drawers.  Once I started, I didn’t want to wait the two weeks until pickup of the sacks, so I ended up taking 4 bags down to the corner container.  Clothes I hadn’t worn in a really long time.  Clothes given to me that I had kept just to be nice.  Clothes I wasn’t sure why I bought in the first place.  Clothes hanging under other clothes, forgotten.  Clothes I imagined someone else would take pleasure wearing.  Clothes that didn’t quite fit my body, or my personality, but that had continued taking up space, “just in case.”   A few holdouts from the 90’s that had survived several such purges and changes of residence gave me pause, but sometimes it’s simply time to let go and move on.  (Apparently, I was fond of leopard prints in the 90’s…)

Cleaning out a closet isn’t such a big deal, really.  Making space in my head, in my heart, my spirit – that’s another thing.  What in my life have I been carrying around that I haven’t needed for years but haven’t released?  What burdens have I taken on from my family, friends, colleagues, society in general, and never examined?  What do I hold onto from the past that no longer serves me, but stays in my psyche, “just in case?” 

Releasing old baggage and destructive behavior patterns is as easy – or torturous – as we allow it to be.  My Reiki teacher, Don Alexander, often spoke of resistance, of the many ways we hold onto the familiar just because we know it and are afraid of who we are without it.  Even, and sometimes especially, the pain.  Why do we identify with our limits, physical or intellectual?  Why do we let the old tapes in our heads tell us what we cannot accomplish, why we cannot be free?  Don teaches his students a wonderful meditation about this.  After centering and finding a calm place inside, you slowly strip off, one by one, all your physical layers.  Who are you without your hair and skin?  Who are you without your muscle?  Without your eyes and ears?  Without your soft organs, your blood?  You continue this until you are down to your very bones.  The idea is to pare everything down to its most essential, its basic components. 

Who am I without my horn playing?  Who am I without my need to make people feel comfortable and happy?  Without my anxieties and desires?  Without my intellect?  Without my taste in literature, my ability to cook, my health, my marriage, family, senses, thoughts, emotions, even without my name? 

Obviously, we don’t throw everything away.  (I still have clothes in my closet!) But if we take a moment now and then to look deeply at the things we carry, to discover what is essential and what is not, and to release just a little of what burdens us, we can breathe so much more freely.  I’m still working on it, that balance between resistance and release, but the releasing part gets easier with practice.

Oh, and by the way, if you ever see me decked out in leopard prints again, send me home to do another closet purge, please.

 

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Hiking the holy mountain – a day on Mt. Kurama

A recent tour with the Ictus Ensemble enabled me to realize my dream of visiting Japan for the first time.  In the middle of our performance schedule was a 2 ½-day block of free time – some of the musicians chose to explore Tokyo, or the beautiful slopes of Mt. Fuji.  Others made a day trip to Kyoto to see the temples.  I took a room in a traditional Japanese-style hotel (called a Ryokan) for two nights in a gorgeous old street in the heart of historic Kyoto.  

 

It had also long been a dream of mine to go to Mt. Kurama, the mountain where Mikao Usui, the founder of Reiki, did his spiritual practice of Shugendo that enabled him to develop his formidable spiritual and healing powers.  Kurama is located about half an hour by train north of Kyoto, though somewhat complicated to reach from my hotel.  As my guide, I had some pages ripped out of a friend’s Lonely Planet Japan book with a tiny map of the Kurama area, an e-mail from my former husband Peter with suggestions where to start my hike and the idea to leave the main trail and take off up the mountain for the true summit, and the help of the owner of the Ryokan (who was rather puzzled why I would want to go up there alone!)  The morning for my journey dawned with clear skies and mild temperatures, a perfect day for a trip to the mountains.  I knew I needed to take a bus from Kyoto Central Station to Demachiyenagi Station and had a couple of bus numbers and a vague route map in Japanese kanji.  After taking out some yen from a money machine at the post office (not as simple as it seems, if you don’t speak Japanese!) and eventually locating the right bus, I was on my way. 

Buying my round-trip ticket to Kurama from Demachiyenagi Station was fun, done in a mixture of phrase-book Japanese, English, pointing and smiling.  The whole time, I had this wonderful, fresh sense of leaving the known behind and venturing into something completely new.  Anything could happen, and that thought filled me with a childlike happiness.  The man at the ticket booth handed me a hiking map of the area, only in Japanese of course, with cute little cartoon figures and drawings of temples, trees, dragons, even cranky little pigs regarding a barbecue pit (!)  The Kurama train wound through a mountain valley, stopping at several stations and revealing foliage that was just beginning to turn the fiery reds and oranges for which the Kyoto region is famous in the autumn. 

Normally while traveling, I do my best to blend in with the locals, but my height and blonde hair betrayed me instantly, not to mention the backpack, camera around my neck, and white sneakers that practically screamed “TOURIST!”  At least I wasn’t gawking at a big silly map with cartoon characters on it (oops, that too.)  Did it really matter that on that day, I was as much pilgrim as tourist?

After leaving the train at Kibuneguchi Station, one stop before Kurama, I walked up a paved road for about 20 minutes before coming to the village of Kibune.  This led to the back entrance of the trail over Mt. Kurama.  Most people begin on the Kurama side at the temple site and work their way towards Kibune.  At the beginning of the trail was a little booth where I paid 200 yen (about $2) to enter the path – I also picked up a walking stick, for which I was soon grateful. 

The beautiful weather meant also that the path shone with a bright sunlight, filtering through trees, giving the nature around me a transcendent, glowing beauty.  One of the first things I saw while climbing was a spot with 2 small stone carvings on them, very old and faded.  The figure depicted was Fudo Myoo, a key figure in certain sects of esoteric Buddhism.  His appearance is fierce, a sword in one hand and rope in the other, with one tooth pointing upwards and another downwards, surrounded by a halo of fire.  He is called upon to aid people in staying on their spiritual path, unmoved by temptations of the world, cut free from their Karma and purified in the spirit of fire.  Fudo has everything to do with the power of Mt. Kurama, and his shrines are found hidden in the mountain forests as well as near waterfalls.  Several years ago, I had an experience of the gifts of Fudo while visiting Madrid just after the terrorist bombings that destroyed Atocha Station and resulted in heavy loss of life – I wrote an article (in German) called The Firebird about what happened to me there which can be found here.  We live so much of our lives in our own illusions; Fudo Myoo represents leaving these illusions behind so that we may see ourselves as we truly are.  This lesson from Fudo found me in a strange way later on my hike. 

The energy on Mt. Kurama was astonishing.   Different sites on the mountain had different vibrations – some places were deep and still, others shimmered, some seemed to have a sort of forward-propelling feeling to them, others hummed in an almost audible sensation through my body and mind.  These are some of the things that moved me: The ancient cedars, their roots twisting impossibly over the trail, sunlight and shadow bringing them into focus, teaching the need to be grounded in, take nourishment, from the Earth.  Patterns of grain in the wood.  Contrast of tree to deep blue sky.  Moss.  Water.  Stone.  Birdsong.  Silence. 

Very few people were on the mountain that day, which I consider to be fortunate for the experience of solitude.  On my map, I could see that I would soon be coming to the Fudo shrine, and I moved with solemnity and reverent anticipation at what I might see and feel.  As I mentioned, I had had the mountain practically to myself ever since entering the western gate and taking my walking stick at Kibune.  Just as I arrived at the Fudo shrine, so did a small but steady stream of people coming from the other direction.  Suddenly in this silent place everyone was smiling at me and saying Konnichi-wa! and offering to take my picture in front of the temple structures.  These Japanese were so amused to see this strange Western lady all by herself that soon we were all laughing.  It was totally unexpected.  It was what it was.  After I moved on up the hill, it came to me that I had been given a lesson there about who I am and about my spiritual path – I am still reflecting upon it.

Later on, around the highest point of the path, I saw another trail that had a chain across it and half a dozen emphatic signs, probably saying “off limits” or some variation thereof.  So of course I had to go.  It was an extremely steep climb with a good deal of bushwhacking, and I was glad of my walking stick.  After about 15 minutes, I came upon a little shrine and behind it a pond; behind the pond was a tall cedar tree perfectly reflected in the surface of the still water.  You could turn a photograph upside down and hardly distinguish between the tree and its mirror image.  As above, so below.  I had the urge to sit down and meditate at the edge of the pool, and then I noticed a woman sitting quietly on a little stone stool deep in meditation herself.  I climbed further up the hill, aiming for the summit of the mountain and the small Shakyamuni Buddha statue located there, but I didn’t find it.  When I returned to the pool, the woman was still there; I departed, not wanting to disturb her.   

Though incredibly beautiful, the main temple site of Kurama-dera seemed somehow anticlimactic after the majesty of the mountain path.  After descending a few hundred steps into the town of Kurama, I found a noodle restaurant and refreshed myself before heading to the onsen, or mineral hot spring spa.  I spent the end of the afternoon in a pool of deliciously warm water, with a perfect view of the mountain I had just hiked, the sun disappearing behind the foliage. 

Taking the train back to Kyoto, gratitude for the day’s adventure brought tears to my eyes.  Someday I hope to go back to Mt. Kurama.  The mountain is full of mysteries and secrets, and I am sure I only scratched the surface.  

The Fruits of Spontaneity

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Sometimes a small move off the planned path can make all the difference!  Last weekend, Kerry and I were in Montpellier with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg for the final two concerts of the season.  For me, they were the last concerts on my one-year conctract as 3rd horn with the OPL.  It has been a wonderful experience for me, being a full-time member of the orchestra for the season (I have been working there on and off since 2001 and will continue to do so on an occasional basis in the future.)  After delivering the ending chords of Dvorak’s 7th Symphony to an enthusiastic audience at the Festival Radio France Languedoc-Roussillon, I felt the poignancy of another stage of life coming to a close.  There have been many of these lately, including sending my younger stepson off to university.  The next morning, the orchestra boarded a bus to Avignon, to catch a 6-hour train to Metz, then transfer to busses for the rest of the journey to Luxembourg.  From the bus window, I felt the intense Mediterranean sunshine, looked upon fields of sunflowers, rooftops of Provençal villages… and thought, why are we leaving this beautiful place so soon?  Now that the kids are gone, no one is waiting for us back at the house.  Kerry and I exchanged barely 2 sentences about it and decided spontaneously to ditch the orchestra in Avignon, spend the rest of the day and night there and look around, then travel to Paris, returning home a couple days later.  Just coloring outside the lines like that felt so liberating!   We said a few quick, “Have a great summer, we’re staying here, bye!” ‘s before purchasing our TGV tickets to Paris and Luxembourg and boarding the shuttle bus for the center of town.  

We knew that Avignon had a rich and vibrant history which included being the seat of the papacy in the 14th century, but we had no idea we had arrived in the middle of one of the most renowned theater festivals in Europe.  It was a small miracle that we found a hotel room at all – though it was at the very first place we tried.  How great it felt booking tickets and hotel rooms the old-fashioned way rather than reserving on line!  After checking in to our room at the Bristol Hotel (does every European city have a Hotel Bristol?  Seems like it) we slathered on sunscreen and hit the streets.  Besides the main plays being offered at the festival, Avignon has a secondary “Off” festival much like the Edinburgh Fringe.  Actors from the numerous plays wandered around town in costume hawking their productions, and we were taken by a beautiful Japanese violinist handing out flyers for La Violoniste et l’Esprit de la Chaise (The Violinist and the Spirit of the Chair.  This play, all done with dance, mime, and instrumental music, was deeply moving and beautiful.  There was a message about artistry and overcoming the negative voices who come between us and our creativity, our magnificence of spirit, as well as the sadness of what is lost in war.  You can see highlights from the show here.  Having just dealt with a difficult personality on the podium ourselves, the play was balm to our souls.

We ate a delicious traditional Provençal meal with local wine under the stars, sat on our hotel balcony and watched all sorts of colorful folks pass by on the street, slept deeply, had croissants and espresso for breakfast the next morning, and then wandered out to the Pont d’Avignon, the Avignon Bridge.  I had known the famous song about dancing on the bridge since my French teacher taught us the tune in high school, so of course I had to do a little dance over the Rhône before departing.  Kind of a cheesy thing to do, but fun nonetheless.

The train from Avignon to Paris covers 742 km (463 miles) in under 3 hours, so I watched the southern landscape give way to distant Alps, Burgundian hills, and finally the flatlands that lead to the capital.  Arriving in Paris always feels a little like coming home, since we often find ourselves there.  Kerry led us to a hotel he had stayed at many times in the past in the area near the Sorbonne on the rue des Ecoles.  Everything we did on this trip was very spur-of-the-moment, including ducking into a shop featuring Celtic trinkets, recreations of Samurai swords, even Lord of the Rings paraphernalia.  Kerry found a fabulously cool lamp with a knight in full armor on one knee, holding the stem of the lamp, and we vowed to come back the next day for it.  Just outside the shop, we saw a young pigeon who was flapping around on the ground helplessly, one leg stuck out at an awkward angle, poor little thing.  I couldn’t just let it lie there, so I asked the shop owner to help me get it into a bag and inquired where the next veterinarian was (luckily just a couple of blocks away.)  Did vets take stray street pigeons, I wondered!  I sat in the waiting room for a while until the vet was free, then asked if there was anything he could do for the bird.  Luckily, no one laughed at the foreign lady with the pigeon in a green sack (at least not in front of my face!)  While I sat there, I gave Reiki to it through the bag as it calmed down and blinked up at me.  The vet x-rayed the little bird and found that its pelvis was smashed beyond repair, nothing he could do other than put it to sleep.  At least it was a gentler end for the pigeon than a hungry feral cat.  I paid a discount fee for the x-ray, bid the bird farewell, and left quietly.

We walked around that part of town for a while then went out for Ethiopian food, one of our favorite cuisines (I couldn’t bring myself to eat the chicken, after trying to save the life of another bird.)  And while sitting at an outdoor cafe that night, I remembered that a friend of ours lived near the Sorbonne, so I got in touch with her – she was on the rue des Ecoles just a couple of blocks up from the hotel!  So Julia had us over for breakfast the next morning, we went back to the Celtic shop and bought the lamp as well as a delicate fairy figurine for me, and the shop owner wanted to know all about the pigeon.  We took our luggage on a long walk past the Notre Dame cathedral in search of a particular Jewish deli in the Marais quarter to find pastrami, a rarity over here.  After getting lost a couple of times, we found it just in time for lunch then caught the metro to Paris Est station for our train back to the Burg.  

Though I am a seasoned traveler and can cope with just about anything that comes up on a journey, I prefer to leave as little to chance as possible.  Trusting that we would find seats on the train and hotel rooms and get everywhere we needed to be was a bit of a stretch for me.  This particular stretch led into some unexpected pleasures!