Peter Sage

Sharing the Beauty of Life

EMERALD ISLE.

Vision Alive

A man living his dreams off the grid in western Ireland.

Whenever I had occasion to meet Brigunath, he appeared to be adrift without a clear purpose, unable to find a meaningful channel for his intelligence and energy. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to meet a reborn Brigunath in Mountshannon, Ireland, bubbling with enthusiasm for his new life. Finally, he is implementing his dream: creating a viable life off the grid, setting an example of how a human being can live in a sustainable fashion without leaving polluted footprints across the face of the earth.

On a ten acre plot of land purchased a few years ago, Brigunath generates energy from the wind. He relieves himself in a composting toilet using the manure to fertilize blueberry bushes. He harvests an abundant supply of rain water from the roof of his modest house. He heats his home with wood and peat bricks from his land. And he bathes in a pond; although he is constructing a bathroom that will put more of the rainwater to good use. Brigunath’s pride and joy is a greenhouse he built a year ago using discarded windows framed with teak and oak. This huge structure has come to life with pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, broccoli and even an almond tree.

Nature Spirits

The previous owner of the property told Brigunath an interesting story. One day he noticed his 5-year old son having a conversation with an invisible presence in the back garden. When the youngster returned to the house the father asked, “Who were you talking to just now?” The young boy calmly replied, “Gollum.” The father married a second time after a number of years and took his new step son, also 5-years old at the time, to the same house. He was also seen having a conversation with the air one day, and also informed the surprised adults that he was conversing with Gollum. What makes the story even more interesting is that those two children never met!

Brigunath interprets this story as meaning that every expression of nature has an innate intelligence. Trees are sensitive to the presence of other trees; birds can predict an oncoming storm; deer can sense the earth’s magnetic field. In animistic cultures this innate intelligence is described as a “spirit,” and, in the case of a forest, one may have to seek permission from the presiding spirit before entering. Although we may not describe the world in the same way as a Ghanaian villager who protects a tree because of its “spirit,” we should be equally sensitive to the innate intelligence within the natural world and treat it with compassion and respect. To impose our will aggressively on the world would not only be cruel, but also ungrateful: nature is our biggest benefactor.

Brigunath has treated his land with care, only altering it for his own survival. Hence, he cleared the weeds and unwanted grasses growing on a south facing slope as it was the ideal location for a fruit tree orchard. I certainly enjoyed picking blueberries off the bush and relishing the explosion of a chemical-free taste in my mouth. When one nourishes oneself directly from nature one feels so much more connected to life.

Pervasive Mystery

A sense of mystery pervades western Ireland. People are aware of an invisible presence that lingers on the periphery of the human senses; a sense that overly urbanized societies are losing. The Irish author John O’Donohue expresses this in his book The Invisible Embrace of Beauty: “Our world becomes reduced to intense but transient foreground. We have unlearned the patience and attention of living at the thresholds where the unknown awaits us.”

This was one of many topics I discussed with Sam O’Neil, a local artist, as we ascended Cappaghabaun Mountain. We had passed a mysterious circle of trees where, according to local legend, fairies gather periodically. Hence, people come to this place to make wishes, tying a piece of red thread to one of the trees to indicate their plea for assistance. Sam described how a friend visited the place last winter when a thick blanket of snow had covered the world. Everywhere was whitened except the lush green grass protected by the “fairy” trees, a reminder that we humans are living in the midst of mystery.

O, What Beauty

During my week-end visit I was captivated by the beauty of the western Irish world. One afternoon I gazed at Lough Derg for an entire hour, held effortlessly by the rhythms of its waves, the meticulous grooming of two swans, the playful dance of light on its surface. Then, the next day, during a long morning walk, I left the firmness and predictability of the metaled road and stepped cautiously through a wet bog (wishing I had worn boots!) to a high point that commanded a spellbinding panoramic view of the lake. God seemed pleased with the result of the craft of creation, enriching it with a sky of clouds whipped up by the wind like cream, making the world dynamic, yet sweet.

An invigorating wind, cleansed by its passage across the Atlantic, inspired me to do a deep pranayama (yogic breath control) practice to harness the potent force of the wind (and, in part, to cure a deep chest infection that was stubbornly refusing to succumb to antibiotics). As I visualized the vital force of the wind swirling within my lungs I felt the innate joy of being alive.

Community ties

Horse power!

Didi Ananda Prama, a renunciate colleague of mine on the path of Ananda Marga, looked settled in her role as director of Sunrise Farm. She loves her garden, her animals, her organic farming students and her community. In fact, she is setting a good example by integrating herself fully into the community, being a board member of the local food coop, an active participant in the local blueberry growers’ association, and a good neighbor.

I was touched by the strong sense of community in the area, with people willingly helping each other. Didi allows her neighbor Pat, to graze his horses on her land. In return, Pat is using his horses to help Didi drag logs from her forest to her house for a new barn construction. Didi told me of a group of gardeners who go to each other’s houses and farms by rotation to help in whatever way required. I felt a sense of envy as in my urban environment people barely feel the need to greet each other in the street.

THE INDOMITABLE SPIRIT OF KENYAN WOMEN

 

“AMURT helped me make a dream come true”, Rose Auma, Thika

As part of its sustainability strategy for the Kenya Integrated HIV & AIDS Program, AMURT has provided microfinance loans and grants for almost 1500 caregivers of vulnerable children throughout Kenya. During my trip to Kenya in July 2012 I assessed the effectiveness of this program through a client satisfaction survey.

I was especially impressed with the women in the slums of Thika, an industrial town about 2 hours drive from Nairobi. When they talked about their success in business they bubbled with an effervescent energy. It was as if the Spirit of the universe was channeling itself through them, transforming them into something greater than their individual selves.

“Before AMURT I was a fool, now I am a perfect person. I stand proud. Even my body language has changed.” Harima Okoth, Thika (drinking water vendor)

  • Spirit rising, rising high
  • Before I would walk, now I can fly
  • Before I would try, now I just do
  • I’m better than me, greater than you

The women spoke with pride about their transformation, using phrases such as “I am uplifted” and “I have risen to a new level.” One woman even said, with a sparkle in her eye, “Now people see me as a rich person.” This reiterates the fact that the longing in every human being to progress is a powerful force and should be given full scope for its expression.

Many of the women had been struggling as casual laborers before our program, working hard to earn little more than $2 a day. Given the unreliability of such work, they would use all their earnings on basic survival. Now, having started businesses such as roadside cafes, market stalls, roofing sheet making, sandal making and drinking water vending they are well on the road to self-sufficiency.

We can all follow the example of these women, not only by keeping the flame of our hopes burning strong, but by making the most of every opportunity that comes our way. Let me tell you the story of one woman who exemplifies this attitude perfectly.

 Lucy: a newly born entrepreneur

Lucy (left) enjoying a happy moment with Mary, AMURT’s community outreach worker: two women building brighter futures.

When her husband died, Lucy had no choice but to become a commercial sex worker in one of the Thika slums to support her children. Given the harshness of life in such slums – the high level of violence and alcohol abuse amongst men – prostitution is an incredibly tough activity. Lucy was therefore ecstatic when offered a $50 business grant from AMURT. In the beginning she opened a vegetable stall in the market and noticed how people would throw away the outer leaves of cabbages. “How can I use this free resource?” she wondered. “Rabbits!” was the response.

Lucy bought two rabbits and collected the unused leaves from the market to feed them. As the rabbits multiplied she sold them to others, making a good profit. One day her rabbits got sick so she took them to the vet. He wanted KSh. 1000 ($12) for the medicine, which she could not afford. Undaunted, she memorized the name of the medicine, purchased it in the market and injected her own rabbits. Then she realized she could do this for others, and has now become a “street vet” treating other people’s rabbits for KSh. 50. Her next project, in collaboration with another veterinarian, is to cross-breed rabbits to develop a stronger breed. When opportunity knocks, Lucy is quick to answer.

MEDITATION ON THE ELEMENTS

One morning I went to Marina Park just outside Malindi town in Kenya for my early morning meditation. The natural elements were displaying their largesse, nourishing and inspiring the human soul. A sandy beach supported me like a sofa, providing a firm base for my body and mind. The blue expanse of the Indian Ocean calmed my brain and evoked the mysteries of the spiritual journey. The waking sun transferred some of the Grand Creator’s powers to the engines of my cells; an energetic gift without expectation. Around it, the vast sky prized open my mind, filling its space with a rich display of sky-art: menacing storm clouds building in the north, a coterie of colors accompanying the rising sun in the east, and a liberated blue instilling hope in the south. Finally, the ethereal space that holds all creation mirrored itself into my hidden inter-cellular world, filling me with a lightness of being thrilling to behold.

What a way to begin a day!

SPREADING JOY THROUGH DANCE

One of the highlights of my recent Kenya trip was a Zumba class I gave to twelve girls living in AMURTEL’s children’s home in Mombasa. The class generated an abundance of joy and happiness which, if bottled, could have kept us in high spirits for at least a month!

The girls knew many of the songs so they shrieked with delight when they heard the first notes, eager to put movement to lyrics they knew so well. When we rehearsed the dance steps their faces lit up like a hundred suns; they relished the freedom to express themselves in new choreographies, way beyond the limits of everyday socialized movements. They were possessed by melody and rhythm. Those who danced the best moved effortlessly, as if their bodies heard the music before their minds.

I mirrored their joy, oblivious to the sweat pouring out of my body, or the calories being expended. Actually, my body became energized and light, as if extinguished lamps suddenly burst into flames. There is nothing more enjoyable than giving happiness to others.

When we ended the session the girls did not want to leave the room, incredulous that such an enjoyable experience could ever end. When reality hit, their bodies reluctantly took them out of the room and back to the routine of regular life. Hopefully, though, they will find more opportunities to celebrate the beauty of movement.

Untouched Kenya

Once the car had branched off the smooth, tarmacked surface of the A2 road on the last leg of our journey to Samburu, I sensed that we were entering a different world. I was not disappointed. Once darkness had enveloped us we were startled by the sudden appearance of a leopard. It strolled with the confidence of a king across the dirt road, causing us to slow down, and then gazed curiously from the safety of the tall grass as we passed. “Did you see that,” we exclaimed. “So powerful! So beautiful!” I marveled at the might of Nature, to have the means to create such a magnificent beast, and I felt vulnerable knowing that creatures more powerful than I were lurking in the night.

The next wave of excitement came when we spotted a huge elephant moving slowly away from us. “It’s like a small hill,” cried George, our driver. George had recently been chased by irate elephants close to this very place. A number of elephants and their young were standing in the middle of the road, looking solid and immovable. George edged the car forwards hoping they would disperse, but that was wishful thinking. To make their annoyance unambiguously clear the elephants charged. George made a rapid U-turn and fled for his life (for an angry elephant a Toyota pickup is something like a matchbox).

So by the time we reached Wamba town we felt like intrepid travelers, enlivened by experience, excited by novelty. But we were ready for more. The next morning, while driving along Wamba high street, we spotted a number of “moran,” the warrior protectors of the Samburu tribe. These young men, aged from 15 to 30, are characterized by their bright clothing, colorful bead necklaces and bangles, hip-hop style head covering, spears and knives. They roam across the Samburu lands, proudly protecting people and animals.

I was especially intrigued by their initiation into the warrior lifestyle. The evening before the initiation the boy sits on a cow skin surrounded by other warriors. Milk is poured around the skin as a blessing, the elders recite special prayers, and warriors sing songs of encouragement the whole night. In the morning the initiate is circumcised. The boy has to look unflinching at the operation, otherwise he will bring shame on the clan and no girl will marry him. The newly initiated moran now enters an apprenticeship period which lasts as long as it takes him to kill enough birds to make a garland of birds around the top of his head.

Saman warriors are the pride of the Samburu

I was happy to see that the Samburu still value the initiation or coming of age ritual, when many Africans have abandoned it for being uncivilized. No doubt, the killing of birds is unwarranted, but I believe there is value in a young boy going through a special process to enter manhood. This is a time when one can sit with the elders and sages to learn about the history and ethics of one’s community and strengthen one’s character with tests of courage and endurance. I would love to see such practices introduced into modern societies for both young men and women, to help direct attention to character-building and not just career-development.

Rebecca is determined to improve the status of women.

One day, after climbing a small mountain to inspect a water source (one of the few perennial ones in this drought-prone area), Stephen my guide and our employee, invited me home for a glass of milk (from his own cow and enjoyably sweet and creamy). Sitting in the sparsely furnished living room were two moran (one of them Stephen’s brother), idling away their time. The elders have been encouraging the moran to continue their schooling and to engage in income generating activities to utilize their time more productively. Regarding the latter, some moran started to rob passing vehicles, which was not what the elders had in mind! Other moran have been raiding the cattle herds of neighboring tribes – in part to prove their courage and smartness – but that causes retaliatory strikes from newly-created enemies. The elders are also discouraging the pillage of other tribe’s properties.

Having successfully provided food and medical care to the Samburu during the drought period, AMURT (www.amurt.net)  is now entering the development phase, with a focus on women’s empowerment and water harvesting from school roofs. Women are all too often treated as possessions by their men, with an undue share of household chores falling on their shoulders, and a complete lack of inheritance rights. Women’s leaders such as Rebecca, a successful businesswoman, are now working with AMURT to both empower the women through economic development in the form of a consumers’ cooperative, and change the mentality of the men to support the granting of more rights to women. The other issue being addressed is female genital mutilation which is prevalent in the area.

We are hoping, along with the Samburu leaders, to bring a development to the area that enhances the positive qualities of the Samburu, while eliminating the more negative practices. On the positive side, the Samburu are communal in spirit and action, sharing resources, promoting collective ownership of land, opening their humble huts for any weary traveler, and welcoming all boys of the same age as their sons into their homes. But their culture also has many negatives, such as throwing disabled babies into the river (being a pastoralist society, they do not want to be slowed down by people with handicaps), and denying education to girls.

The Catholic Church rescues abandoned disabled infants and takes care of them until they can be integrated into society. One of our employees in Coast Province is a physically disabled Samburu who was rescued by the Catholics. He has helped us successfully launch an income generation program for caregivers of vulnerable children. Imagine the loss to society had he been killed as an infant.

This woman is skilled at hut (manyatta) making. Samburu land is owned collectively, so people can settle anywhere.

We feel privileged to be working on development with the Samburu, striving together to build a better world where a marriage of the old and the new furthers the wellbeing of more human beings, and where the animals that have roamed freely for centuries can continue to cohabit the world with humans in a way that is mutually beneficial to all.

The Magic of Africa

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Africa is a continent where the magical meets the temporal on a daily basis, primarily through the medium of sorcery. During a recent long drive from Nairobi to Wamba in Samburu East District we passed vendors selling bags of charcoal beside the road. I expressed concern about the deforestation of the rolling hills, but George, our driver, was more interested in magical stories related Kamba tribespeople. “You know, these people leave the unsold bags of charcoal beside the road all night.” I expressed surprise wondering if the sacks would be stolen. “If anyone steals a sack,” continued George, “he or she will be forced by a strange power to return it in the morning.” I was tempted to test the power of the Kambu spell myself, to see if I, too, would be subjected to the force of the invisible hand. But it was just a fleeting thought. Instead I commented somewhat sardonically. “The police must love the Kambu people as they have fewer crimes to solve. And it’s a much better way of delivering justice than trapping people in the penal system.”

George sensed my interest in such stories (indeed I find them entertaining) and proceeded to tell a few more. After the post election violence in early 2008, opportunistic youth looted abandoned shops. However, they did not realize that many of the owners had protected their goods with witchcraft. So, for example, there were stories of young people who drank stolen beer, but could not urinate until they had paid the owner. One of the strangest stories, which was highlighted on national TV, concerned the theft of a television. The thief carried the TV home on his back, but could not put it down on the floor when he arrived. His children were perplexed: “Daddy, we can’t watch the television while its glued to your back. Put it down.” But the man was tied to a spell, and could only place it back on the ground once he returned it to the owner.

What should one make of all this? For me it is one of the many unfathomable aspects of
African culture, and a reminder that there is more to life than meets the eye.

Into the Heavens

Oukaimeden Resort, a Paradise in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

When I stepped out of the car I felt elated seeing the impressive peaks, and longed to scale one. I was like a dog tugging at its owner’s leash, desperate for the freedom to explore the scents of the wild. I climbed and climbed and climbed and suddenly came to a ridge which commanded a spectacular view of the Atlas range. I was overwhelmed. “It’s so beautiful. It’s so beautiful. It’s so beautiful,” I muttered to myself repeatedly as if the aesthetic rush caused a temporary insanity. I had been dislodged from my normal level of consciousness and entered another realm. In fact, during the entire ascent, I felt as if my being was sparkling with ecstasy, and had been injected with five years worth of elation within a few minutes. I must be a mountain person.

I tried my best to reach the summit, despite the race against time and the increasing protests of my leg muscles. Once I reached the snow line I realized the remaining 200 meters would elude me; I could not risk returning in the failing light. But I did find a crack between rocks and squeezed my body into its limited space. I gazed lovingly at the awesome panorama, as if I was the eyes of the mountain looking at itself. A thought flashed through my mind that this would be an opportune time to die, here in a coffin of rock, with the beauty of the peaks as the closing eulogy.

“The experience of mountains uplifts the soul towards God, calling up a hint of infinity and capable of arousing great thoughts and passions.” Thomas Burnet

It was just a passing thought! Much life still has to be lived, so I rushed down the mountain. My body was craving sustenance, and agreed with me that the hot drink at the bottom was one of the best I had ever had in my life. And I made a pledge to spend more time in the mountains. We were made for each other.

In Solidarity with Kenya’s Youth 1

In his spare time Boaz helps his mother run their modest grocery store. He is one of 3,000 vulnerable or orphaned children supported by AMURT throughout Kenya.

When I visited the Otieno family in their corrugated iron home-cum-shop one night, I was astonished to find the children doing their homework in the dim glow of tiny paraffin lamps. I glanced over their shoulders to read the printed words, but just saw a blur. I wondered how their young eyes could read in such darkness. I wondered where the motivation came from to persevere with their studies despite incredible obstacles.

Boaz, the oldest son, tall beyond his 13 years, had to study in these conditions throughout his primary school days, yet managed to earn high marks, making him eligible to go to a good secondary school.

He did especially well in his final year at Usare Primary School in Mbita town, improving his marks from 255 to 346 out of 500. “How did you do so well?” I inquired. He credited his success to Elizabeth Akello, the AMURT care counselor assigned to him since the beginning of 2010. “Elizabeth gave me text books and a school uniform,” he said, “and advised me to interact with my teachers as much as possible.”

Boaz desperately wanted to go to secondary school, but knew that profits from his mother’s tiny shop were barely enough to feed the family. I asked him what motivates him to continue with his education. “I want to get a good job so that I can support my mother and siblings,” he replied.

When praised for the positive and lasting impact she has had on Boaz, Elizabeth, AMURT’s care counselor, replied humbly, “I was just doing my job.”

Moved by his sincerity and solidarity with his family, I called one of our donors to inquire if she knew someone who could sponsor Boaz’s education. Within a few hours the response came in the affirmative, so I told Boaz’s mother. Tears of joy flowed down her cheeks with this sudden realization that the impossible was now possible.

After his final primary school exam Boaz brought a photocopy of his mark sheet to the AMURT office in celebration. Given his intelligence and his ambition, we look forward to more celebratory visits; we look forward to seeing a positive story unfold of a boy who struggles to achieve something noble for himself and his family despite tremendous challenges.

A Collaborative Painting

When I walked inside the Ananda Marga center’s meditation room I was surprised by its part transformation into an art gallery. Delight spread across my face as I admired the large canvases that contained evocative figures in open spaces, so open my mind relished being suspended within the possibilities of multiple interpretations.

The artist, Nikhil, was embracing the warmth of a radiator (snow was building in the clouds above London) and enjoying the satisfying peace of a successful creative spell. Something stirred within my being – the thrill of creatively engaging with the artist himself – and I asked Nikhil if he could paint a piece for my office in Rockville.

“I would be honored. But give me some ideas for the theme.”

I had a mission that night: to create an image in my mind that could be immortalized on canvas. In the calming mist between wakefulness and sleep it appeared: several children running together, yet looking over their shoulders at, and stretching out their arms for, a few other children straggling behind. The expression housed in each of their eyes read: “Come and join us. You are welcome. Hold on to my hand”

The next morning Nikhil asked me for the theme, as if its appearance in my mind was inevitable. I shared the vision, and he bolted from the starting line, holding his brush and running wherever his inspiration took him.

Within a few hours the initial sketch was ready, and it spoke well. It spoke of trust. It spoke of the willingness of the strong to reach out to support the weak. It spoke of the power of human connection. And it spoke of …….. whatever now appears in your mind as you gaze upon it.

Enjoy the sketch, and the other stages in the creative process that will end up as a painting hanging on my office wall; not just a painting, but a fusion of two minds that appreciate art as a gateway to deeper layers of consciousness.


The space between our hands is potent with human goodness



Beyond apparent reality lie unseen worlds that weave us together.



When one identifies with the loving might of the universe, transformation occurs.



A marriage of the concrete and the abstract looks even more real to the perceptive eye.



To see more of Nihkil’s art visit:  www.nikhil.org.uk

Damascus Illuminations

While in Damascus in the Summer of 2008, I decided to visit the Omayad Mosque, a magnificent structure that took ten years to build, rising to its full glory in 705 CE under the patronage of the Omayad Calif Al-Walid Bin Abdul Malki.

First I strolled around the huge courtyard to soak in the vibrant scene: clusters of black-clad women with cheerful faces, excited children running around with abandon, and moustached men presiding proudly over their families.

Once I felt included in the cheerful Islamic tapestry, I entered into the mosque to find a place for meditation. I settled on the huge colorful carpet a short distance from the tomb of John the Baptist, who is one of the sacred messengers for both Christians and Muslims.

As soon as I closed my eyes, my mind entered a meditative state, enjoying a flawless journey through the shuddhis (a three stage process to withdraw from the external physical world and identify one’s sense of self with the Cosmic Beloved), and a total absorption in the repetition of mantra and its inner meaning. I was grateful to the mosque and the years of worship that have given it a sanctified atmosphere (The Omayad Mosque is built on a site that has been used as a place of worship for the last three thousand years, with the original building used as a temple for Armean gods) for it helped guide me towards soul-consciousness.

After the meditation I reflected upon a conversation I had with Dada Krsnasevananda the previous day over breakfast. He was talking about a class he gives called “Asking the Right Questions.” He teaches people that one way to improve meditation is to pose philosophical questions such as “What is the nature of the Cosmic Mind?” or “How can I become love?” By asking such questions one gives one’s mind the opportunity to move in a more subtle direction. The question that popped into my mind was “Where does curiosity come from?” There appears to be something innate in human nature that drives us to know more about the universe. Whether we want more facts about a celebrity scandal, or more scientific explanations about the world, or answers to existential questions, we are smitten with a longing to gain a broader perspective.

After mediation I was reluctant to leave the mosque so I sat down in a busier section of the huge hall to observe and absorb. I witnessed white-clad imams hunched over the Koran; I witnessed the excitement of the faithful; and I witnessed a tiny girl, dressed in a crisp pink dress, radiating innocence. In that child I saw God. In that child I saw the Beauty of the universe. I was in awe, transported to a place of timeless celebration.

What fascinated me the most, however, were the prayer lines that formed spontaneously. At first there were three Moslems standing shoulder to shoulder, praying as one, then seven, then fifteen. I was moved by the sense of spontaneous brotherhood, a binding of strangers in a ritual that defines the Moslem’s endeavor to recognize the greatness of God.

The scene reminded me of the commotion I witnessed in Israeli synagogues last year when Jews would scramble to find a minyan, a quorum of ten men, to fulfill the minimum requirements of prayer. And my mind marveled at the grand history of the human endeavor to commune with something Great though worship.

When I finally stepped out into the world, which was now robed in the darkness of night, I encountered a mosque adorned with jewel-like lights. The sparkling illuminations had transformed this holy place into something magical, symbolizing for me at that moment the capacity to discover deeper spiritual layers within the temporal expression of life.

I was reluctant to leave the mosque, but I had a few more emails to send and sleep to attend to. Is there no freedom from worldly affairs!

What would it feel like to reside at the spiritual hub of the universe? What would happen if my individual consciousness merged in the collective consciousness?

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