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A Higher Purpose: Not Fearing Death Part 2 of Interview with ‘A Taste of Eternity’ Author Martha Halda

How do life-changing or transforming events affect our life purpose? And how do we integrate everything we do into that purpose – and then share it with others?

Martha Halda has found her way: By writing A Taste of Eternity, a forthcoming memoir about how one afternoon reshaped her outlook on life, and the way she chooses to live it.

On October 8, 1999, Martha suffered a horrific car accident, after which she was pronounced clinically dead three caa18c26a173d0dd5e52ba7e572fad9atimes. She remains the only person in the 50-year history of Palomar Pomerado Hospital (North San Diego County) to survive after scoring 0 on her CRAM (Clinical Risk Assessment and Management). Those who score 0 to 1 almost always die, or live in a paralyzed and/or persistent vegetative state. She recovered fully – even completing the 2002 Dublin Marathon.

During her passing over, she had a profound near death experience. How that experience transformed and shifted her life, and how she carried it forward, is covered in A Taste of Eternity, now making its rounds among major publishers through literary agent Dana Newman.

Martha also offers behind-the-chapters stories pertaining to the book at her blog, http://atasteofeternity.wordpress.com.

This is the second of a touching, life-affirming two-part interview with Martha, which comes at a most fitting time, as millions begin to celebrate Easter or Passover.

Word Journeys: Why do so many people find it hard to believe someone can have a near death experience, taste eternity, or have direct perception of God?

Martha Halda: I feel it’s because we are too busy judging.  Judgment causes the unbearable fear of non-acceptance.  Think about it, from our first day on the playground, all we want is to be accepted, to be part of the group, invited in.  Some people can’t accept what they haven’t seen, touched or felt themselves. Some need science to prove anything or everything before they will accept it, Often, people are afraid that society will think them odd or mentally off.  To talk about this, I needed the faith that comes from knowing that what I experienced was 100% real.   Faith can go a long way, but first we must to get out of our own way. We need to remove the mighty ego.  Many people still need society to accept it, before they are willing.

WJ: That’s a great point – and leads to my next question. A Taste of Eternity crosses all religious lines – and goes beyond them. When I read it, I saw how you touched and experienced the unifying point behind ALL religions. Could you speak to the essence of spirit, based on your experience?

MH: For me, the essence of spirit is sharing, caring, love, a unity of all things.  I mean all things: everything is energy, it is all particles or atoms or cells, and they are all part of each other.  During my experience, at one point, I had a mental vision or thought that a waterfall would be nice; suddenly, particles from all over a meadow came together and re-formed as a waterfall.  It was as if everything existed to bring pleasure.

img_1293WJ: Three years after your accident, after being told you would never walk again, you completed the Dublin Marathon. How did the marathon intensify your desire to live life to the max, without fear of what may or may not happen next?  

MH: I know that any day could be my last. When it’s my time, then it’s my time, I have no fear of death; in fact, I welcome the day.  I won’t do anything to bring it on myself, because I want to be sure I get to go to Heaven again, and I don’t want to feel the hurt I would cause my friends.

WJ: How does your family view your experience now, compared with how they first responded to it?

MH: They don’t really view it differently at all.  We don’t talk about it much.  It may have changed their views of life indirectly, but it is a personal thing.  I feel they have a beauty inside their souls knowing that God is there for each of us, and there is no reason to fear death.

WJ: How did your life purpose change from your experience?

MH: Today, I don’t know if I really have one, in the traditional way. I used to have a very clear purpose as a mother. Now, it is just to see life in all things with joy. I want to understand how and why religions say their way is the only right way; the loving embrace of the God I met was not that condemning.  I feel if people would open their hearts and minds to another’s way, they would see the commonality in our beliefs, customs, and lifestyles, and not the differences.

WJ: You came back with heightened senses, one of which is a particular affinity with animals, which you discuss in the book. Could you elaborate?

MH: I just look into the eyes of birds, dogs, cats, birds or deer and can tell if they are happy and well or not.  They don’t fear me, and some will become very assertive toward me in a good way. They know they are safe with me.  That’s all.  When you bring this up, I get the opportunity to feel the way some of the people in my life felt about me talking about my near death experience – shoosh! someone might hear you. (laughs)

WJ: When people read books like A Taste of Eternity, or talk with you about it, what would you like them to take away from the experience?

MH: Simply the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  To give, share, and express love; it’s the most important thing we have to offer! Love is the only Eternal possession we have. When we die, the only thing we take is the love we shared, the memories we make, and our integrity. Everything else stays here.  No U-Hauls in Heaven.

WJ: Finally, last year on your birthday, you did something not a lot of 50-somethings would do: jumped off a 50-foot cliff into the Ganges River near Varanasi, India – not once, but several times.

MH: Well, I was also the only high school girl skateboarder in the mid-1970s who bombed the steep La Costa hills in Carlsbad (Calif.), where I grew up! So it’s not that much of a departure for me. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’d been white-water rafting all morning with two young ladies from Scotland who were also go-for-it women. I saw the cliffs, told our guide to beach the raft, walked past some Indian men who were thinking about it but were afraid to jump … and I stepped in front of them and jumped. I laugh every time I close my eyes and see the looks on their faces! It was one of those extraordinary moments. I’m always ready for them.

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A Busy Summer of Writing Arrives

A few writing and book topics on a very hot Summer Solstice:

I love writing in summer. The longer daylight hours, warmer weather, presence of trees and plants everywhere, and completion of a college year seem to conspire to throw this writer’s creativity into high gear.

This summer is especially prodigious. In six weeks, on August 1, Dr. Steve Victorson and I will celebrate the publication of our book, The Champion’s Way. Developed from Steve’s doctoral dissertation at Boston University, The Champion’s Way has been a dream project as a book writer, editor, former sportswriter and coach: a look at the 11 distinctive qualities that champions master over all others. However, we make this discussion engaging, with more than 50 interviews with various Olympic and World Champions, along with dozens of other sports anecdotes. Anyone can become a champion of themselves in life, business, the arts, education or sports. That’s our core message — master the 11 qualities.

We spent more than three years writing and rewriting this book. What is especially endearing is that the book is releasing during the first days of the London Summer Olympics — a perfect companion read to see how these great athletes tick.

The Champion’s Way will be available for pre-order in the next few weeks on Amazon.com. The official website will be up by July 10. Meantime, visit our Facebook page.

• • •

The other book I’ve been writing for years, Voice Lessons, is also finished. Am now conducting the final polishing edit after ten years, three complete rewrites, and a restructuring of the plot after it almost sold to Dutton in 2003. The novel is a father-daughter-daughter relationship piece set against the backdrop of a legendary music group that reunites after many years. The main protagonist, music legend Tom Timoreaux, heads out for a long-awaited reunion tour with his band, The Fever, and hires his daughter, Christine, as a backup vocalist. In the course of the book, she becomes a superstar. I won’t spoil the surprises and emotional content of the book, but I will add that the book also provides a panoramic backdrop of the last century of American music, and how the rock and roll pioneers not only drew from many influences, but lived and breathed music in ways that would be really refreshing to see from more of today’s stars.

The book’s official website – with “backstage” passes, Fever “tour schedules,” lyrics to the 80 original songs I wrote for my characters, and much more to entertain music fans everywhere — will be available for viewing in August, and publication is scheduled for Spring 2013.

• • •

Also releasing in Spring 2013, Backroad Melodies, my fifth collection of poetry and essays. This will be my first released poetry collection since The River-Fed Stone in 2008, and it will feature 50 new poems plus 10 essays — including a multi-paneled tribute to my friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, drawn from our many discussions, good times and readings.

One of my personal favorites from this collection is the essay, “For The Lifelong Love Of Learning,” in which I share my own personal experiences with students and faculty through Education for Life, one of the best and most principled systems ever created to inspire, motivate and inform students on what ultimately matters in their intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical development.

We’ll keep you posted on Backroad Melodies. Look for preordering and other information by Holiday 2012.

• • •

Not to be outdone, we will begin our new e-book line in Fall 2012 with The Best of The Word Journeys Blog, featuring the most popular and commented-upon pieces from the first 100 postings of this blog. Several of the blogs went viral, owing to the beauty of social media, and several others ended up in unexpected places (such as Christian Science Monitor’s Culture Cafe), with unexpected readers — back stories that I share in the run-ups to the pieces.

• • •

I’m also working on a very special and unique project, The Legacy Series: Innovations and Technology, with my associate, Lisa Maine, and my friends and colleagues at Innovative Properties Worldwide in Denver. This special publication, which will be available over the holidays as a print magazine, e-book, mobile App and iPad publication, focuses on what we need greatly in this country economically: more innovation, vision and complete commitment to the business models revealing themselves for today and tomorrow. We launched this publication as a tribute to the memory and contributions of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. We depart from Jobs’ enormous impact as an inventor, visionary and businessman to look at the seven industries that Apple products either created or infused, as well as developments in a wide variety of areas.

One of my favorite jobs when developing and editing a specialty publication like The Legacy Series is the interviewing process. During this time, I love hearing the visions, ideas and strategies of forward-thinking CEOs, who have one eye on their bottom lines and the other on tomorrow’s marketplace. You’ll hear from plenty of CEOs throughout the publication.

• • •

The end of summer brings with it one of my favorite writing conferences at which to present: The Southern California Writers Conference. This conference has been partially or wholly responsible for more than $3 million in publishing deals for first-time authors. In the past two years, it also has established the reputation as one of the best conference resources for up-to-the-minute developments in the ever-accelerating digital book world, and what it requires of authors. I will be presenting two workshops, with topics to be drawn from: editing your own manuscripts; writing your book’s business plan; repurposing content for print and online use; and/or a creative writing intensive.

The SCWC features top editors, publishers and agents, all of whom are looking for great books and authors. The workshops are first-class, and we have read-and-critique group sessions that are second to none … including the infamous Rogue Read & Critiques, which start at 9 p.m. and end at … well, the record is 6:45 a.m.

Be sure to click onto the SCWC’s website and register now if you plan to attend. It’s well worth every penny.

• • •

Like I said, summer is a great time to breathe deeply, expand the mind into the warm, open air, and see what comes back creatively.  Enjoy your writing and reading … and most of all, the sun and warmth.

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Celebrating a Book Whose Time Has Circled Forward

For the past nine months, I’ve had the pleasure to circle the orbit of a truly groundbreaking book on the way we look at time, and its past, current and future impacts in world events and consciousness, The Yugas. The book, an evidence-based tome that illustrates the cyclical progression of time, inspired the successful Yuga Cycles of the Ages & Our Awakening Consciousness conference that I recently co-promoted at The Expanding Light Retreat, outside Nevada City, Calif. It also is among the titles being featured this week by Crystal Clarity Publishers at Book Expo America (if you’re a book trade member in New York, stop by Booth 3758).

My involvement with this great book begins with the authors, Joseph Selbie and David Steinmetz. I’ve gotten to know both men this year, and they are deeply committed to doing their part to educating, enlightening and helping us better understand both the more energetic and connected times we are moving into, and the times from which we emerged — which, if you go back to ancient civilizations, were a lot more sophisticated than we give credit. It seems that everyday, scientists or archaeologists are making discoveries that further validate this point that Selbie and Steinmetz hammer home in The Yugas.

I’ve done some work with Selbie to develop promotional materials and media relations for his books — The Yugas and The Fifth Force, a fine time-travel novel written under his nom de plume Michael Dyson. I serve with Steinmetz on the faculty at Ananda College of Living Wisdom, which co-sponsored the Yuga Cycles Conference. Steinmetz, who studied astronomy and physics and has a background in optical engineering, teaches a class entitled “World Cultures & Consciousness,” where he uses the ancient Yuga Cycles of time to reassess our global cultural history. It’s utterly fascinating and unique, the only such course in any university or college in the U.S.

The Yugas co-authors David Steinmetz (L) and Joseph Selbie.

In just months in print, The Yugas has drawn tremendous reviews from scientists, spiritual thinkers, ancient wisdom pundits, historians and educators alike. It has also served as center stage for a conference that drew the likes of New York Times bestselling author Joan Borysenko, 2012 International Book Award winner Swami Kriyananda, What The Bleep Do We Know? featured subject Dr. Amit Goswami, and Dr. Robert Schoch, who re-dated the age of the Great Sphinx by thousands of years.

Selbie made both the direction of the book’s narrative and mission known during his opening presentation, “A New Renaissance.”  “If you look at history from the lens the Yugas gives you, the facts we were taught in school — the linear evolution model — make greater sense if you look at it as a cyclical phenomenon,” he said. “This is a story of how much our past is with us in the present. The traditional Darwinian view is that things were invented in the past, insights are gained in the present and then improved upon, in a chain of development through the ages. The past is with us in a much more powerful way than that image would convey. We are in a New Renaissance today.”

During his presentation, Selbie drew out stirring comparisons that support the cyclical progression of time – and point to the intrinsic individual, social and scientific purpose and value of The Yugas. After lining up the key figures in the European Renaissance with the key figures in Ancient Greece, and noting the direct resemblance of their “discoveries,” Selbie took it a step further into the present — comparing new health care and health sciences discoveries of the past 200 years with the sophisticated healthcare practices of India, Egypt and Phoenicia in the corresponding time period of 1012-700 BC. During that time, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Qi Gong, yoga postures and Egyptian medicine — all utilizing one’s life force energy — were not only standard practice, but part of daily life.

“These were the developed tools of the previous 2000 years, the fruits of the last Dwapara knowledge. Now they’re coming back,” Selbie said. “This WAS medicine. It had everything – body-mind-spirit-physical-energetic and causal. It was the mode of healing in ancient times.”

Such themes weave throughout The Yugas, resulting in a growing groundswell of interest and popularity as the year has progressed. Selbie and Steinmetz worked through more than 20 years of Steinmetz’s research on the Yuga cycles, an ancient Indian method of viewing the passage of time in 24,000-year cycles drawn from the 14 pages that open Indian yoga master Sri Yukteswar’s 1895 book The Holy Science.

There are more than 140 ancient cultures that all say the same thing in their stories, myths and artifacts: we once had a Golden Age, which the ancient Indians knew as Satya Yuga, and we also had Silver, Bronze and Iron Ages,” Selbie said. “The Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans also measured time cyclically. We’re about the only culture that thinks time is linear.

“We’re now coming out of the Iron Age, or Kali Yuga, into the age of energy, or Dwapara Yuga. You can see it readily in the great advances we’ve had in science, machinery, technology, communications, energy, awareness and the elevating of consciousness.”

As Selbie notes, these changes come right down to who we are, physiologically as well as spiritually.  “According to the Yugas, we’ve changed since Kali Yuga, in our atoms, our energy, our very physical bodies,” he said. “The outward confirmation is pretty obvious. We don’t just know more; we perceive more. The radio receivers in Kali were limited, like having AM radio only. Now we’ve added an FM band. In Kali Yuga, we had different bodies, different nervous systems. They were not able to perceive what we perceive today.”

Best of all, The Yugas isn’t written like a scientific book. It’s an engaging journey through time and our own ancestral past in a way many of us have never considered – but will, once you see what our future holds once we clear out the last of the darkness and violence on this planet.

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100th Word Journeys Blog: Involvement With an International Book Award Winner

I’ve been wondering what to write for the 100th Word Journeys Blog. I will still write an anthology blog that highlights this wonderful writing journey, with links to the better blog experiences. However, this morning, an ideal topic fell on my doorstep — rather, my email queue. It combines everything I care about: writing, books, education, my spiritual life … and a lifetime achievement by a man I deeply admire.

This morning, I learned that Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography, by Swami Kriyananda, won the International Book Award for New Spirituality Books. Since I am in the middle of promoting this book for three major events directly ahead — the Yuga Cycles Conference at The Expanding Light Retreat, at which Kriyananda is speaking Saturday as one of 10 esteemed presenters; Book Expo America, which is June 5-7 in New York; and Kriyananda’s book appearance at the Ford Theater in L.A. on June 24 — my first response was, “Perfect timing!” Let’s face it: you can’t pay the New York Times Review of Books for a year of full-page ads and receive more serendipitous timing.

Then I sat back and thought about what this book has meant in my life: as an author; an educator at Ananda College who utilizes the Education for Life method (which Kriyananda initiated); as someone who first welcomed Yogananda’s teachings (that merge essential Christianity and essential Vedic truths) into his life more than 30 years ago; and as one who counts among his dearest friends many deep and wise souls who live and work at Ananda Village in Northern California (which Kriyananda founded). Never mind my admiration for Kriyananda’s prolific nature; Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography is his 130th book (give or take). All of these books extend the yoga master’s teachings into the 21st century, and into every corner of our lives, societies, and communities. So for starters, the International Book Award serves as sort of a Lifetime Achievement Award for an incredible 86-year-old man who has given his entire adult life in service to God – and touched countless thousands of souls in the process (or millions, if you count the 4 million books he has sold).

When I contemplated how Yogananda’s teachings, Kriyananda’s books, and the many ways in which I have worked with Ananda over the past 23 years (including two stints at Crystal Clarity Publishers, 20 years apart), have helped define my life, I asked myself a question: Where would I be without it? I can come up with all sorts of answers, but few – if any – will add up to anything close to the mixture of God, joy, creativity, nature, happiness and serviceful spirit that is part and parcel of my daily life.

Then there is the book itself. Many of you have probably read or heard about Autobiography of a Yogi, the book Yogananda wrote in 1947 that remains the best-selling spiritual autobiography of all time. It has changed countless lives; Kriyananda read it in 1948, dropped his life as he knew it, and took a bus to L.A., where Yogananda received him at his headquarters in L.A. In one sense, Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography tells the rest of the story, one that, for whatever reason, only Kriyananda has been willing to share. For starters, there are more than 60 stories that have not appeared in Autobiography, Yogananda’s other works that he wrote in his lifetime, or in compilations that have appeared since. Secondarily, Kriyananda offers a bird’s eye view of Yogananda’s approaches to many different spiritual and everyday life situations, creating a glowing narrative of this God-realized man’s enormous compassion and strength that Yogananda was too humble to write himself. That’s what good biographers do.

But then Kriyananda reached out and touched everyone: he shared what Yogananda did the past few years of his life. Yogananda ended his public speaking engagements, which drew up to 7,000 people during the 1920s and 1930s, and wrote books and instructed his closest disciples to carry his mission forward. As one of his editors, and the leader of the monks, young Kriyananda belonged to that inner circle — and was tasked to get the word out. Yogananda had a mission and a vision for bringing souls and society into a future age where energy would accelerate, communication would become faster and more global, and spiritual magnetism would grow to become the law of the land. In the Vedic cycles of time, this is known as Dwapara Yuga. Yogananda envisioned and spoke of communities of like-minded souls (like Ananda), education that emphasized the inner as well as outer development of the student (like Education for Life), and lives lived simply, with complete devotion to God.

Here we are. Here, in my opinion, is why this book bears such significance that it claimed the International Book Award. It is also why I, as a multiple book author dedicated to focusing on the highest ideals and potentials of my students, clients, friends and others, feel so honored to be working on the promotion of Paramhansa Yogananda: A Biography.

Finally, to Swami Kriyananda: Congratulations on a wonderful achievement. You have written 130+ books in your life and helped provide deeper purpose and meaning to the lives of countless people … and now, the book world salutes you. To put it in one of your favorite languages, “Bravissimo!”

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Guest Blog: My Journey As A Writer, by Dhyan Davis

Today begins a week that gives all teachers great cheer, yet produces a bittersweet feeling as well — Graduation Week. I’m delighted to know that summer break begins on Friday, but likewise, it’s time to say goodbye to students that have been as much a part of my life as I have been of theirs.

Blog guest author Dhyan Davis

One is Dhyan Davis, who graduates from Ananda College on Thursday. Early last year, I was brought onto the faculty to energize the writing program. In just over a year, we’ve turned it into a strong curriculum that can cover all genres with group and individual classes, and more than meets standards for freshmen through seniors. In one of those “timing + opportunity” moments, Dhyan was one of the first two students in the writing program — so he helped to build this curriculum by pushing me as much as I pushed him. In the meantime, his writing improved so much that it helped to create other changes in his life, the changes that merge with higher purpose and meaning. Watching this man transform has been a blessing of the highest order — and I’ve had an inner ringside seat as well, seeing everything evolve through his words.

Today, I’d like to pay tribute to Dhyan by posting his latest essay, “My Journey As a Writer,” on this blog. I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I did. To me, it speaks of what happens when writing and life purpose meet on an open road.

 

My Journey As a Writer

By Dhyan Davis

In life, there are countless paths we can explore, all of which provide another piece of life’s puzzle to our consciousness. Some paths expand our awareness to previously unseen depths. Others, however, close our hearts to life’s boundless gifts. Regardless of which path we choose, life offers just the right ingredients for lessons to be learned. Growth is inevitable. Whether our natural spiritual evolution is painful or painless, it’s up to us to choose our life’s direction wisely.

One path that has made a significant impact on my life’s direction has been writing.  My heart has finally found a platform for genuine expression, where an uninterrupted flow can produce poetic prose. The written word has expanded my life’s perspective, allowing me to live more wholly in the present moment and to express my vision through essays, stories, and other forms of writing.

Ananda College offered me the tools necessary to mold and shape my ideas into golden nuggets of self-expression. Since my arrival, every writing class encouraged me to drive my focus inwardly, extracting my creative jewels so they may be shared with others.

My development as a writer has been long and arduous, whereas, I’ve always had a knack for verbal communication. Considering I’m naturally an extrovert, my understanding easily expands as I express my feelings verbally. If a particular conversation strikes my interest, I simply allow my intuitive feelings to guide my thoughts and speech. Bob, the creative writing director, insisted from the very beginning that my writing voice was no different than my speaking voice. He often said that my written words should be in sync with my verbal flow; I should hear myself on paper. To improve my writing, he said, I simply needed to transfer my speaking flow to writing. Both writing and speaking require sensitive attunement to the subtle messages of intuition. Writing, however, draws my attention more deeply to my core, simply because it requires reflection and personal exploration, which are both inward processes.

Interiorizing my mind benefits both yoga practice and, of course, writing. From the very first class offered in spring 2011, I’ve struggled immensely with developing my writing voice. I knew it was essential for genuine, accurate self-expression, though I often found my ideas scatter when I sat to write. Every assignment was not only stretching my analytical reason, but also my ability to articulate subtle, spiritual realizations to others. Gradually, my ability to hear my inner voice deepened while my potential to express myself sharpened.

The more I write, the more my thoughts become organized, making my written and spoken word more coherent and fluid. A prime example of this occurred just a couple weeks ago. A few students, some faculty members and I visited Ananda College’s future campus near Portland, Oregon. We hosted an open house for prospective students. Both faculty and students were asked to talk about their classes and experiences at the college. Though I didn’t prepare my speech beforehand, my intention was to speak from my heart and to relate my honest experience. When I was called to center stage, my heart raced and my palms moistened. What will I say? How will I say it? As soon as I looked into the audience, however, words flowed effortlessly as if I was reading from cue cards. My thoughts were crisp, clear, and lucid with insight, depth, and heartfelt honesty. When I finished and sat back down, I realized I spoke in the voice I’d labored to cultivate in writing. Writing proved in that moment to be the chisel to which my ideas are shaped into the perfect masterpiece. A clear mind is essential for coherence, whether expressed verbally or on paper.

Within the past year and a half, I’ve taken writing much more seriously; I have now seen its benefits. Since then, my entire vision has been pleasantly rearranged to view life more deeply. Every day, I gazed upon typically labeled mundane experiences with a renewed curiosity. How can this instance illustrate a spiritual truth? I would constantly stay alert throughout the day, seeking out new material for my writing assignments. Nothing was taken for granted; everything offered a message to be heard. Ideas for new, insightful papers flooded my consciousness, inspiring me to no end.

An example of this occurred when Bob took his class on a field trip to the Yuba River. As I turned tranquil from the river’s roar, I realized how symbolic this riverbed is to the path of yoga and spiritual liberation. The river (our subtle energies) continuously flows through many treacherous gullies (delusion), relentless seeking union with the ocean (God). Though only one example, there has been many instances where my observations of day-to-day life has sprouted into spiritually relevant material. Writing has taught me to keep a keen awareness so nothing is overlooked; everything is placed into a deeper context.

Life is filled with boundless wonders. Whenever my heart taps into the creative flow, some of life’s mysteries lose their veil. The more I ponder the depths of yoga, the more writing plays a critical role in organizing, integrating, and expressing my realizations. Writing demands that I dig deeper into my consciousness and excavate new insights. This, I’ve found, is the joy of writing. Since the writing process requires deep introspection, I find myself becoming calmer and more attuned to my heart’s song. Where there’s calmness, there’s also clarity of mind and purity of thought. These are all necessary not only for good writing, but for a healthy and fulfilling life.

I’ve always wondered what distinguishes a bona fide writer from a non-writer. Does a writer possess an inborn talent that only a few are blessed with? Maybe so, but I highly doubt that’s all there is to the story. Everyone has an inner voice that can inspire and uplift others. Creativity, insight, and lucid self-expression are inherent in everyone, but realized by few. Within the past year and a half, I went from being blind to having 20/20 vision. Before I started taking classes with Bob, my writing “tool bag” lacked concrete methods for professional grade writing. In those preliminary weeks, I thought my case was hopeless; that I would never be able to express my inner depth outwardly through writing. After time, however, the advice Bob continually offered kept pushing me towards refining my approach.

As a sculpture isn’t born overnight, the skill of writing requires patience, endurance, and a whole lot of energy. Some people simply aren’t interested in exerting the necessary time and energy for the laborious writing process. Editing, proof-reading, and re-writing require dedication and discipline, which most people generally lack in the overall sense. I deeply feel I have reached a point in my writing career where I’m ready to embrace these demands. This, to me, places me in professional magnetism simply because I’m willing to endure the hardship, embrace the expansions, and continually exert an ever-increasing amount of energy towards attaining literary greatness.

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PLANTS, STORIES, SOUL AND PEN: DAVID CROW’S JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE MEDICINE BUDDHA

            In 2002, I came upon a book whose alluring title sucked me in right away: In Search of the Medicine Buddha. Given its setting in Nepal, where I trekked twenty years ago, and author David Crow’s exploration of the great ancient medical traditions of Tibet, China and Ayurveda, I did everything I could to absorb this book. Then, a couple of years ago, after gaining more knowledge on all of these traditions, I read the book again.

            My feeling was the same: In Search of the Medicine Buddha was more than a travelogue, one man’s search for his deeper purpose, a memoir, the author’s fascination with plants, or a study of alchemy and medicine in ways that are simply beyond conventional medicine. It was all of the above, and more: a lyrical narrative with information and story woven together so fluidly and beautifully that, I swore, a great seamstress in the sky was conducting the literary show. It also took its permanent place as one of the 50 best books I’ve ever read.

Imagine my delight earlier this week, when David Crow – now an internationally known expert on Ayurveda, aromatherapy, Tibetan and Chinese medicine and botanical medicine — came to the Ananda College campus and spent an hour and a half with several of my writing students and I. He shared stories from In Search of the Medicine Buddha, discussed the medicinal values of various plants, talked about career opportunities in the herbalism field and explained how one book completely changed his life on a global scale by the formation of his company, Floracopeia — and how he now craves the time to write so creatively again.

The biggest thrill of our time together was something quite different. Crow returned to his innate love of bringing words to paper (or laptop) with a style as mellifluous and beautiful as it gets. He spent the time talking about his process of writing In Search of the Medicine Buddha, going back and forth with us on approaches he took to his stories, his mountains of notes from 10 years of apprenticing with masters of Eastern medicine, and the way he languaged it into a book that is as much poetry as journalism, as much soul narrative as travelogue, as much personal discovery as the shared wisdom of his teachers. Then, to top it off, he shared a great secret about forming the language to write about scents and smells — and about nature — and finished by reading two pieces aloud, one a prose poem about lavender, the other an archetypal journey into our relationship with plants as medicinals.

I’ve hosted quite a few noteworthy people in classrooms, writer’s conferences, retreats and other venues. Never have I seen what I saw the other day: the guest of honor, who is quite honored in his field on a global level, wanting to hang out with the class, stay extra, just be with other writers. As it was, he stayed for an hour longer than scheduled.

During our discourse, David broke down how he wrote In Search of the Medicine Buddha. Some of what he said is very instructive for all narrative non-fiction, essay and memoir writers:

1)   He wrote out of sequence. The stories became more important than their chronological order in his life. This alone plays to the creative imagination in the reader’s mind.

2)   He interwove and layered stories. Two of the most poignant stories in the book — the beautiful account of canoeing at Lake Pokhara and identifying the medicinals on the lakeshore, watching masters prepare and properly use the greatest alchemical of all, mercury — are breathtaking pieces of true storytelling. He wrote out the basic story, then he wove in other layers from other experiences to create a composite (which you can do when you’re not writing in chronological sequence). He layered, and layered some more, then fine-tuned it in editing. Consequently, these stories offer a vast array of visual and verbal tastes and experiences within their small spaces.

3)   He listened to and trusted his creative process. Crow said he spent weeks, at times, wandering in the woods, waiting for the inner spark to ignite. When it did, he wrote what passed through — which, as all accomplished writers know, is a feeling of no-time and no-space that results in the best and most ordered pure writing, the good stuff readers cannot pass up.

4)   In order to adequately describe the scents and tastes of the plants, life and landscape surrounding his quest for the Medicine Buddha, Crow instinctively utilized bits and pieces of what he later discovered was a sub-language unto itself: The Language of Perfumery, known to winemakers, botanists, perfumists and not too many others.  “The sense of smell is the only sense where our brain doesn’t make an automatic verbal association,” he said. “We’ve had to develop a vocabulary to describe scents, and memorize the words.”

5)   More on the Language of Perfumery: If you write about nature, plants, environment and landscape, or use the senses in your narrative or fictional characters, learn this language. It has the capability of setting you free — at least, that’s what it feels like when the words connect some pretty amazing tactile dots in your writing.

6)   Finally, he spent two years writing, revising, polishing and tweaking the manuscript, often at odds with his editor at Jeremy Tarcher (more common than you might think).

I could easily read the surprise and dash of trepidation in David’s eyes when I said to him, before class, “I’d like you to share with us your process of writing In Search of the Medicine Buddha, how you wove and layered the stories, mixed personal experience with sharing deep knowledge of the plants and medicinals … how this book came to life.”

“Is that all?” he replied jokingly.

For the next 90 minutes, he treated the class to a bit of alchemy a little different than his usual work in the medicinal plant world. His generosity, stories, words and wisdom showed a truly wondrous way of writing about the natural world and its relationship to humanity.

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ON BEING A WRITER: Spelling It Out

(Here is an exercise I gave to my Advanced Applied Writing class at Ananda College the other day. After briefly touching it up, I thought you would enjoy looking it over — and taking on the challenge for yourself.)                 

One of the best Writer’s Digest books of the 1980s, On Being A Writer, presented interviews with more than 30 authors on their experiences as writers, and how they view the world and their purpose in it. The book conveyed many different styles, viewpoints and stories, all built around a common denominator: I am a writer.

 Being a writer is a measure of great hard work, and the growth that has occurred from it. No longer are you someone who writes as part of your profession, education or for recreation — you are a writer. It is part and parcel of who you are, along with being a teacher, scholar, artist, athlete, son or daughter, friend, brother or sister, parent or grandparent, or the other ways in which you define yourself and others view you.

Being a writer is also an honor. In this society, it means that readers want to know and value your perspectives, viewpoints, insights and articulations. That is because, when you write about a subject that you have researched, you are often perceived as an expert of sorts on the subject. This is especially true when you write repeatedly around one theme or central subject. Writers are seen as people with vision, direction and purpose, who have the ability of word power to not only share what they see and feel, but present unique angles and dimensions that provoke thinking and feeling on behalf of their audiences.

I would like you to reflect on the question: What does it mean to be a writer? As you do so, and as you fashion a tightly-crafted, 1,000-word to 1,500-word essay from it, explore these areas and also incorporate them into your work

                  • Tell a story in which you realized that you were no longer someone who wrote occasionally, but a writer. A story in which you saw your subject in a different light — and then articulated it.

                  • Describe your journey of becoming a writer. Where you started from, where you are now. How do words feel different? How is your writing process different?

                  • What is your writing process? Try to describe it in a stream-of-consciousness manner, to show us the inner world of how you write.

                  • In what areas of study, or life, have you learned the most because of writing about it? How has writing expanded your experience or your learning process?

                  • How has your development of a bonafide writing voice expanded you as a person? A communicator? A soul?

                  • What one essay, blog or paper, in this or another class, required you to invoke all of your writing skills — and how did you, the writer, treat the subject in a way that you, as a student who wrote, would not have been able to negotiate six months or a year ago?

 Go deep on this essay. Make it distinct, personal, your experience written in your voice. Tell the world what it is like to be a writer, and how writing will continue to contribute to your life purpose moving forward. If you’d like, email it back to us at bob@wordjourneys.com, or simply post a link to your essay in the comments section of this blog.

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