365 Days of Beauty
Day 0 — I Swim in Equinox
I turned 43 last week.
The beginning of another rotation for me around our star coincided with the beginning of another season on our planet, for it was the September equinox the day before my birthday; that is when the sun’s rays are directly over the equator and day and night are almost equal in length. It happens again in March.
The September equinox signals the beginning of spring in the southern hemisphere and the beginning of autumn in the northern hemisphere, where I am. Reading about how the September equinox is marked around the world, I found one celebration that resonated with me.
Mehregan is the Zoroastrian festival that marks abundance and harvest. The word mehregan also means the first day of autumn and the day of the actual festivities varies from one year to the next. Because it is a celebration that honors Mehr (also Mithra), the symbol of light, knowledge, friendship, affection, and kindness, it is a festival of sharing and love.
And that is what got me: that it was a celebration of sharing and love.
Usually, this time of year sees me return from another such celebration of sharing and love: Burning Man. This experiment in community living sees 70,000 gather from around the world to build a temporary city with experiences they gift to one another. Since 1990 it has been taking place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, an ancient, dry alkaline lake bed whose dust rises in storms that cause complete whiteouts and destroy the tents of burners not savvy enough to have a healthy respect for the elements — for the elements at Black Rock City have been its first revelers and the desert is their home.
With soaring daytime temperatures and no shade but the one you bring, conditions are harsh, but its vastness is a blank canvas that comes to life with epic manifestations of love and sharing. It has been described as a permission engine and a friend of ours once said, “We’ve come to hell and created heaven.”
The first Burning Man on Baker Beach, San Francisco, in 1986 was to mark summer solstice. That is when the Earth has the maximum tilt towards the sun and it reaches the highest position in the sky. For us, it means we live the day with the longest period of daylight. It happens in June in the northern hemisphere and in December in the southern hemisphere.
Humans — we perceive patterns and we like our rituals, maybe even miss them and make new ones because we want meaning. To create it, to punctuate it, to share it, to highlight it, but ultimately to have it. And I love the serendipitous realization I made while writing this: equinox, Mehregan, sharing and love, Burning Man, solstice — my birthday.
The day before my birthday, I had checked the time my city would be in equinox. I was curious and that was it. Or at least, that is what I thought because now I wonder if my subconscious was at play. I went for an impromptu afternoon swim and when I emerged afterwards, very much like a leaping dolphin at play, and checked the time on my way back, I realized that I just swam in equinox — and my mind’s eye was almost blinded by the spark that exploded into radiance. Equinox ripples through the fabric of my inner universe.
My brain has a strong reaction when it experiences beauty. This is my attempt to share some everyday beauty with you every week, an invitation for you to be mindful of the beauty in your everyday too.
Welcome to the first week of 365 Days of Beauty.
Day 1 — Sing Me Songs of Beauty
“What are you getting for your birthday?” asked a gentleman visiting from Charleston. We had met the night before at dinner with my husband and a friend. We all worked in education and he and my husband had crossed paths some months before. A night of lively conversation led me to invite him for an off-the-beaten track experience in our city: a bean to bar chocolate factory and café, and we were on our way there.
“Nothing,” I said. “I don’t really want anything. The older I get, the less I want.” Then on second thought, “Well, maybe a bicycle rack,” for the second-hand bicycle I had bought a month ago — an attempt to be more physically active in nature — “but I am doing fine without one.”
I had everything. My health. My loved ones. My worldly needs met so I can thrive. Contentment.
My husband surprised me with a stunning new website he had created for me, and as birthdays go, there were lovely flowers as the day wore past, and I was bathed in so much love, I emerged at the end of it, glowing, like a newborn who had just had its first bath. And before I called it a night, I received one more bone-crushing, soul-lifting, heart-soaring hug through the ether.
The delicate voice of a friend sang to me in Tamil and Hindi:
“Little little wishes,
Wishes that fly away on flapping wings.
Wishes like little pearl drops.
Wishes I hope to fulfill.
To touch the moon and give it a kiss.
To have the world spin around me.”
This was the first non-birthday birthday song I had ever received in my life. A couple of years ago, as part of his set for that afternoon at the café of a luxurious five star hotel, a friend had sung Happy Birthday to me in a voice so celestial I felt I was a resplendent deity residing in the clouds. The only other song I had received as a gift was the one my husband wrote especially for proposing to me. He sang it to me in his smooth Baileys Irish Cream voice as he played the guitar, and I was the happiest, most special girl in the world. And now, 17 years later, his singing is still like a comforting, silky cup of hot chocolate.
This gift of song gave me an idea. My mother had immigrated 18 months ago, and we missed one another — painfully. I remembered her warm voice singing Fairuz while cooking, melodies marrying aromas in a Middle Eastern home where love was as much a stuffed grapevine leaf as it was a song especially made up for me and my brother. My beautiful mother. Oceans away. I had said I wanted nothing, but I changed my mind.
“Sing me Fairuz, Mama,” I asked of her in message. “I want to wake up to your voice singing Fairuz.”
Day 2 — I Am [Not]
It was the day after my birthday and the last day of the week. As a treat, my husband and I had booked our first sensory deprivation floatation experience then dinner to celebrate.
I had learned about sensory deprivation tanks in autumn 2016, after our return from our first Burning Man. I had listened to comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan describe his experiences with it on his podcast and read about its extensive exploration by neuroscientist and writer John Lilly. I wanted to try it and found the one place in our city that offered it. My husband and I discussed it, and we were both up for it, but the desire did not materialize into action. Fast forward 4 years; a friend describes her floatation session to us, and that was it — we decided to go.
But what made us want to go? What drew us to this particular experience?
NOSC — non-ordinary states of consciousness, that’s what.
In the first chapter of their book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal make a case for ecstasis, “a very specific range of non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC) — what Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof defined as those experiences ‘characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in the thought processes and behavior, [brought about] by a variety of psychosomatic manifestations, rang[ing] from profound terror to ecstatic rapture… There exist many different forms of NOSC; they can be induced by a variety of different techniques or occur spontaneously, in the middle of everyday life.”
I had sought these non-ordinary states of consciousness through other experiences, like Vipassana mediation. I remember my first and only 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in July 2017. I wanted to explore it after I read author and neuroscientist Sam Harris’s Waking Up and listened to his podcast episode with the author and historian Yuval Noah Harari, where they both discussed its merits.
My friends were skeptical; 10 days of silent meditation? Me? Was I sure?
Sure, I was sure!
When it was done, I wrote:
I returned from my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course today. One of the hardest things I’ve done. Incredible, complex experience — one that I would have to process before I can make just observations and a fair conclusion. Rewarding and worthwhile without the shadow of a doubt. Glad I did it.
The many take-aways from Vipassana warrant their own post, but the moment I’d like to highlight here happened on the 4th day — the day we use the skills we had developed so far to learn about and start applying the Vipassana meditation technique. Following the introduction of the technique and our practice of it, I recall sensing …something I had never sensed before, and one that I struggle, even now, to put into words. A seemingly endless moment that flowed to the next and to the next with sharp clarity. I was buzzing at the end of it — it was a mental, physical, emotional aliveness, and its memory leaves me with the same sense of curiosity I felt at the time.
In Stealing Fire, the authors elucidate on these non-ordinary states and write about “what researchers call the ‘phenomenological reporting,’” namely “four signature characteristics…: Selflessness, Timelessness, Effortlessness, and Richness, or STER for short.”
Well, that afternoon of the day after my birthday, while I floated on dense, salted water, there were moments I experienced selflessness and effortlessness, like being in the infinite moment without ME being there. How did I know? Because I’d “come to” and realize I hadn’t been there, and I didn’t know how long for. I could have been there hours or minutes when the dim blue lights starting flashing slowly — my signal that time was up. What followed was a feeling of complete peace and relaxation that lasted for the remainder of the day.
Day 3 — We Dance and We Sing, and We Make Videos
We were still celebrating my birthday, so this afternoon featured karaoke, cake, and kebabs. What a glorious afternoon of joyful, pure fun. Love manifest in thoughtful actions.
Love manifest in thoughtful gifting, for that afternoon I was gifted something I had considered buying a while ago but hadn’t. I love recording videos, sharing my appetite for life, and knew I would benefit from having a stabilizer. A friend watching those videos came to the same conclusion, and with the note, “You really ought to be on camera more,” gifted me one.
I promise there will be more videos.
Day 4 — Revolutionize Education
We led our first workshops in a physical space — with social distancing — since lockdown. It was the first weekend session of a 24-week program for 14 to 18-year-olds. Following the introduction to the program, the two workshops were about exponential technologies and the future of work. During one of the feedback sessions I was blown away by a 15-year-old sharing her thoughts about jobs that will no longer exist because they will be automated or become otherwise redundant. Her thoughts connected ideas from exponential technologies, automation, income classes, vicious circles, socio-economic solutions, basic universal income, and tied it all in with revolutionizing education. Like I said, I was blown away.
The young are hope, and where there is hope, there is beauty.
Day 5 — Wake up to Beauty
I rose before the sun today and was witness to shimmering rose gold reflected in the city’s skyline. The distant towers, jewels — beauty that caught me by surprise, then the moment was past.
Day 6 — I Dive into the Lumiverse
The beauty I experienced this morning was of the explosive, transcendental kind, and it happened during one of my regular activities — swimming. Perhaps it is best shared in verse:
An underwater of endless, undulating vibrance, a plurality of vibrances.
Shimmering, mischievous rainbows.
I am the ripple. The ripples.
Tantalizing wormholes into whirlpools of luminescence.
My arms are tunnels where arcs of light dance into infinity.
I am a space whale, diving into inconceivable depths of [not]being.
A flying fish, gliding across waves of multiverses.
A swirling, twirling dancer of cosmic seas
Where breath is light and
Light is breath.
There was more beauty in the afternoon — the warm, enveloping kind, like a proper hug. It came in the form of conversations we didn’t want to end, curries we wanted to keep eating, and intricately hand-made gifts — a bikini top and a beach bag — in my favorite: rainbow pattern.
Day 7 — Stillness
I woke up a couple of hours early, brought to consciousness by a dream of abundance. The day beckoned and the energy within me seemed to have a life of its own. It wanted to spring out of bed and start exploring, so that is exactly what I did.
I got out of bed and started exploring. It was still dark out, no sign of the sun that was to rise in another two hours. The world was held in a soft embrace by a gentle fog, like a lover reluctant to leave after a night of passion. Beauty hung in the air, intangible, but for its subtle, permeating perfume of stillness, amplified by the chorus of the crickets.
I explored the world of stories. My imaginings took me far away until I heard the first bird song just as it was starting to get light, and as the chorus of crickets faded and night became day, I stopped to be grateful for the everyday beauty I experienced this week.
I invite you to find the beauty in your everyday too. See you next week.