Getting Naked

I’m ready to get naked.  How about you?

Shed my fears, my inhibitions, my shame.

I’m beginning to realize how much shame each of us carries.  Shame of our bodies.  Shame of our desires.  Shame of our needs.

Shame is like a pack of rank, moldy critters scurrying around in the dark crevasses of our subconscious.

Shame causes us pain; shame causes suffering; shame causes us misfortune.

More over, shame keeps us from our truest and most authentic selves.   If we are ashamed of parts of who we are, how can we ever love ourselves in our totality?  Can we learn to accept the beautiful and the terrifying parts of ourselves as one holistic unit?  Can we love our love-handles, our proclivities, our relationships to food?

For if we cannot accept all part of ourselves, including the scary bits, how can we ever love another human being in their entirety?

These are the questions that have been running through my mind as of late.

Like many Americans, I grew up in a very sex and body negative environment.  I grew up in a society where bodies should be covered at all times.  Affection generally isn’t publicly displayed between couples – even in the home space.  I notice that I have never really watched my parents kiss romantically or even spontaneously hold hands.

In gyms, we dress as quickly as possible, dancing behind towels to keep our bodies hidden from our peers.  On social media apps, we only share the most carefully curated, filtered, and photoshopped versions of ourselves to present the most flattering images of our white-washed lives.

And this is so gross and unfortunate.

Our messy parts are beautiful.  Our unrefined and unglamorous angels make us human and relatable.  If our minds and bodies are born to act and look a certain way – these qualities should be celebrated.

This shame in regards to sexuality is as logical to me as a shame of walking.  Imagine a society where it’s shameful to walk.  Feet are to be subjugated.  We must only roll on wheels from destination to destination.  Do not use your feet for their designed purpose.  How dare you highlight the fact that you even possess feet.

Why are we like this with other parts of our bodies and psyches?  Perhaps its partially due to our Puritanical heritage as Americans.

The Ancient Greeks used clothing to highlight the natural lines of the body.  They didn’t cover areas for modesty – but utilized accoutrement-ization to highlight their best assets.

Why is there so much shame in our culture for exposing a breast – even when feeding an infant?  Or a bulge in a man’s pants?  Why have we become so sterile?  Europe certainly isn’t this way.


I have recently begun to realize how much shame I carry regarding my own sexuality.  Although I came out as a gay man several years ago, much of me has still felt dirty for admitting that I actually like sex. Now, I’m discovering how “vanilla” my relationship to sex has been.  I realize that in my mind I’ve been holding biases: like believing that someone can want or like sex too much.  Or that one should only have it in certain ways.  Or that it is acceptable only in certain contexts and relationships.  That we shouldn’t be horny.  Or be raunchy.  Or express …all those desires you buried inside that you might actually, really want.

And this means that I’ve not been been expressing my truest version of me.   If we deny our deepest impulses, if we deny our bodies’ innate truths, we are living inauthentic lives.

In Jungian psychology, they have a concept called “The Shadow Self.”  We have the normal, socially appropriate self that walks around everyday.  But hidden behind that is The Shadow Self.  It’s comprised of all the things that titillate you, inspire you, excite you – but your conscious mind feels is forbidden.  Maybe that drag queen caught your eye – and maybe you feel angry that you want to look.  Maybe that extra dessert lures you fantastically – but you can only think about your already too significant waistline.  Maybe that person in the blue jeans, of a different gender than you are usually attracted, entices you – and you suddenly feel unexplainable frustration towards them.

These forbidden desires exist within all of us.  And they have to be resolved.  As long as they seem interesting and yet impossible – they will pull on our subconscious, and we will build shame around our unacceptable impulses.

Instead, if they can be healthfully acknowledged and expressed, they can be integrated into one’s regular self.

And it’s not that, suddenly, you will find yourself every Thursday night at the local drag bar, kicking up your spangled heals (although, that might be possible – and that’s totally okay – if it is); but it by opening up to your fear and shame, you might heal a very deep trauma in your psyche, perhaps keeping your from deeply integrating your masculine and feminine qualities.  That forbidden curiosity might be a symptom of some deeper issue that needs addressing and bringing back into wholeness.

Shame causes disease – it’s been proven by healers and health psychologists again and again.  And there’s so much that American society says to feel shamed about.  Our weight, our food, our bodies, our desires, our partners.

So this season, I’m blowing the lid off my basement of creepy, shameful creatures.  I’m letting my full shadow self dissolve into the light.  I am healing – and allowing myself to accept all aspects of this beautiful and contradictory human experience.  And this takes guts and bravery – and a willingness to accept that not everyone will understand it.  Others may question or judge me for my choices.

But if there is any source of inspiration to counter that judgement, it is this:

“This above all: to thine own self be true

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou cans’t not then be false to any man.”

As Shakespeare said it like no one else ever could – when we are truer to our actual, authentic selves, we become truer citizens, lovers, brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, and human beings overall.

If I can fully love and accept every aspect of who I am – I can thereby accept all other walks of life.  If I can hold no judgement or blame of myself – I can accept all others openly and with compassion.

So long as I resent my deepest self – I will resent others too.  This is the truth – and the crux of the issue with shame.

I’m moving further towards the light – shedding my inhibitions (and my clothes) – and asking you to join me.

Please share in the comments section below how you are working to share your “Naked Truth” – your most vital, uninhibited, and joyous celebration of your truest feelings and desires.

Learning to love ourselves for who and what we are – free of shame.

Love and peace to you all!

Namaste, Kaelan  #nakedtruth

Why I am Grateful For Everything… and Yes, I Mean EVERYTHING!

Let’s discuss what it really means to be grateful.

Sure, the birthday present, the unexpected surprise planned by a loved one, the raise given by our employer, these are all easy moments for which to be grateful.

But what about the rest of the moments in our days?

What about the boring spells, the trying times?  How about the fights with friends, misunderstandings with partners, the escalation of fears in harrowing events?  Are we grateful for these instances?  Are there any reasons to find gratitude for life’s most trying moments?

I enthusiastically say, “Yes!”

And here’s why…

Inside each and every one of us are little pockets of energy.  They are accumulated from life events, and a great number of them arrived with us when we were born.  These little pockets attract certain life events to occur.  They attract people we need to meet, challenges we must face, and blessings that will grace us.

And there’s a big reason why they do this: every single event that occurs in our lives must happen in order for that energy within us to break apart and become free-flowing.  We attract life situations that make us free through their happening.

That award you got in school could be there to teach you about self-reliance and maintaining humility under great acclaim.   Maybe that broken bone was the result of some previous life action where you hurt someone else, and now you’re learning to deal gracefully with pain and living gently.

Everything that comes into our lives are lessons that we need to learn in order to evolve.

So that means that nothing is either good or bad.  It’s just a tool to help us grow.  And when we can see each event with equanimity – neither rejecting or desiring its occurrence – we become healed.

If we can stay open and grateful for every experience, then those little pockets of energy dissolve and we might never have to experience those events again.  If we form an emotional attachment – wanting more or less of it – the event will keep reoccurring until we finally let is happen without interference.  In this way, as these pockets dissolve, we become gradually more open, free, and happy.

Seldom in life is any experience solely good or bad.  Something that starts out as a great deal of fun might eventually turn into a nightmare.  Maybe that Academy Award that you so long strived for causes a family member to be robbed.  Maybe that partner you begged to come back into your life becomes abusive.

Similarly, highly unpleasant experiences can become great sources of joy later on.  That hardship you went through might have proved how lasting and wonderful your friendships with your siblings could be.  Maybe that broken bone prevented you from going on a trip where you would have become deathly ill.  No one can predict the outcome of events.  In the words of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

So this provides us with the tremendous opportunity to just be grateful for every life event.  The fun and the not so fun.  The painful and the blissful.  Everything in the universe has been conspiring to bring you your highest growth and sincerest happiness… if you can just hang on to the state of equanimity.

Every morning I start off my day by feeling gratitude in my heart.  I send text messages to people I love, letting them know how happy I am that they are in my life.  When harrowing events occur, I simply say, “Thank you for my healing.”

I’m trying to reach a state where every moment in my day, every breath I inhale, reminds me to be grateful.  I still have a ways yet to go, but I’m inching continuously closer.

And, oddly enough, it isn’t so much the happy times that are helping me most on this journey.  It’s the really hard stuff, where I prove my mettle, prove that I can remain grateful, that shows me how far I’ve come.

Each day, breath by breath, I get a little closer to the goal.  One day, I will live in a state of complete thankfulness for everything in my life.  I hope to meet you there.

Words and Photo by: Kaelan Strouse

12 Daily Rituals That Make Me a Better Human

Let’s talk about the tasks we do every single day.  Brushing our teeth?  Done.  Flossing?  Well, I do… but I know there are some of you who still struggle with doing this one.  Eating food?  That’s a good one to do daily.  More than these simple and basic tasks, there are a myriad of other activities that we can choose to pursue every day that will vastly increase our quality of life.  For example, as soon as I wake up each morning, I take a breath and think of something for which I am grateful.  Just by starting my day with gratitude, I get to commence my morning in a happy and positive way, even before I check my cellphone or set foot on the floor.

In this article, I will explore twelve daily rituals that continue to bring me better wellness and joy – as well as few extra rituals that I hope to incorporate in the near future.

So, here we go.  Here’s some amazing daily routines to improve one’s quality of life:

  1. Meditation

For those of you who have been following my blog or know me personally, there is absolutely no surprise with this item.  Since I was twenty years old, I have been meditating every day for thirty minutes in the morning and evening.  It clears my thoughts, allows me to be more productive, and – in the worlds of Nightline co-anchor Dan Harris – makes me “10% happier.”  Actually, I think that quotation is a vast understatement.  The frequency of spontaneously occurring happiness has skyrocketed for me.  Before I began meditating, I was an incredibly worried, self-involved, painfully shy, insecure person.  Many a day were spent in blind terror of the world around me.  Over time these issues have melted away; and I have become an infinitely more secure, joyful, confident, and happy individual.  Meditation has led me into a state of fairly constant contentment.  If there’s one item on this list that is worth adopting immediately, it is this.

2. Chanting

Whether it be through attending an concert with friends or dancing alone in the shower to the radio, we have all felt music shift our state of being.  When we encounter music, our cells begin to reverberate at the same frequency of the sound we are absorbing.  If you haven’t yet seen the video of the plants singing to each other, here’s a link to do so now.  It shows how even the simplest of life forms really do vibrate with sound and harmonize with one another.  How much better is it then, if we chant the name of the divine, and let that very refined frequency reverberate through our bodies?  Paul Reps, a renowned Zen master famously said: “Mantra shakes our bones.”  When we chant divine words, our bodies become heavenly.  It shakes out our heaviness, our restrictions, and attunes us to a much higher state of being.  I personally chant the Guru Gita, but have friends that chant the Hanuman Chailisa, the Medicine Buddha Mantra, or an assortment of other sacred words and melodies.  It really doesn’t matter what form it takes, singing and chanting elevated words and phrases of any language (though Sanskrit is very special because its creation stemmed from ancient rishis “hearing” it in deep states of meditation) harmonize our bodies to very refined states of being.

3. Oil Pulling

Oil pulling is a task that’s a little more physical than the previous two items.  Here’s what to do: take a teaspoon of oil (sesame, coconut, or clarified butter [aka ghee] are preferred), put it in your mouth, swish it around for fifteen minutes, spit it out, and then brush your teeth.  Why?  This method of cleaning one’s mouth has been practiced for thousands of years by numerous societies.  Not only does it remove plaque and tarter buildup, improve the health of one’s gums, reduce bad breath, and whiten enamel, but it actually “pulls” toxins out of one’s body through the membrane barriers in the mouth.  That’s why it’s important to spit out the oil at the end, rather than swallow it.  It might sound like new-agey nonsense, but I can vouch from personal experience (and from several close acquaintances) what a difference it has made in my life. It has helped countless individuals cure chronic health issues.  You can find hundreds of fabulous articles about it online.  And hey – if it kept ancient, indigenous cultures on good dental health for their whole lives, then it should be good enough for us as well.

4. Cultivating Gratitude

Yes, I start my day with gratitude – and then I also keep incorporating it throughout my day.  Before I eat, when I finish meditating, when I talk with a friend: I take a few deep breaths and feel gratefulness well-up within the center of my chest – and then lift out of the top of my head.  I send it off to the higher realms to convey that I am so lucky for my experiences.  If we can remember to be grateful for our lives, our worlds truly become magical.  We start to recognize the abundance of blessings already around us, and it sends a strong message to the Universe to keep bringing us more wonderful events.  It’s a self perpetuating cycle: the more gratitude we feel in our lives, the more that arrives to inspire a grateful state.  It’s a simple and profound practice to remember.  Some people keep a journal of items they are thankful for, while I just set earmarks throughout my day that remind me to give thanks.

5. Yoga

If we continue to progress chronologically though my morning, the next item on my “to do” list would be physical yoga.  So, physical yoga is what most Westerners think of when they hear the word “yoga.”  It’s actually just a small fraction of the spiritual discipline of Yoga, with a capital “Y.”  Meditation is Yoga.  Self study is Yoga.  Merging with the divine is Yoga.   I do physical yoga every day because it makes my body strong and healthy, it clears out ailments and restrictions, and it makes me happy.  But even these postures are more of a spiritual practice than a form of exercise.  Yoga purifies the body so it and the mind can rest quietly in meditation.  It soothes the nervous system and invites it to decompress so our focus can be redirected towards the internal, subtler realms.  If you’ve taken a few yoga classes, you know that “high” and “glow” that comes from a physical practice.  It is a very kinetic way to begin experiencing our spiritual nature and achieving a more optimal state of health and wellbeing.

6. Cooking

I also view cooking as a sacred act.  When I go to the market, I drink-in the beauty and ripeness of all the produce.  I feel some gratitude for the animals that offered their lives so that I may be nourished – and try to select the most humane and planet-friendly items I can afford.  When I bring the food home, I lovingly select which items will go into my dish.  I start frying the spices in ghee and feeling love in my heart for having the great fortune to feed myself well.  I choose dishes that will make my belly feel yummy, strengthen my muscles, and help everything in my body reach its ideal state.  I cook the food that will bring me the best health.  And when we pay attention to what our bodies really desire, it’s healthy choices like beets and fruit, nuts and dates, maybe bison and farm-fresh eggs.  Overtime, it’s possible to begin sensing how processed and refined foods lack real nourishment.  We sense what will truly bring us our best health.  And when we eat slowly and with gratitude, the food undergoes an alchemical process and becomes pure life-force for us.  We become part of the cycle of nature: sensing our connection to the earth, the natural world around us, and how everything is perfectly in sync.  Food is part of god; god is in food.  I am the earth; the earth is in me.  I am what I eat; all is one.

7. Dancing

I love to dance.  I view it as a divine celebration of life, love, and happiness.  Usually sometime after breakfast has been digested, I will head to my iTunes app and choose my playlist of “Music That Makes Me Feel Awesome.”  The list includes the likes of “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield, “Brave” by Sara Bareilles, and “Be Okay” by Ingrid Michelson.  It is comprised of songs that make me want to take my shirt off, shake my booty, and bounce all around the apartment.  When I dance, its another way I can thank the Universe for all the blessings I receive.  I offer thanks for a strong and healthy body; I let my joy bubble forth through ecstatic movements.  I act silly, strange, electric, and turbulent.  I dance like no one is watching because, well, no one is.  This is not a dance to entice or impress.  It’s a conversation with the divine, and it is a sacred act.  Sometimes my roommate or a friend will come join me, and it is still a dance of celebration rather than about interacting with another.  For me, it’s the fullest expression of being alive: moving my body in rhythm and time to music that makes my heart alight.

8. Exercise

Some days yoga and dancing is enough for me to feel like I’ve used my body well.  Other days I desire to go to the gym and push my physical limits more throughly.  Now I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but I find great joy in feeling that I’ve exerted a tremendous amount of physical force: that I’ve strained my muscles, that I’ve taught my body to do something that it could not previously execute .  Recently, I’ve been exploring jump-roping and hand-standing.  At first, I couldn’t do either at all.  But gradually, through regular and focused practice, I have attained a modicum of proficiency with both.  I love going to the gym and realizing that I can do one hundred double-jumps, when the week previous I could barely do thirty.  I love landing that handstand, finding my balance, and gracefully lowering, when I previously couldn’t stabilize for even a second.  Learning new skills, pushing physical boundaries, and even simply getting a good sweat every day makes me a happier man.  I don’t think everyone needs this, but it’s important for me.  I don’t like feeling like I’m “trapped” in my body – that comes from being physically stagnant.  I like feeling and looking strong, feeling capable, and knowing that I can do more than I once thought was possible.

9. Time With Loved Ones

This is one of the hardest routines for me to sustain while living in California.  If you read my first article on “Why We Need to Choose Our Surroundings Consciously,” you remember that I discussed how our most frequent and intimate interactions reflect back on our self-worth.  Every day I Skype with my partner, family, and friends.  I text message people out of the blue to let them know I’m thinking of them with love.  I call old acquaintances to ask how they’re doing nowadays.   And with each interaction I endeavor to feel the love, support, admiration, and care that exists between us.

And this is all very good and important to do.  But an even better action is to spend time in physical interaction with loved ones.  Feeling their touch, kisses, embraces, and arms around the shoulders.  There’s tremendous value in touch.   There have been studies that have linked frequent affectionate and caring touch with decreased rates of depression and anxiety.  We are fundamentally social creatures, and we need to feel loved.  Talking and texting is great and so important; but quality face to face time, and hug time, is even more so.  Choosing to regularly spend time with those people who nourish us is a great goal to achieve.

Well, that’s my list of activities I am already undertaking every day to improve my quality of life.  Let’s tack on a few more that I have yet to achieve:

10. Regular Bedtime 

This one is so hard for me.  Some nights I have rehearsals, performances, art events, etc. where I have to be out late.  Other nights, I can stay in and go to sleep whenever I choose.  No matter how much effort I put into having a regular (and early) bedtime, it fails to manifest.  I feel my body and mind are at their best when I’m asleep by ten and wake up around six am. During my seven year residence at the Chicago Ashram, I would have to be at meditation class at six am.  One would hope this meant that I was able to organize my bedtime more effectively, but I wasn’t.  It just meant that most nights I had fewer hours of sleep than my body required.  Since moving to L.A., I may now be allowed to sleep a full eight hours, but it’s hardly ever in the same time of the night; and the later my bedtime, the worse quality of sleep I attain.  I hope sleep schedule will settle down as I age, but thus far it has been frustratingly inconsistent.

11. Regular Meal Times

In very much the same vein as the standard bedtime, I know my body feels at its best when I achieve the following: “every day we are going to have lunch at twelve, dinner at six, and breakfast at eight am.”  But this goal has been even less frequent in occurring than my bedtime.  Some days there’ll be three meals, while other days, two.  Some days breakfast will be at eight, while other days its at one pm.  I truly believe that this is just part of my karma in this life, that I will never eat at the same time every day.  And I recognize that it’s part of having a creative-worker’s schedule.  However, I can sense that my body better absorbs and integrates the food I intake when it’s gotten into a rhythm and knows when and how to prepare.  I’ll chalk this one up to another long-range goal.

12. Baths & Bathing

This one’s kind of embarrassing.  I’m not the best about making sure that I shower every single day.  Yuck – I know.  According to Ayurveda, our bodies are happiest when we bathe in the early morning, before dawn, and again after any physical exertion.  And while I will generally take a shower at the gym after an intense workout, it shamefully does not always happen.  And while there have been swaths of time where I’d get up super early and shower in the dark, that’s not been habitual either.  I’m generally a shower once every-other-day sort of guy… and I’d like to be much better about this.

And not only in regards to showers, but also in taking the time for actual baths.  With salts and bubbles and the whole works.  I know how much better I feel when I let my body soak, allowing  tensions to dissipate through the sudsy water. Or take the time to bathe at a Korean Spa, where I can do it in the comfort and company of my fellow mammals.

Furthermore, the Indian tradition of Ayurveda recommends rubbing one’s entire body with oil before ablutions to increase health and wellbeing.  This practice, called “abhayanga,” is so highly praised in traditional literature, and has such profound healing effects, that I really should make it item number thirteen on this list.  So…

13.  Abhayanga

Everyday, I am going to take the time to rub warm sesame or coconut oil into my skin before taking my bath/shower.  This practice is said to increase strength, radiance, resiliency to disease and infection, and slow the effects of aging.  I’ve done it off and on for years, and when I’ve done it consistently, I have felt positively transformed.  My health has been better.  My skin has been more luminous.  This is something I need to do every single day.  I need to work on keeping my physical body as clean and gleaming as I do my internal spirit.

So, that’s my list!  I hope there were some inspiring highlights for you.  I would be curious to know about other routines that you have found to be tremendously beneficial for your life.  If you have something to suggest, please add it to the comments section below.  And anything you write will be guaranteed to get a reply from me.  So let’s start a conversation about this, please.

Thank you so much for taking the time read my musings.

Namaste!  (The divine inside of me bows to the divine inside of you; inside we are all one!)

Words and photo by: Kaelan Strouse

What We Can Do In These Troubled Times

We are currently in a very troubled time in society.  Rage, anger, hatred, and fear are often at the forefront of our media.  Terror and hate crimes seem to run rampant.  Fears of others due to their race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or social background are incredibly blatant.  As I write this article, the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida has just recently occurred.  Over one hundred individuals were physically injured or killed – and untold others have been emotionally scarred by this senseless violence.

Being born in America in the late twentieth century, I have been fortunate to be raised in a culture of relative peace.  But over the last decade, and particularly through the rise of social media and online news reporting, violence has been sensationalized and made more immediately pressing.  We have become inundated with scenes of horror.  And at the same time, we have increasingly become desensitized to it.  Our “entertainment” has become increasingly brutal, almost to the point of gladiatorial events.  Video games and mainstream films are dominated by graphic violence.  These systems almost purport the idea that an acceptable way to deal with anger and frustration is to go hurt another individual.  That taking a life costs very little and is not terribly damning, according to America’s entertainment.

Moreover, our desensitization extends even more heavily to groups that do not directly include us.  “What does it matter if tens of thousands of people are slaughtered in Syria; we don’t know them, they’re a different culture, and that’s just part of what ‘those people’ do.  Who cares if sixty-four citizens of Chicago were shot over Memorial Day weekend, as they are predominantly poor, black men; and that doesn’t really include me.  So what if a room full of LGBTQ-identified people are lit up by a radicalized homophobe with a semi-automatic rifle? I’m not gay; it’s not my problem.”  It seems that feeling separateness and apathy has become the dominant perspective of Americans and the West in general.

And here’s the problem: if we just identify with the small group with which we surround ourselves, then – you’re right – it doesn’t matter.  If we just identify with being white: it’s a black people problem.  If we’re Christian: it’s an Islamic problem.  If we’re straight: it’s a gay problem.  If we live in a first world country: it’s a third world problem.  Whatever your vantage may be, it’s easy to isolate oneself and decide it really doesn’t matter because it does not immediately affect you.  With the rise of social media, online messaging, and increasing globalization, the goal we must all strive to reach is the understanding of this: all of these struggles are HUMAN problems.

It does not matter your race or ethnographic heritage, it does not matter your religious ideology or spiritual tradition, it does not matter your country of residence or gender identity: the welfare of all human beings is of concern for each of us.  Violence against another living creature – human or animal – is NEVER an appropriate act.  Intentionally causing pain to another being is ALWAYS wrong and unjustified.  I comprehend that we all have hurts, fears, prejudices, misunderstandings, and more; but it is our work as human beings to resolve those conflicts WITHIN OURSELVES.  It is our task to become free, loving, accepting, and tolerant inside.  It’s too lofty of a goal to say we must love and embrace one another as brothers and sisters, but we can surely achieve tolerance and compassion for our fellow humans.  These are some of the simplest skills we teach small children in preschool; surely adults can conquer such.

This is a goal every citizen of Earth can attain within his or her lifetime: cultivating empathy for the whole human race.  Teach your children to respect and listen to their classmates.  Console a neighbor in his time of suffering.  Forgive the woman who wronged you in the past.  Speak love.  Teach kindness.  Practice forgiveness.  And remember two of the “golden rules” I heard frequently while growing up: “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you” and “If you haven’t anything nice to say, then don’t say it at all.”  Those simple childhood guidelines could have worked wonders had the attackers in any of the recent shootings taken them to heart.

We can choose to focus on the discord, the pain, the suffering – or we can choose to focus on the good.  Pay attention to the people in your community helping one another.  Thank the stranger who went out of her way to pay you a small courtesy.  Bake some cookies for a friend just to let them know that you love them and wish them a nice day.  Find ways to cultivate kindness, generosity, heartfelt gratitude, and love.  We can only change the world by changing ourselves.  So let’s start with that.  Begin espousing the behaviors and views that you want the media and the world around you to exhibit.  Recognize your place as a global citizen.  We’ve got a long way yet to go towards unity; but we can make it there, step by step and inch by inch, if we just put in a little work ourselves every day.

Namaste (the peace within me bows to the peace within you, inside we are all one).

Art and words by: Kaelan Strouse

Learning to Love One’s Self

As humans, we are a mass of contradictions.  “I am a good person” can often be paired with “I am selfish.”  When getting dressed for the evening, “I look great” can live alongside “I look like crap.”  So often throughout the day our minds can fluctuate between “I am a star” to “I am nobody,” or “I am amazing” to “I am less than shit,” or “I am so lovable” to “I am unworthy of love.”  This is the human condition: to continually fluctuate in our perception and understanding of who and what we are.

From the Western perspective, we are supposed to solidify our identity and construct a strong persona.  “I am Kaelan.  I am six feet, one inch tall.  I am relatively handsome.  I am smart, kind, and trustworthy.  I am a loyal partner.  I have a clever wit and am generally well liked by individuals.” And according to this view, the more we reinforce those ideas, the more secure and happy we will live.  But what happens when those opposing thoughts creep in, as they will do?  What then?  Do we let the whole foundation of our self-understanding and self-confidence dissolve?  If we cannot quantify and label ourselves, then who are we?

In Eastern philosophy, there is the idea of “samskara.”  This word roughly translates to mean “impression.”   Every experience we have in our life leaves an impression on our subtle body.  Imagine, if you will, a man made out of tin.  With every experience he undergoes, another little dent is made on his metal exterior, pushing it inwards.  Over time, those dents and divots will accumulate, pushing his surface further and further towards his hollow core, until he eventually turns into a ball of metal.  He went from an open and expansive being to a contracted, solid mass.  This metaphor illustrates the exact same process that happens to us internally as we live our lives.  As little children, we start out open and free; but as life experiences accumulate, we continuously contract until we become dense, heavy, and constricted.

Not only do we have to contend with the myriad experiences we’ve undergone in this life, but (if we are still following Eastern logic) also from every previous life we’ve ever lived, which can be many.  This means that we have centuries of impressions pressing on us, pressuring us to contract, that we must overcome.  Now, going back to my original point about the difficulty in attempting to succinctly label our identities, it furthermore means that old impressions can surface and contradict longstanding opinions we have about ourselves.  Have you ever had a strange thought come into your awareness seemingly unassociated with your usual train of logic?  Yet it seems unusually potent?  This could be an old samskara surfacing.

We are assembled by layer after layer of impressions, each vying for our focus and our willingness to include it in our definition of “this is who I am.”  We are filled with so many contradicting identities and desires that it becomes impossible to pin any one down as “this is me.”   Yogic philosophy says that in our previous lives we have been every different gender, race, sexual orientation, belief system, religion, etc.  Because of these opposing and overlapping experiences, the more we try to limit ourselves to any box, the more we realize that we don’t really fit.

“As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings.”

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of self-help books.  One of the common themes of this genre is the importance of positive thinking and trying to identify with only the more happy thoughts that bubble forth.  It encourages creating affirmations to affix your amazingness in your psyche.  And book after book, I found myself failing at this.  I felt like I was attempting it well, but my results were lackluster.  I felt frustrated with myself for not being better at this.

Then, when I was twenty, I discovered meditation.  Specifically, a meditation practice rooted in Kashmir Shaivism, Vedanta, and Vajrayana Buddhist practices.  What all those foreign words mean is that it was no longer was about identifying with my positive thoughts.  I discovered that ALL thoughts – the good and the bad, happy and the sad – all sprung from my samskaras.  And that I was actually none of them.  Going back to the image of the tin man, I was the empty space between the sheets of tin.  I was pure awareness.  The thoughts floating into my mind were merely distractions from the pure bliss, truth, and light that occupied the space within me.

Moreover, this emptiness inside was actually none other than the pure awareness of God.  I am God, God is me.  In this lineage/tradition of meditation, I discovered an understanding of non-dualism.  This means that there is no separation between myself and the divine, or the divine and, say, a tree.  Every physical item on Earth (and indeed the whole cosmos) is nothing but pure divine awareness manifested in physical form.  Just as light can express itself as both a particle or a wave – so too, divine awareness can express itself through energy or physical matter.  This is the very substance of current quantum research: everything can be in both the physical and non-substantial form simultaneously.

As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings.  Life began to feel like a sea of interconnected awareness, rather than my previous vantage as being an isolated being alone in the world.  I began to identify less with “I am so-and-so and I do this and I won that,” but “I am pure, I am love, I am bliss, I am everything, I am nothing.”   In India there is a very famous mantra: “Om Namah Shivaya.”   It roughly translates to mean: “I bow down to my Inner Self, the Self of all.”  The same radiant light within me is the same light within each of us.  It is merely the layer after layer of samskara that prevents us from seeing it.

To illustrate this point: imagine a big bowl of cookie dough.  This represents pure cosmic awareness; the dough is God.  Well, a chef comes along and breaks up the dough into little balls.  And the balls start to forget that they are actually all the same dough; they identify as being differentiated.  And the chef then dips some in chocolate chips, totally covering their surfaces and hiding the dough beneath.  He dips others in sprinkles.  Maybe a few fall in the trash and get covered in garbage.  Now, the balls think “I am chocolate” or “I am rainbows” or “I am rubbish.”  But, really, they are ALL still cookie dough; they’ve just forgotten their true selves.

It’s common adage to hear spiritual masters say: “You don’t need to become enlightened, you already are.  You just need to remember.”  In order to do so, we must meditate.  Through the process of sitting in meditation every single day, we actually buff out those samskaras, those dents.  We expand outwards, recreating that inner openness that has been constricted by time and experiences.  By cultivating a daily practice, we become more free, happy, and alive.  While my earlier attempts to become happy and confident through positive thinking failed, I soon began to find the happiness and joy I sought by letting go of identifying my thoughts as being “me.”  I continue to learn that I am so much more.  I am God.  I am Consciousness.  I am Bliss.

This is why my home is filled with artwork and photos of enlightened yogis, gurus, great saints, and Tibetan and Indian deities.  Each depiction is a connection to a being who has realized total and complete identification of their cosmic selves.  And when we gaze lovingly at them, they can inspire that same state within us.   It’s why it’s so important to seek out these beings and have them in our lives.  The space within us resonates with the vaster space inside of them and begins to grow.  We begin to feel the same expansiveness that they have attained.  And soon it’s no longer “Kaelan from Chicago,” but “I am light.  I am joy.  I am truth.”  I am bliss. And so are you.

Namaste (the divine in me bows to the divine in you.  Inside we are all one).

Art and Words by: Kaelan Strouse

Buddha photo by: Michael Fawcett