Monday, June 27, 2016

A Thousand Beautiful Things

"Every day I write the list of reasons why I still believe they do exist: a thousand beautiful things. And even though it's hard to see the glass is full and not half empty, a thousand beautiful things.

So light me up like the sun to cool down with your rain.

I never want to close my eyes again." -- Annie Lennox, "A Thousand Beautiful Things"*

This song keeps coming to my mind whenever I walk around Chennai, whether on my way to the shala, lunch or home. Amid the persistent honking, the fumes, the dirt, the rubble and the chaos (all things that should, especially in combination, rightfully drive most people crazy), there are moments of true beauty that jump out at me and often bring me to a complete stop. Many times I have to take a photo. Whether a strange flower or seed, or even a dying butterfly still displaying its brilliant colors, these small moments, which by any account should occur everywhere around the world, seem to happen more frequently and take particular significance here.

This bowl is filled with flowers every morning by the cleaning staff. Every night when I come home, some new arrangement of colors awaits me. You'd think it gets old but the flowers are always different and the artistry that goes into the design truly spectacular in its simplicity.

I have seen some of the most colorful sunsets in my life in Chennai. The color contrast is stunning.

There are so many varieties of flowering trees in town and many of them disperse their flowers while they are still vibrant in coloration, covering the ground with beautiful, saturated hues. Now and again you turn a corner and are greeted by a carpet of color that overwhelms the trash that inevitably accompanies it.

I have heard from many people who visit India that it is a magical place, that it gets you in touch with something, and it is uncertain whether it is within you or in others, that is difficult to connect to in other places. I do feel a bit of that. As difficult as India is, I'm drawn here and when I walk the streets I do so with a sense of curiosity and wonder that I don't necessarily carry with me when I travel other places.

So much is alien here. And there is so much juxtaposition. It's hard to come across something without stumbling upon its opposite soon thereafter. Rich and poor. Healthy and sick. Life and death. The only things that can't be found here are standardization and monotony. This place is all variety all the time.

You can, and I have seen it happen, let the grime, disorder and danger get to you. I've met people who are constantly afraid of what they might come across and who fail to see anything worthwhile, let alone inspiring, in this place. But if you walk alert to your surroundings, open to the bad and good, things reveal themselves... or maybe you just see with different eyes and can detect these beautiful moments without letting the negative ones get to you.

I had never seen a flower like this before. They cover the trees here, in some areas competing with the green leaves for color dominance. Someone mentioned it is called a Flametree, because, when in full bloom, the reds and oranges make it look like the tree is on fire.

Even dead this butterfly hasn't lost its beauty. Seeing it left me thinking the rest of the day about impermanence. That we can't take our beauty with us when we die. That beauty doesn't make us immortal. And that it can exist even in the morbid.

Some of the most intricate designs are found infront of the gate at school.

"I thank you for the air to breathe, the heart to beat, the eyes to see again, a thousand beautiful things. And all the things that's been and done, the battle's won, the good and bad in everyone, this is mine to remember."*

One of the things I love so much about this song, and why I think of it as I wander the streets here and find beauty amid the sometimes repulsive, is that it reminds me that even in the saddest, angriest, most heatbreaking moments we encounter, beauty still exists in the world. We can't escape it. It's there as a reprieve from grief, rage and suffering. It's, for those of us who believe in the Divine, God's way of letting us know that, whatever we may feel at the moment, creation is full of blessings. That creation is, in fact, blessing manifested.

The Flametrees maintain their spectacular reds even on cloudy days as the sun is setting.

I have yet to see a tree full of these flowers but I am very curious as to what it would look like. The hot pink and white is really love on these flowers.

I love this cart. It's been there since the last session in November, rusting away in neglect. Normally these are used for making and selling street food. This one has been abandoned. But it maintains this beautiful blue that brings some color to the otherwise dusty street.

In a world full of grief, war, disease, hunger and death, it is bold to believe that and even more bold to choose to see the beauty. I think that's what India demands of you. That you see with an open heart. That you can detect ugliness without letting it make you pessimistic, cynical or hopeless. That it certainly does not rob you of your ability to see the spectacular. That it, instead, add impact and importance to beauty and virtue.

During lunch today I told my friend Juliana that I don't appreciate a nice cold glass of water the way I appreciate it here. It's hot and humid and most of what we eat and drink tends to be hot or at least room temperature. And "room temperature" here is in the 80s or 90s in the Summer. When I choose to indulge and have a cold drink, the sensation is something more gratifying than you could ever expect.

This is another tree that I really like. The flowers aren't as striking as the reds of the Flametree but when they fill up a tree, especially when viewed against a perfectly blue sky, the color is really something.

At school. This one was especially striking for me because of the use of lotuses.

I'm not kidding about the color of these sunsets. They look like paintings.

Oddly it doesn't work the other way around... the beauty doesn't emphasize the ugliness here. It softens it, maybe even gives it purpose. Jasmine smells best in India, if for no other reason than we tend to smell it after we've been smelling exhaust, urine and feces as we walk through the street. The jasmine here is the kind of smell that you want to bury your face in and take in so deeply you never forget it. And it owes this quality to everything around it. It might not be such a profound aroma if it were surrounded by something else... or by nothing else.

One of my favorite flower arrangements.

No clue what this is but I love the color. It was sitting on the street and immediately drew my eye.

Love this one!

It doesn't escape me that much of this openness and optimism has to do with the activities I engage in while I'm here. My visits to India have always coincided with the most intense and focused practices and learning experiences in Yoga that I've ever had in my life. I'm constantly exploring and challenging aspects of myself, trying new techniques and watching for their effects and, most of all, always trying to broaden my perspective on Yoga and on life in general.

So it might be that I'm primed already to see these things and enjoy them despite the detractions. That certainly would explain the looks I get from the people who live here and who watch me stop and stoop down to pick up a flower or to photograph a seed. People here aren't necessarily on that same wavelength.

I really like how the center of the flower sinks into this black hole from which this yellow glow emerges.

The yellow flowers are dropped more often than the reds and when they fall on the street, the contrast against the bluish grey is really beautiful.

Another of my favorite arrangements.

In the US I typically notice the opposite.  We mostly have clean streets and when we come across an area that is junky, it becomes a reason to complain.  We have access to more amenities than area available here and have to adapt our lives very little to inconveniences but should one of our commodities be lacking even temporarily, it's reason for irritation.

Maybe it's the nature of things that whatever becomes the status quo loses its wonder.  And so the higher we set the bar for this status quo, the less things we have which might revive in us a sense of lightness, wonder and joy.

It is a meaningful lesson to ponder, then, about how best to use our time in the world. If we can live in a place and constantly feel blessed and surprised by the little things, how much unnecessary grief would we avoid? If we could maintain that sense of wonder wherever we are, how would it change the experience of the place not just for us but for others? And what would it take to do that?

Most importantly, though, would we be willing to do what it takes?

"The world was meant for you and me to figure out our destiny."*


  1. Great job capturing such beauty with your camera. Those are all stunning images, so I can only imagine how remarkable these things have looked in person.

    1. It's really something. Everywhere you turn there's something new and different and odd. There are wooded areas in the middle of the city... pretty much abandoned property that the jungle has taken back. My friend has seen deer and boar there. This place is wild.

  2. Nice pics/comments, Oreste, helps to give a sense of the experience and contrasts of the city. Looking forward to seeing more pics of food so I can enjoy a vicarious meal or two. :) BTW, I've noticed one down-side to your absence that I didn't think about in advance, that being the total lack of Kevin's amazing baking creations at work. :) Have a good day.

  3. Love the flower arrangement pics! I hope you can take one every day you're there that would make a gorgeous collage to print up and frame

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