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The ambiguity of being human

By James Eke

From Warrior’s Way Podcast episode #107

I wish someone, decades ago, had warned me about Shenpa and that resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation, our fighting against anything and everything that we cling to and the uncertainty that life itself can bring.

I don’t know if I even realized in the past just how hooked I was to my delusions of who I was. Hooked on the drama of my past. Hooked on the uncertainty of the future. Hooked on believing my own bs.

Let’s face it – society really tries to shove down our throats just how unique and special and individual we all are. This is utter nonsense. You aren’t even who or what you think you are so how are you some kind of shining centre of the universe? None of us are.

Maybe we should have a new curriculm in our schools that teach kids that their uniqueness lies in their connection with everything and everyone around them. That what is more important than you believing you are more important than anyone else is that we cultivate compassion, kindness and understanding – putting others first and our selfishness out the window.

I don’t know about you but in my life I’ve learned the hard way that selfishness only breeds stupidity and suffering. COVID has shown us this as well – people don’t think about others first, or at all, and surprise, we have a pandemic.

We all get caught up in the hamster wheel of life. We somehow think that what we do doesn’t matter, won’t impact others, as long as we are happy or trying to be happy that nothing else matters.

Striving for happiness though is the hamster wheel itself – it won’t get you anywhere. You fill your life with surrounding yourself with things, trips, desires and you still feel empty and think that maybe that next thing will fill the void.

Before you know it you have drunk away a chunk of your life, deluded yourself in any multitude of ways another chunk and simply threw away more of it on other ridiculous attempts to avoid seeing what life is really about.

So how do we get there? Well, from 52 years of making lots of mistakes what I have come to really realize over the past few years is that that you need to let go. You need to see life as it really is – or at least try. You need to stop judging. You need to stop grasping. You need to throw away every negative and destructive part of yourself. You need to stop being mean. You need to stop blaming others. You need to have compassion, kindness, understanding and mindfulness in every moment of your life.

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone thought of others first.

If we showed compassion – no, not showed compassion but glowed with it and spread it into every corner of life.

If instead of being mean, petty, judgy we instead tried to support and understand, to help?

This is the true path. This is the way.

It is also a lot harder than the alternative which is why so few people will ever really get it, why so few people will actually do it.

Someone makes you feel this way or that and instead you judge, you look for vengeance, you spread cruelty. Think about it. Look back on the last time someone supposedly did something to you – how did you respond? Were you kind? Were you compassionate?

We cling to these ridiculous views of ourselves and our own self-importance.

Instead, relax. Stay in the moment. See what is actually happening. Don’t cling to any of it.

Help people. Let go of who you demand yourself to be, who you need others to be. Let go of it all and just, as I keep saying, be a good friend.

There you go.

Clinging to things as we want them or demand them to be won’t help us. It won’t help anyone or anything.

Let’s be better. Let go. Open your heart. Be kind.

Buddha was wrong?!?

By James Eke

From Warrior’s Way Podcast #110

I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that they can’t meditate because they get distracted or that they can’t meditate because they think too much. I have wanted to respond with a duh of course dummy you’re human. Of course I don’t but I would like to.

Here is a big secret. We all think too much. Sometimes we think the wrong things too much, sometimes we think the right things too little and most of the time we simply don’t realize we are thinking at all.

Meditation makes us see what is there. It is like holding up a mirror. Sometimes when we really look at ourselves we get judgy and don’t like what we see.

Mindfulness or meditation isn’t about being blissed-out and levitating or always feeling happy and at peace. The training is about really truly seeing and feeling what is going on – it is about getting to the heart of the matter and finding truth with a capital T.

I loved the article because it is talking about this capital T truth. I had my first shot of Moderna a little over a week ago and I can tell you that the only side effect with that first shot was relief and happiness. My brick and mortar martial arts school has been closed for seven months now due to COVID restrictions – tons of students have bailed, some students made of gold and everything good have stuck with me – it has been a real emotional and financial rollercoaster that nothing in this life has prepared me for. Well nothing except for my Zen training. Even with it though I have to tell you I have had days where I couldn’t see the light on the other side even if it was shining in my face.

Through this insane time it has been hard not to feel like you are stretched, rolled and wandering around blindly not knowing which way is up.

Just like our meditation though, we have to accept that sometimes when we sit we walk away thinking how great of a session that was, you were chilled out and feel happy – other times we find ourselves battling our own thoughts and emotions and doing everything we can to breathe and let them go.

I think COVID has been a great lesson for us all. One we will be learning for some time still I think, unless we live in our little bubble oblivious to the world of suffering around us.

COVID has taught us all that nothing is certain in this life.

It has taught us that mortality is what we have and it is fragile for everyone around us and for ourselves.

It has taught us that all the things that we cling to can be taken from us.

It has taught us that we must, truly must think about others first. We can’t act like we are somehow special snowflakes that matter most – do that and just like COVID, our actions, our stupidity can spread and harm others.

When life gives us a lesson about compassion, that everything is changing and always changes, about our connection with others – I would just hope that we all learn the lessons we have been given.

Life can be hard. We have all seen that. What makes our training so important is that when we train properly with all the important aspects embraced we can great events in life, challenges, or our own thoughts and emotions with compassion, with acceptance and with kindness. If we can do this for ourselves we can do it for others and the world around us.

When we embrace this path – this Way, real change happens. And when positive change happens within us it can ripple around us spreading outward – and when enough of us do this just imagine the ripples we can all make together changing this world and ourselves for better.

It all starts here though. With calmly watching the mind, watching the breath, letting go and spreading to yourself and all other living beings compassion, kindness and understanding.

This is what training means. This is what life is about.

It isn’t always going to be easy. But we are strong and we know Buddha was right – there is a path through all of this and walking that path is the most important thing.

Haida Gwaii: The Legacy, The People

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by James Eke

“A few fragments of memory, a few bright glimpses in the writings of the past, some old and weathered totem poles in the storage shed in the moldering remnants of the once magnificent carved post and the houses on the site of an old village — those are all that survive of the tribe and the village chiefs Kuuya and Ninstints. 

What was destroyed here was not just a few hundred individual human lives. Human beings must die anyway. 

It was something even more complex and even more human — a vigorous and functioning society, the product of just as long an evolution as our own, well suited to its environment and vital enough to participate in human cultural achievements not duplicated anywhere else.

What was destroyed was one more bright tile in the complicated and wonderful mosaic of man’s achievement on earth.

Mankind is the loser.

We are the losers.”

This is from a 1957 Royal B.C. Museum report on the deliberate introduction and impact of smallpox to Haida Gwaii in 1862 which nearly exterminated the people from these amazing islands in the pacific off of mainland British Columbia, Canada. As I mentioned in part one of the podcast on Haida Gwaii, the population went from 30,000 to only a few hundred scattered around the many villages that make up Haida Gwaii.

If you have never been to Haida Gwaii or never heard of it, don’t feel too bad. Off the grid, remote and somewhat untouched and unspoiled is how most people like it in this neck of the woods.

My first time on the islands that make up Haida Gwaii changed me in a profound way. The place got under my skin so when I found myself back a few weeks later I dove right in to see what else this magical place would do to work its wonder on me.

Without getting into the politics of why, the southern half of Haida Gwaii is a National Park protected area better known as Gwaii Haanas, or Islands of Beauty in the Haida language and encompass almost 140 islands and an area of almost 5,000 square kilometres which is one of the only areas in the world protected from mountain top to ocean floor.

Throughout Haida Gwaii and Gwaii Haanas are literal scores of ancient village sites. Some known only to locals and some, thankfully open to the public to view what remains.

As I said, the area is remote, even by coastal B.C. standards. Only a couple of flights come in from the outside world and locals probably like it best that way. Travel to Gwaii Haanas though isn’t much a trouble. There are a few local guides and companies that will not only take you into the area but provide you with an experience you aren’t going to forget.

If you know of the amazing Canadian painter Emily Carr, you’ll likely know of a few paintings she did of the villages of Haida Gwaii, mostly in the Gwaii Haanas area on two trips she made around 1912. One of the main stops she made was a village known as K’uuna or sometimes Skedans which means ‘village at the edge’. 

In Emily Carr’s paintings from over 100 years ago, the village still stands. Today however, as you approach the village remains — guarded by Haida Watchmen — you won’t see any of the longhouses, long ago taken over by the forest or raided by those looking for keepsakes or whatever you would call taking things by other definitions.

Deedee, the Haida Watchman who met us when we landed on the beach by boat is the grand-daughter of the past chief and sister of the current one and simply one of the most welcoming and beautiful people I have ever met in my life.

Taking our small group around the remains of the village, she told us of how many of the poles that once stood on the site have found their way into museums around the world and while I have to admit this idea bothered me, because in the Haida tradition, a totem pole is to stand and then fall and eventually return to the earth, much like all of us, but Deedee or Gitin Jaad, which means Eagle Woman said she is good with it, explaining that it makes her, and would make her Chinaay, or grandfather, happy, knowing that people from around the world see and experience Haida culture. 

Deedee explained that her Chinaay told her that people need to remember that we are all one. All people who walk on two feet are one people and it doesn’t matter where they are from and that we can all learn from each other and having people come from all across the globe to their village to see what was would make them all way back, very happy.

That said, she also told me that some people who in the past visited the village and others, took not just totem poles for museums but some people took human remains.

As disturbing as this is, many of these are coming home to Haida Gwaii now too.

Life is about change Deedee said to me. Not everything in the past is roses. Some of it is very sad, like how smallpox almost destroyed everything, or how settlers wanted to take all the natural resources from the land and from the sea. But that too changes and today the Haida people are making the best of things, they carry no grudges and welcome the world to see the rich and beautiful story that life on this archipelago that has been home to the Haida for at least 14,000 years has unfolded.

To me, this is a story worth telling and worth remembering. 

It is easy to dwell on the past. 

It is easy to choose resentment and anger when terrible things are done to you.

While I was on Haida Gwaii, actually the same day that I was heading to K’uuna, I saw a post on social media that said;

“When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you. The misinformation will feel unfair, but stay above it, trusting that other people will eventually see the truth just like you did.”

To me this was synchronicity. The same lesson that I’d learn from Deedee. 

On our trip out were two people from Germany, people whose grandparents my own grandfather might have met in battle not all that long ago during the war. But for Deedee and for the lesson of the Haida that I took away with me, we are all the same. We might have different accents, different languages but if we walk on two legs we are all the same. 

We get better and stronger when we learn to appreciate each other and work together. 

It is the same in Jiu-jitsu, you can only get better and excel when you have other people to work with. It doesn’t matter the colour of their skin any more than the colour of their belt. Together we become better.

We can judge. 

We can look at one another with disdain or be critical of someone but we should never judge anyone too harshly. What we will find, when we look closely, when we walk the ground where people once lived, is that we will learn about ourselves. 

There is truly only one race of people on this planet, the human race, the more we learn to appreciate one another and what we each bring to the table of our planet-wide family are stories that we can all relate to. In fact we will often find that the ancient stories of one people, like the Haida, might echo with the ancient stories of, say, the Norse. There is only one mountain that we are all climbing but different paths that go up. 

I’ve found that studying and immersing ourselves in a culture helps to not only keep that culture alive but makes you better in ways you don’t even realize.

My Jiu-Jitsu teacher, Professor Jean Jacques Machado told us once that the true test of Jiu-Jitsu isn’t what takes place on the mats but how you take the knowledge you have gained and integrate it into your life off the mats.

Jiu-Jitsu teaches us that people matter. You can’t learn Jiu-Jitsu without them. Deedee would likely agree with this concept and I’d venture to guess that she would tell me that the lesson to learn from what remains of K’uuna and all the other Haida villages and the work being done to bring new life to them and to let the world know that the Haida people and Haida Gwaii are here to stay is found in exactly that same lesson — we can’t live in the past, we have to move on. Us humans are in this together, for better or for worse — we can live in the past and let old sores fester or we can learn, we can become better today by understanding where we came from, the connections we have with one another and with the land and sea and all the myriad of things that make up this small beautiful ball soaring through the universe.

That is the lesson I have taken back from Haida Gwaii, Gwaii Haanas, the people, the land, the sea and the magic that lives here.

Aging in the martial arts & a lesson from Haida Gwaii

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by James Eke (from Warrior’s Way Podcast episode #52)

Life changes. That simple.

You can fight it, you can feel bad about it, you can pretend it isn’t true but in the end you will have to face facts. Life moves onward.

For me, this is a great lesson not only about the fragility and transient nature of life but on just how important and unique each and every moment is.

Any decent martial arts school or teacher should be teaching you to be as much in the moment as you can. To be more grateful. To live the best life you can but also to help others to live the best lives they can too.

This isn’t easy.

The most important things in life rarely are.

The sad thing is that most people rarely realize this and even fewer do the work necessary to find a way of living that is making the most of things — making the most of everything and everyone that this gift of a life has provided.

I turned 50 a couple of weeks ago for many this is treated as some huge milestone but for me I didn’t throw a bash, I didn’t even stay in town. I headed for the woods and the beach to spend the time really trying to focus on the small things, those smallest of things in your life that matter the most. Breathing. Walking. Sunshine. Beautiful trees. Fresh air.

I decided to spend the days around my 50th birthday looking at myself, who I am, who I can be, what I want to do with this life and how I can become better at being James Eke.

Some of you who are younger might think that by 50 you should have all of that and more all sorted out but the simple reality is that the more layers we peel back in our lives the more that we realize there is to do. Work through one thing and something else is there waiting for your focus and effort.

For a martial artist part of your training needs to be this focus on you. You need to intimately understand who you are because as you train you start to see that the weapon you are training, the weapon you are polishing and improving is you. You are your first and last and best weapon. And any weapon a warrior plans to master needs to be understood. Your life depends on it.

In terms of our martial arts this means we need to be training ourselves for the martial artist and the person that we will become. We need to train ourselves today for the us of the future.

For some this is a hard task. It is easy to delude yourself into belief about anything and even more when it has to do with us personally. Nobody wants to admit that the person looking back at them in the mirror isn’t the same as the one that used to look back. The face hasn’t changed. The you you think you are is no different than the you at 15, 19, 25, 30 or whenever. Sorry to burst your bubble but it just isn’t so.

We often don’t notice the changes that life gives us the same way that most of us don’t want to think about our own mortality.

If we have been active all our lives we might even think we are even more fit than we used to be. And that might be true in some respects but that 18 year old you wouldn’t likely have such a tough time showing you who was more able to do all the things you think you are a superstar at today. Sure your skills and attributes may have improved to some degree but unless you were brutally out of shape, even the most average of us at 18 would clean house with the us at 30 in physical ways.

I know that at 50 I know a whole lot more though. I’ve gained understanding and insights that at 18 I didn’t even know existed. I am better in all the ways that matter the most. What I have lost or will see diminish have been replaced with new ways of seeing and doing that the younger me would envy.

So how do you get there?

First of all we need to cultivate the part of us that sees amazement in the most simple of things. We need to cultivate the curiosity and awe of a child. This will lead to learning, to honesty, to seeing magic and beauty all around us. It will make us lifelong students.

Next we need to understand what the physical body needs, and that is work. It needs to do things. 

You don’t need more time sitting, you need to get up and move.

It means going to the gym. Getting and staying fit. It means eating healthy foods. Getting enough sleep. Learning to breathe. Finding out what they physical human machine can do and doing it.

We also need to learn to look inward. This means meditating but also looking deeply into ourselves and into our own darkness and shadow and seeing who is hiding in there and learning to love and accept and express that part of us too.

I myself can tell you that if you don’t look at your own darkside and not hide or ignore it, it is going to wait for the right time and pop it’s head out and let you know it is there. Best to do the work required before that happens. 

Believe me.

Figuring out what it is that you need to do, what needs work on, is part of what training is all about. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t but you must simply keep moving, constantly improving, adapting and overcoming.

50 isn’t a big deal. 51, 55, 64, 73, 82, 97, 113 those are going to be more interesting and more of an eye opener and I know that with each milestone there is going to come work and effort, failures and success.

I was recently on the amazing island of Haida Gwaii, home to the unceeded land of the Haida people. These are a nation of people who at one time paddled in 50-man war canoes or likely something similar, from the West Coast of Canada to Japan and Hawaii — and back again. I was fortunate enough to hike into the old growth rainforest and saw at least 10 massive cedar partially chopped down and one that had been in what had to be an impressive effort to carve out their huge canoes.

I was told these trees and the one felled and partially carved canoe were worked on by the Haida in about 1830. Then smallpox hit and the people died. Of the 30,000 Haida who lived on the magical island only 500 lived through the outbreak.

I’m certain that none of them expected to die. I doubt any expected not to finish those canoes.

It still happened.

Today, the Haida nation has grown from near extinction but to only a quarter of the number that it had been before the 1830s. What they are doing though is building, focusing, dedicated to maintaining and building something for the future — their future. There is a great lesson there.

We can come from hell and still create something amazing. We can fall but we can still rise. We can make the future better than today.

None of that is easy.

The Haida, despite almost completely losing themselves, then being told they couldn’t practice their religion, couldn’t have potlach gatherings, couldn’t speak their language, couldn’t even continue with their traditional Haida tattoos for years and years and years haven’t let any of that hold them back.

They have reclaimed their past, hold no grudges and are moving on.

This is the lesson and the life that I want for myself. Would I have understood all of that at 18 or even 25? Doubtful or at least not to the deeply life changing way I see it now.

I am going to take that lesson. The lesson of the Haida and make that into something that makes the future me into someone better, stronger, healthier and better in every way.

The martial arts teach us that — take our lessons from everything that life gives us. The teacher will appear when the student is ready.

To the Haida people I say “Haaw’a,” thank-you.

And for all of you I hope that you will see that age is a number and to not worry too much about it — just keep it in mind as a reminder to prepare yourself for the person, the man or the woman that you will become. Train today for that person you haven’t met yet, the one who will be so proud of all that you are doing to build for a better future.

Facing myself in a sweatlodge

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by James Eke (from Podcast #50)

All my relations.

That is how the sweat lodge started.

All my relations. 

That is how the sweat lodge ended.

When you think of a sweat lodge you might think of a whole lot of different things about where or what an indigenous people’s healing and spiritual place of growth and practice should be like, but perched on a rooftop of a boutique First Nations art gallery hotel a block away from Vancouver’s infamous Pigeon Park known for the failing of a city and a province to the problems of poverty and addiction is probably not what you’d have in mind. Yet there it was. A small dome of bent willow and other tree branches, covered in blankets just big enough for six people to sit cross-legged in while red hot grandfather rocks are brought in, lifted into place in the centre of the circle with two deer antlers and brought to life with a sprinkle of tobacco or sweet grass.

All my relations, Shosoni healer and elder Old Hands, said, explaining that the sweat lodge while an Aboriginal healing and spiritual practice is something that transcends North American First Nations beliefs and is something far more ancient, and practiced by many of Earth’s people for all of human existence up to current day. Except for one thing, most have forgotten. Others have watered it down and made it into a spa or sauna but a true sweat lodge is something far more than that and nothing to be trifled with.

“This is going to be something you remember. The sweat lodge has power that changes you, heals you. Remember that all of your ancestors want you here, today. They sacrificed for you to be sitting right here. There are a long line of people who want the best and happiest and healthiest life for you. They want to see you have a life that they could never have believed possible. And they are here with you today. They are with you always. That is what some of what All My Relations means. You are here for a reason — a lot of things have happened to get you here right now. You are meant to be here.” 

The sweat lodge brings these different worlds together. The past, yesterday and more ancient, the present, with all its baggage and turmoil we carry, and the future that we hope will be brighter and better than today for ourselves and our own children and future generations.

All of this binds together as you crawl into the sweat lodge, which Old Hands said is symbolic and physically like crawling into the womb of Mother Earth. The mother that gives us all the lives we have.

The sweat lodge I took part in was divided into 4 parts, each with drumming, chants and plenty of heat, steam, smoke, darkness and light. Central to it all was bringing unity to the people who came before us, those who want us all to succeed and be strong and healthy and with a clear understanding and indication of what it is that we want for ourselves and our lives and what healing it is that we need to move on and be stronger for ourselves and those around us.

One aspect that kept coming up in the words of the elder was that if you want to truly help others you need to help yourself too and do what needs to be done to get you to a place all your relations — your ancestors — want for you.

“Turtle doesn’t go anywhere until he sticks out his neck,” Old Hands said more than once. We have to take responsibility for our lives, for our health, for our wellbeing and for our own healing and everyone needs healing. 

We need to make the steps that are required in this life to make sure that we are getting to where we are headed, whatever that may be.

For everyone, the sweat lodge ceremony is different. And for some, it is so much more.

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I decided to take part.

I try in this life to be at least open minded. What I don’t always expect is to have my life radically altered from a two hour experience like the one I was on from atop that East Vancouver rooftop.

When I crawled through the door of the blanket wrapped dome I thought I was in for a neat cultural experience at least and at best something similar to the time I’ve spent in various Zen and Tibetan Buddhist temples, meditation and listening to chants and just otherwise vibing along as I practiced mindfulness, calmness and breath work.

Well, I did all that. 

What I didn’t expect was the deeply moving, humbling and transcedental experience that happened.

At the start of the sweat lodge, as the first six large and glowing red rocks were placed in the center of the circle we’d formed and Old Hands started to slowly beat his drum and sing the songs he told us he learned from the old ones back home, I can only describe what happened next as feeling ancient and somehow far removed from the inner city I was in, I felt like I was in another place and another time that somehow felt not just right but familiar. Then, as strangely as it sounds, I felt a connection or the company of not only First Nations archetypes but old Norse ones. It was Odin, the all-father there beside me, Thor and Loki. I was sure, as the temperature increased and the smoke and heat blanketed me that what was being chanted or how it echoed in me was not what I was hearing but some song, some beat, some words that had been sung to my ancestors long before I was born, long before any of them could dream of me in this West Coast Canadian city, words that had power, a beat that hit a rhythm that matched something not just inside of me but inside of us all.

I felt the pitch black space around me alive with crows, with an eagle and with that wolf I’d fought in the woods.

As the first hour turned into the second, and more rocks and more steam and more smoke filled the space and we called upon all our relations to be there with us, to help us, I actually felt the physical feeling of being surrounded by people who knew me but I didn’t know myself. I felt them in touch with me in a way that now, talking about it, doesn’t entirely make sense. But at that moment made all these sense in the world. They were there, blanketing me in their presence, their love, their understanding. They were giving me their strength and their hope.

I realized that for me to be in that place meant that all of them, for hundreds and thousands of years fought and suffered through more than I can conceive all so that I could sit on that rooftop, in that sweat lodge and have the life that I have and do all the things I have done and will do.

I am here, even now, doing this podcast because I come from a long line of warriors and fathers and mothers and simply amazing people who suffered and persevered with the dream that one day there will be someone, maybe someone like me, who will live a life that they couldn’t even dream possible. The same dream any parent or grandparent has for their children. And I could hear them whisper to me in that hot darkness that if they could make it, that I would too because I am made of all of them — every one of them that faced the terrors that at one time crawled in the darkness of night, every one of them that fought to keep their tribe and their family safe, every one of them that suffered in ways that even my worst Army stories don’t come close to all so that I can be right here. Right now.

And I felt all this. Not in some weirdo fuzzy, new-age way. It was real, physical and tangible. I sensed them around me right there just like you are feeling all the things around you right now. 

Wherever you are listening to this, whatever your background, whatever your path, I think, after my experience in the sweat lodge that you need to try this. There is something that just made sense as a human being at a very core level in the ritual and the process and I can’t see anyone walk away from it and not be changed for the better. And in case you are worried, there is nothing overtly religious about it if you are worried that it will somehow interfere with your own beliefs. If anything, I think that the organic and natural balance to it will only amplify what you already believe and practice.

There is something very old and yet very new about the sweat lodge. Something simple and yet profound. 

In terms of training for you martial artists, you are not going to find something as physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally intense as this on the mats. Think of it in Jiu-Jitsu terms, this would be like trying to roll with five black belts who were all pinning you to the mats and the simple act of breathing and relaxing would be the most you could hope to do, all the while learning massive new lessons on how to do this, how to do that and how to simply deal with what these mat sharks were throwing down.

It would leave you exhausted, worn out and yet somehow new, fresh and alive with possibility.

There are things in this life that have been given to us as amazing tools — vehicles to get us to somewhere else. To make better, stronger versions of us. That isn’t something to be trifled with. It isn’t something to judge. Sometimes, when you find something that amplifies and takes your training and who you are to a whole new level we need to just smile, nod and give deep and grateful thanks to the universe for placing something like this in our path and to understand that you are exactly where you should be. Where all your relations wanted you to be. Where all my relations led me, finding who I am, what I am and who I want to be.