April 06, 2008

Yes to love (and life!)

LOVE IN THE TIME OF WELLNESS. Tom and Karen Neff found love while learning to love their individual selves.(Photos courtesy Karen Neff)

"NEVER again.”

That’s what Karen Neff (neé Villarica) thought of marriage after separating from her husband Antonio Reina in 1999. She and Antonio ran a successful costume-jewelry business out of Cebu, the biggest exporter of its kind in the country. Back then, her normal life consisted of meeting with suppliers, running after letters of credit and bankers, and dealing with the deadlines of their buyers. “During the 17 years of marriage, my life was work, husband and children—in that order,” Karen begins her narration.

It got to a point that she no longer felt satisfied with what she was doing, either in work or in her marriage. And despite her three wonderful kids with Antonio — Mozart, now 24; Andrea, 22; and Mara, 20 — Karen felt it was time for her to leave that life. She could no longer deal with the stress of the work, adding that she just felt sapped after “giving” her time and attention to everybody...except herself. “There was something missing in my life that I could not put my finger on. My heart was no longer in the marriage. I did not find any fulfillment in staying together. The marriage was no longer relevant—and I opted to live separately.”

It may sound trite, but Karen did a bit of soul-searching, and went to Harbin Hot Springs, a popular wellness center in Lake County in Northern California. She enrolled in all of the spa’s classes in a bid to free herself from the issues that had been plaguing her. “It was a difficult period,” she says of the time after her separation from her husband. “Emotions were fragile, and doubts whether I did the right thing would come up ever so often.”

The product of those intensive classes, and more wellness training around Asia, was the establishment of Mandala Spa in Boracay. It was there where I first met Karen in November 2001, just when she first opened the spa, the very first of its kind in the country. “I have lived a privileged life...it was time to give back and make a difference, so I built a spa.”

Despite the rather exciting opportunities of meeting new people as she ran her spa, Karen still kept very much to herself, which one might regard as not exactly the path to pursue if one wanted to find love again. After all, while she banged shut her doors on marriage, Karen wasn’t exactly locking those doors and throwing away the key to meeting a significant other. “I am not a social person and going out to bars and restos was not my thing. While I did want to have someone to share my life with, I guess it was not high on the priority list as I did nothing about it. I continued to stay home and contemplate about life.” She says many people would probably find her life rather “boring.”

So it was with great joy when sometime in 2006, while visiting the spa for my usual Shodhana Karma treatment, I found out that Karen had gotten married. She wasn’t in the country at the time, but I looked forward to getting together with her again so I could ask her to spill all the lurid (!) details of her romance with Tom Neff. She later tells me that Tom had been an insurance broker for years before getting on a wellness kick, which he has been in for about 15 years now.

She met Tom in the US in September 2004 — he was a student, while she was an assistant instructor in a Watsu class. (To the unitiated, Watsu is a treatment based on Zen shiatsu, so it’s basically a massage, only done in water. I recommend it as a way to relax or purge oneself of negative vibes.) Karen says Tom just asked her if he could join her for breakfast one day, and so they chatted a lot “and found we had things in common—been there, done that, etc.” He also was married for 22 years and has four children from that marriage—three girls and one boy with ages ranging from 16 to 24.

Initially, it was a relationship carried over Skype, no less. Karen and Tom would spend hours (“at one point, eight hours nonstop”) talking about anything and everything. It was obvious there was a connection, but at the time they were not yet lovers. Moreover, Tom appeared to have been having second thoughts about pursuing her. After agreeing to visit Karen for Christmas 2004, he backed out and told her he wasn’t ready for a long-distance relationship.

But in April 2005, Tom e-mailed Karen telling her that he couldn’t get her off his mind. So Karen told him she was going to the US that June and if he wanted, they could meet. “We did, and fell in love. In October he came to visit for two weeks. I went over for Christmas and stayed for three weeks.” In between visits, they were always connected via the Internet (thank you, Al Gore, woohoo!).

In February 2006 Karen says she surprised Tom by flying out to the US to celebrate Valentine’s Day with him. Then in May, he went to Boracay for another visit. “During a stormy night,” Karen recalls, “he asked me, ‘What is your heart’s deepest desire?’ It didn’t take me long to think and said, ‘For us to be married.’ Was that a proposal???” “I then heard him say, ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes what?’ I asked. ‘Yes, let’s get married.’ Hahaha! I had to think about that!”

So with that, the couple flew to Cebu a week later to tell Karen’s kids the news. “Mara was delighted. The two boys were worried that I would forget that I had kids. But they all love Tom and, seeing how happy we are together, have come to love him, too.”

D-Day came on July 20, 2006. Karen in a teal blue dress with spaghetti straps and intricate embroidery, Tom in a gray tuxedo with an ivory vest and tie over a white shirt, and with about 40 close friends and family around them, they were married in Lake Tahoe by a minister-friend in ceremonies that they themselves scripted. “There were no vows of ‘forever and forever, ’til death do us part,’” she stresses.

In describing their relationship, Karen says it is one based on personal responsibility. “I am responsible for my feelings and emotions, and there is nothing that Tom has to do about them. Likewise, he is responsible for his. We find that because we have no expectations of each other, there is nothing to argue about. I do not need him and neither does he need me. We enjoy being together as our lives are enriched by the union. And neither do we have any expectations about how long our relationship will last—we live each day fully. From the first day that we met, we have not had a moment of discord. It’s been very blissful!”

Karen believes that you cannot find love; it finds you. It is something I, too, believe in, because I’ve been lucky enough to find it a few times, and lost it along the way, but never, ever with regret in my heart. And I know, God willing, if the time is right and it’s meant to be, I will find it again.

“Experience tells me that there is nothing to do [when trying to find love again]. Instead, be—be who you are, live your truth, speak your truth. Do not pretend to be someone who you’re not. Love yourself with all your strengths and weaknesses. Be genuine.”

She says love is out there, waiting for everyone. “One only has to say, ‘Yes!’” It is saying yes to life and for what is in store for you. Be adventurous! Love life! Don’t hang on to what is not working—be available for change!”

Speaking of change, Tom has sold his business and all his assets in the US and has moved to Boracay permanently to be with Karen. “Our plan is to spend the summers in the US to be with the kids,” she adds. From May 1 to 4, Karen and Tom will not only be sharing their love but their wellness work with others. They are conducting a “Living Yoga” retreat in Mandala Spa, Boracay, where participants will be encouraged to break through self-limiting and self-immobilizing thoughts and behaviors through yoga practice.

***For particulars, contact (036) 288 5858 or visit Mandala Spa

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror.)

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