Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Thanksgiving - An Opportunity to Give Life, Not Only Thanks

In America, one of the biggest holidays of the year is Thanksgiving. The feast is in honor of the first good harvest after the pilgrims came to the new land. In theory, this holiday is a beautiful one. The idea of gathering to give thanks, gathering on behalf of the bountiful harvest God has provided, gathering with family, is wonderful. It is one of the few times a year that Americans tend to ensure that the entire family is together. Thus, in this regard Thanksgiving is a great, wonderful tradition. However, unfortunately, the hallmark of this holiday is a large, roasted turkey sitting as the centerpiece on a beautifully decorated table, just waiting to be carved by the family members and relished with a side of potatoes and cranberries.

When I was a child, my family would always fly from Los Angeles to New York for Thanksgiving. We would gather with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Before we began eating the many-course feast that sat, steaming, on the table in front of us, we would go around, each of us saying one thing we were thankful for. “I’m thankful I’m not a turkey,” I used to say. Year after year my grandfather would admonish me as soon as we entered the New England home. He’d stare down at me and demand to know, “You’re not going to say it again this year are you? You’ve outgrown that stupid little trick, haven’t you?” And each year I would lovingly reassure him that, no, I would not say it again. I would soothe his concern and tell him that I would say something “appropriate” this year. And I meant it. I honestly each year planned to think of something else to say.

Yet, as we sat – a family for whom expense was not an issue, a family who were not hunter/gatherers having to live only on that which they could pick or kill – around a huge, oval table, in a posh country home on the shore of the Atlantic ocean, I could think of nothing but the life lost by the large animal on the table in front of me.

We gather each November in the name of thanks. We gather to appreciate the bountiful harvest, to savor the wealth of the land called America. Yet, how can we simultaneously sit – with bowed heads – thanking a land whose creatures we slaughter? How can we give thanks for life, while consuming the life of another? How can we thank God for freedom when the food on our plates has spent its entire life in captivity, waiting to become a “roast”?

I realize these are harsh questions. I pray to God for the ability to ask them gently. Yet, it seems to me that the situation is severe enough, the suffering great enough, and our blindness complete enough that these questions must be asked. I feel that the meat industry in the West has all the propaganda weapons at its disposal: all the publicity, all the man-power, all the lobbyists. But, on the other side lies the truth; so, if it is all we have, we must not be afraid to face this truth.

From the time I was a child – long before I became a vegetarian – eating meat never felt quite right to me. I would only eat boneless meat, hidden in sauce, or already cut up meat, put into sandwiches. I could never bear to cut my food from its bone. But, I lived in a society where to refuse meat (especially as a child) incurred such a barrage of questions and criticisms that I was reluctant to do so.

When I was fifteen however, something happened that changed not only my eating habits but my entire vision of the American diet. I read a book called Diet for a New America, written by a man named John Robbins. Robbins was the eldest son of Mr. Robbins, from the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune, and had been slated to inherit this multi-million dollar corporation. But, he was a man of truth, and he decided that he could not in good conscience condone the way these dairy cows were treated. Ten years of seclusion and meditation later, he returned to America to make a thorough investigation of the meat and dairy industries and to unveil the travesties buried within.

The book makes the most compelling case I have ever seen for vegetarianism. It is so filled with truth, love and wisdom that it gave me the courage to live by what my heart felt was right. The day I read the book was the last day I ate any form of meat or meat products. I became a young, stubborn vegetarian in a society that adamantly tried to convince me I was depriving myself of both nutrients and enjoyment. However, knowing that I was acting from my heart gave me a window of truth through which to look at the world.

It feels to me that the way in which we Westerners celebrate, the way in which we give thanks does not have a lot of integrity. Perhaps we really are thankful; perhaps our hearts are honestly filled with joyous celebration. Nonetheless our actions – having a roast turkey as the star of this holiday – do not seem to me to be in concert with feelings of deep gratitude.

I look at the way Indians give thanks, at what symbols and rituals pervade their puja. I look at a yagna. The spirit of yagna is sacrifice. These celebrations are not filled with sensual gratification at the expense of others. Rather, they are filled with a true spirit of thanks: God has given to us, so our heart says we should sacrifice for Him, give back to Him. The symbols of a yagna – the burning of our sins and desires, the offering of everything at the holy feet of the Lord, the reminder that "Nothing is mine, oh God, it is all Yours,"  – this is what feels to me like true thanks. Those who are full of blessings, and gratitude for those blessings, have a natural instinct to share with others, to give to others and to serve others. To them it seems their cup always runneth over.  It seems, in contrast, that there is something reprehensible about the idea of sitting down to thank God through the consumption of His child smothered in gravy!

Let us, instead, pause and give thanks for something far more valuable than a bountiful harvest. Let us give thanks for our human ability to have compassion, to have empathy for the plight of another, to make choices that not only satisfy our bodies in the moment, but that satisfy our hearts and souls. Let us, rather than destroy our precious environment and the creatures who live within it, let us give thanks for the land that can feed us, feed our fellow creatures, convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, give us medicine to heal our sickness and provide shelter for all God’s creatures.

Let us give thanks for our ability to think clearly, to discriminate between right and wrong, and to sacrifice a temporary pleasure for the benefit of another. Let us give thanks for our ability to choose right from wrong and our freedom to act accordingly.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Diwali - Let the Divine Lamps Dispel the Darkness of Our Ignorance

Diwali is a glorious holiday. It is a holiday filled with continuous festivity, revelry and celebration. Even sworn enemies embrace, and hostilities melt as we share box after box of fresh sweets.

At this sacred time, I reflect upon the words of my Guru, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji: "Don't only light the lamps in your temples, homes and offices. Also remember to light the lamp in your own heart.  That divine lamp will dispel the darkness of ignorance; that is the true way of welcoming Bhagawan Rama into your life."

The lamp in our hearts? What divine light is he referring to? What darkness of ignorance is there within us which should be dispelled on this holy day?

Ignorance of the Nature of the True Self

We are all ignorant about so many things. One cannot possibly be an expert or even properly informed about the majority of subjects in the world. The information available in the world today is too vast, its depth and breadth boundless and unfathomable.   Yet ignorance of math, science, history or technology may make life slightly inconvenient but it does not shroud us in darkness. It does not keep the presence of the Divine an arm's length from our hearts.

What is the ignorance which is so dark it must be dispelled in order for us to live peaceful, fulfilling, meaningful and divinely-connected lives? It is the ignorance of the true nature of the Self.

To me, one of the most beautiful aspects of Hinduism is the belief that at the core of our being we are divine. In contrast to other major world religions, Hinduism teaches that at the essence of our being there is pure divinity, there is light, there is perfection. It is merely ignorance, the false identification with the body and its urges, which leads us to "sin".   Of course the karmic consequences for our actions must be paid, even when we realize that they were committed due to the darkness of ignorance rather than the darkness of evil. 

That Divine Light Within
When the saints and spiritual masters of India exhort us to remove the darkness, to light the lamp within, they are referring not to a transformation of inherent darkness into newly created light, but rather to a shedding of that ignorance, that false identification, that illusion, which shrouds our innate light from our view.  As Pujya Swamiji explains, "The sun is always shining outside, but if your windows are covered with two inches of mud it will be dark in your home. The answer is not to go out in search of the sun, to sign up for courses or workshops on invoking the power of the sun, or even to bemoan the darkness. The answer is simply to clean the windows so that the naturally occurring presence of light may flow into your home."

In the same way as the sun in Pujya Swamiji's example, the inner divine light is always there, always shining, always available. It is the core of our being.  However, the "windows" of our consciousness have become muddied by our false-identifications, our expectations, our grudges, our jealousies. Hence, that light is obscured from our view. 

Who AM I?
From the time of the war of Kurukshetra, when Bhagawan Krishna urged Arjuna to realize his true Self, to realize not only the universal dharma but his personal dharma as a kshetriya, as the son of Pandu, as one whose task was to restore dharma to adharma, saints and rishis and sages have enjoined us to recognize our true nature.

When we are not aware of who we really are, we inevitably try -- consciously or unconsciously -- to become something else. We then live our lives falsely identified with roles, masks and personalities that are not truly us. However, unlike the actor in a drama who remembers to remove his costume and make-up at the end of the day, we have become so internally united with our false self, that we have begun to think it is who we are. We have come to believe the mask is our true face, the script is our true life and the costume is our true Self.
We get a degree and we say, "I AM a PhD, or I AM a doctor." We put on make-up and expensive clothes or we get cosmetic surgery and we say "I AM beautiful." We earn a lot of money and we say, "I AM rich. I AM successful." We get married and have children and we say, "I AM a wife and mother" or "I AM a husband and father." We make many friends and we say "I AM popular. I AM well liked and respected."
However, these are merely things we DO, ways we spend our time, choices we make, personalities we don because it suits the culture in which we live. They are not who we ARE. We are not our degrees, our beauty, our bank accounts, our popularity or our relations.  

The problem with this false identification is that these roles are all fleeting.  They are based merely on what we have done and achieved today.  So, when they get shattered, as falsehood is inevitably shattered and as anything of the flesh is inevitably limited, we lose not merely a title or a job or money or beauty, but we lose the very connection to our Self. We have wrapped our sense of Self so tightly around these roles that when the curtain falls and the drama ends, we feel that our life is being torn out from within us. If I AM beautiful, what happens when I age or my skin breaks out or I have an accident that scars my face? Then who AM I? If I AM a mother or  wife then when my children grow up and don't need me or my husband divorces me or dies, who AM I? If I AM rich and successful, if I lose my money or retire from my profession, who AM I?

We also say, "I AM angry. I AM sad. I AM frustrated. I AM depressed." Yet, our scriptures, philosophy and gurus tell us we are none of these things.  Our brain may be experiencing emotional patterns of chemical and electric energy that correlate to what psychologists term anger or depression. However, I, the true Self is pure, perfect, untouched and unafflicted by patterns of energy corresponding to emotional states. I am the one who is aware, who is watching, who is witnessing, who is able to name the states of sadness and depression, but not the one who is afflicted by them.

Ignorance of the Self Leads to Misery
The lack of awareness of who we truly are, the lack of ability to distinguish between what I DO and who I AM, this ignorance is the darkness which leads to suffering and misery in life. It is also this ignorance of the Self's true nature that leads us to act in ways for which we have to reap the fruits of negative karma. Greed, lust, dishonesty, jealousy, anger and  arrogance are products of our blindness toward the true light within and toward the true nature of the Self.  If I am already full and complete then there is nothing to covet.

The True Self's Cup is Always Overflowing
These days in the new-age "spiritual" circles there is talk about "enlightened abundance," which typically refers to the concept of becoming so enlightened that one can manifest piles of money! There are books, films, courses and workshops on manifesting abundance as though if one is simply in touch enough with the Source, that Source will provide whatever one asks. However, what the lives and teachings of the true saints and rishis teach us is that the moment one has even a taste of awakening, a taste of Divine Connection, a taste of being One with the Source, one immediately experiences not a genie who will grant three wishes, but rather an immediate and overwhelming sense of completeness. Those who are truly enlightened live with the experience that their cup is overflowing. They are One with all of creation; thus there is no need to possess the wealth of the universe. It is already theirs. This is why in the stories of our scriptures, whether it's Kunti (mother of the Pandavas) or Dhruv or Prahlad, when God Himself stands in front of them instructing them to ask for any boon, there is nothing they want. They are complete merely due to His presence.

When I first came to Rishikesh, during one of my early satsangs with Pujya Swamiji He held up a pen in front of me and He said to me, "You are not this pen." I laughed. Of course I am not a pen, I thought. How obvious. He then said, "There will come a time when I will tell you that you are not that body and you will laugh in the same way you just laughed when I said you're not a pen.  A time will come when it will be as ridiculous to assume you are the body as it is ridiculous to assume you are a pen."

At this sacred time of Diwali, when we line our homes and offices and streets with brightly burning lamps, let us  pray for that light within our own hearts that illumines the nature of our Self, showing us who we really are.   When that light is there, then we know that Bhagawan Rama has truly returned, not merely to Ayodhya but also into our hearts and our lives.  

Friday, 7 October 2011

Rosh Hashanah

Green, crisp, tart granny-smith apples smothered in dripping, sticky honey.  These are my memories of Rosh Hashanah as a child. I remember the anticipation with which I awaited the round plate that our counselor at the Jewish day-care center would place in front of us, apples sliced ever so delicately, with what seemed to be a vat of honey next to it.  We were permitted one piece at time, and wooden popsicle sticks served as knives for spreading.  Grasping a crescent-moon shaped piece of apple with one hand, I would lather on as much honey as a popsicle stick could hold; then the race began to get the apple into my mouth before the precious honey dripped off and onto the table.

Memories of fruit and honey.  Crunchy and smooth.   Sour and sweet. Cool and warm. A perfect blending of tastes and textures. A moment of Heaven for a small child. 

These are, of course, memories that seem to be purely culinary. They are not memories of God, nor even of culture or history. I am sure that prior to the much-anticipated placement of the apples and honey on our tables, the teachers must've shared with us -- perhaps for many preceding days -- the meaning, the stories, the significance and the history of this most sacred day. I am sure that we were not permitted to dive into our treats without demonstrating some understanding of the holiday upon us.  Yet, those memories have not stood the test of time. As vividly as I can see the tray of apples, as clearly as I can feel the cool crunch of the apple between my teeth, as much saliva as the mere memory generates more than thirty years later, I have no recollection of any kind of the religious training that most certainly accompanied this.

A tragedy of sorts, yes.  But this tragedy of modern, reformed Jewish education in America may point also to a precious and compelling awareness of the "felt-sense" of religion.  For, while I cannot conjure up the faintest recollection of any words spoken by the teachers (or even the rabbis) regarding this holiday, the mere thought of apples and honey brings a flood of tears to my eyes and deep warmth to my heart.  It is this "felt-sense", this inexplicable, un-nameable, undefineable yet unbreakable connection to Judaism that -- even after having lived for 15 years in a Hindu ashram where I have devoted my life to the service of a Hindu saint, even after having taken vows of renunciation in the Hindu tradition, even after becoming a speaker/teacher/leader to Hindus around the world -- causes tears to flow spontaneously from my eyes every time I hear chanting of the Torah or every time I light the candles of the menorah on Hanukkah. It is this absolutely indissoluble link between a Jew to Judaism -- regardless of whether that Jew could tell you anything about the most sacred of days other than that one eats apples and honey -- which has kept the religion alive, strong and flourishing for thousands of years despite invasions of every possible kind from every possible corner.   It is that link that causes me to cry, neither tears of joy nor tears of sadness, but merely tears of truth, as I say L'shana tova to myself, as the waters of a river I sacrilegiously yet profoundly worship as the Goddess flow outside my window.

What is religion then?  It is not the teachings I cannot remember that link me inextricably to the sound of the Torah chanting. It is not the sermons in the temple I missed while my friends and I gathered in the bathrooms to gossip. It is not the prayers I no longer know nor the holidays I no longer observe.  It is certainly not the identification, externally, with world Jewry that connects me, for a tiny number of people in my life today even know I'm Jewish.  In fact, in the land in which I live being white means Christian. There isn't even awareness of another religion.  So, if religion is neither in the teachings nor the services nor the prayers nor the community identification, what is it? What, after having become fully absorbed into an Indian Hindu spiritual culture, causes my heart to race in delighted anticipation at every inter-faith gathering as the Jewish Rabbi takes the podium?

What is this bond? What is this link that defies and surpasses practice and lifestyle?

In the peacekeeping and inter-religious harmony community there is much talk about the artificial lines of religion, about  unnecessary borders and boundaries between faiths, about the necessity of realizing that all is One.  Yes, all is One in the way that all drops of water are of the ocean. The molecules are all H2O.  They all came from the ocean and ultimately will return to the ocean.  But surely on some level, even if not detectable by microscope, water which has sat in a pool of the Himalayas, surrounded by mineral rich rocks and foliage, unknown to pollution, in a world of silence and serenity must be different than water which flows through the gutter of an impoverished, polluted, crime-ridden city.  There must be something, on some molecular or energetic level, different about these 2 drops of water.  That, of course, does not deem one better than the other or justified in oppressing or killing the other, but there must be some qualitative difference in these molecules.  Even if you take the drop from the gutter and put it in the Himalayas, wouldn't it, on some level, retain any bit of its "gutterness?" Similarly, if you take the drop from the Himalayas and put it in the gutter, despite the sewage and trash with which it is now associated, wouldn't that molecule remain, forever, somewhat different than the others?

The Chief Rabbi of Israel once lovingly said to Swamiji, as I tried unsuccessfully to serve him another plate of fruit during the Hindu-Jewish Summit in Jerusalem, "You can take her to India, you can make her a Hindu, but you can never take the Jewish mother out of her."  Perhaps in this lifetime being a mother, or at least a biological mother, was not part of my destiny, but being  a Jew certainly was. 

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Reflections on 9/11 and our response to tragedy

A few years ago I was traveling from Lisbon, Portugal to Tenerife (in the Canary Islands) via Madrid. Tragically on that day a Span Air plane had crashed in the Madrid airport, killing nearly all on board. Approximately 150 people had died and the Madrid airport was closed for many hours. Our flight was, of course, cancelled and we reached Tenerife nearly 24 hours after the original scheduled time.

Upon arrival in Tenerife we found that there was a pervasive state of bereavement amongst all of the people due to the plane crash. Wherever we went, people would request Pujya Swamiji to say prayers for the departed souls, to have moments of silence before and after each program. Questions in the satsangs inevitably revolved around issues of karma, death, destiny and tragedy.  The plane which had crashed was destined for Gran Canaria, the largest of the Canary islands. No one we spoke with or who was present in any of the functions had actually known anyone on the flight; yet the state of anxiety, numbness and despair were textbook responses to great loss, even verging on PTSD in several circumstances. "I haven't slept in 3 nights. I can't eat. I can't get pictures of the plane crash out of my mind."

The crash was a tragedy. One hundred fifty families lost a mother, father, child, spouse or sibling. Countless thousands lost a loved one. The mirage of safety and invincibility we feel upon a major airliner flying to a vacation destination had faded.

Yet, after two days of prayer upon prayer, puja upon puja, explanation upon explanation of death and karma and the afterlife, I found a small volcano of despair within myself begin to grow and threaten to rupture. My volcano of  anguish, though, was not for the 150 who had died in the plane crash, although I certainly shed tears as I watched the news stories of the wreckage from the Lisbon airport lounge with interviews of those whose loved ones had died.  No, my deep anguish, separate from the sadness at the loss of life in the crash, was due to a divide, a dichotomy, a chasm I could not bridge. Finally, able to contain it no longer, on the 3rd day I found myself at Pujya Swamiji's feet exclaiming, "How is it possible that these people  can cry day after day for 150 people who died whom they didn't know and whose deaths they couldn't possibly have prevented, and still go out and eat meat, the practice of which causes the death of tens of thousands of children of starvation EVERY DAY?"  "Why is it," I wailed, "That the death of 150 well-to-do vacationers is worthy of silence, prayer, puja and tears, while the death of impoverished, starving children in third world countries is not?"

On a spiritual path that teaches non-judgment, I struggled rather unsuccessfully within myself with the judgment I felt for those who cried for the dead vacationers and then went out and caused the death of impoverished children without giving it a second thought. I understood intuitively that it was compassion, empathy and love inspiring their grief at the loss of life.  Clearly they are compassionate and loving people. Here they are mourning the death of people they didn't even know. So, how could that compassion and love vanish the moment they held a menu or shopping cart in their hands? Was it merely ignorance? If they knew the devastation wrought upon our world by the meat industry, would they become vegetarian? I am not sure about them, as in the midst of the aftermath of the plane crash I did not raise this issue; however, as I have traveled the world and spoken to innumerable audiences on vegetarianism I have found a great divide.   it seems that those who are like us, who possibly could have been us or our loved ones, elicit our compassion and empathy. 

Those who are not like us, who couldn't possibly be us or our loved one, tend not to elicit such feelings. They may elicit sympathy - such as when we see news stories of famines in African nations or AIDS orphans. We may send a check to Save the Children or Oxfam or Amnesty International.  But, derail our lives, consume our thoughts, render us insomniacs? It seems that only tragedies which hit at the core of the safety we personally feel have the power to effect such powerful responses.  A fatal crash of a plane they took last week or were planning to take next week or take regularly, a bomb that rocks through our favorite coffee shop or hotel or our local airport -- these are the events that shake us to our core despite statistics telling us we have a MUCH greater chance of being struck by lightning than dying in a terrorist attack.  The tens of thousands of children who died yesterday, and the day before, and who will die again today, and tomorrow and the day after - they don't have a chance at all of seeing another lightening storm, let alone being struck by one.

And their deaths are preventable. Preventable by us, by our choices, by our decisions.  Their deaths are, rather, caused by us, by our choices and decisions.  As we mourn the deaths of those we could not prevent, we cause the deaths of others.

One pound of grain can be turned into one pound of bread, or one pound of pasta or one pound of rice or corn.  However, in order to produce one pound of meat, sixteen pounds of grain are required. The reason is that the grain is fed daily to the animals who live, several miserable years, until they are slaughtered to become hamburgers or hotdogs. By the time the animal is killed and the flesh is turned into packaged meals, 16 pounds of grain have gone into the production of each pound of meat.  That means, every time we eat a meal of meat, we are eating the grain of 15 other people. We are eating for 16.  If my one pound of meat requires 16 pounds of grain, rather than my pound of pasta requiring only a pound of grain, then every time I choose meat I am consuming the grain of 15 others.  The food supply on planet Earth is tragically limited. Food shortages and famines are prevalent and pervasive across the world.  Can we really afford to make choices that take the food out of the mouths of starving children with nearly every meal? The United States alone produces enough grain every day to give each and every person on Earth two loaves of bread a day. No one would go hungry, let alone starve, on two loaves of bread. The problem is they are not getting the bread, for the grain is not being used for humans. Rather the grain is used as feed for the cows, pigs and chickens who become our breakfast sausage, our lunchtime turkey sandwich or hamburger and our evening roast chicken or steak.  So we get fatter, our cholesterol rises, and they die.

The production of a pound of meat takes approximately 2600 gallons (approximately 10,000 liters) of water.  This is due to the exorbitant amount of water used to grow the food for the livestock, the water they drink  and are bathed in and then the water used to try to wash the blood, urine and feces out of the flesh to be sold in grocery stores.   Tens of thousands of farmers across the "developing" world are collapsing on their desiccated fields. There is no water for their parched mouths or withered crops.  Many commit suicide, unable to face the prospect of a tomorrow with no means to feed themselves and their families. Many others are taken, unwillingly, by sickness and death.  Others abandon the fields of their ancestors and flood the already overpopulated cities to wreak out a meager existence in a slum on the muddy outskirts of a third-world metropolis.   And a typical family consumes the equivalent of 2600 gallons of water during one meal of hamburgers.

The world of the 21st century cannot live in a vacuum. We don't have to be quantum physicists to understand the way that our personal choices and actions directly impact the rest of the planet.  What I purchase, use and eat today in Rishikesh or Delhi or London or Paris or Los Angeles is having a direct effect on the lives of my brothers and sisters in other countries.  Every pound of meat that I don't eat frees up sixteen pounds of grain and 2500 gallons of water for other purposes.

If a loved one needed an expensive operation, we all, immediately and instinctively, would make whatever financial sacrifices were required to ensure that he/she could get that treatment. We would easily and effortlessly forsake regular pleasures, whether movies or massages or bottles of fine wine.  These sacrifices would not even feel like sacrifices and we certainly wouldn't pat ourselves on the back as martyrs.  We would simply be making choices based on our priorities and values -- keeping the loved one alive is obviously of more value than a massage or movie or bottle of expensive wine. 

Every religion of the world exhorts us to view the world as our family.  Can we? Can we do more than shake our heads in disbelief as we watch the news? Can we realize that the "sacrifice" of giving up meat so that our starving brothers and sisters may be fed, so that farmers' lands may be irrigated, so that trees may continue to grow in the Amazon, so that the rate of global warming and environmental devastation may be checked, so that Mother Earth may continue to have fertile land for growing crops, may we realize that this is a natural choice to be made and not an excruciating sacrifice? Can we truly feel the same Oneness, the same sense of family, for those who are not "us" as we do for those living under our own roofs or within our circle of friends? Can the deaths of the tens of thousands of children who are not like us each day affect us even a tiny bit as much as the deaths of those with whom we can more easily identify?

The world today requires not just that we connect on facebook and twitter, not just that we count our global presence in the number of "friends" or "followers" we have, but that we truly and deeply take the world into our heart. It is not easy. The suffering is vast and seemingly infinite. We naturally feel helpless and overwhelmed; hence the reaction is to shut ourselves down, to once again narrow that circle so that we may not be face to face with such pain.  However, we can't do that anymore.  Politically, environmentally, socially - the world of today requires us to be present and aware even with that which seems out of our control and beyond our reach. We will find that so much more than we thought is within our power to change. Perhaps we can't change entire industries, or entire government systems, but every choice we make of where to shop, what to wear, what to purchase and what to eat has an absolutely direct and powerful impact upon life situations for children dying of starvation, pre-pubescent girls and boys working 18 or 20 hour days in toxic sweatshops, cotton pickers suffering from pesticide induced cancers, suicidal farmers, and upon the health and balance of Mother Earth.

Some tragedies are unpreventable -- an act of terror for which, of course, hindsight is 20/20 but foresight was minimal. Some tragedies are preventable or mitigate-able on various levels (death by lifestyle diseases, for example). And then some tragedies are 100% preventable - caused, created and perpetuated simply by the conscious, deliberate choices of those who have the freedom to make choices. These tragedies are happening minute by minute, moment by moment; if we fail to prevent it today, we can work harder tomorrow. If we fail tomorrow, we have the day after.  We cannot turn back the clock and undo horrific acts of unspeakable violence and terror which have already been perpetrated.  All we can do is honor their memories with love and respect, and refuse to be part of the violence in the present and future.

India - Let it Inside You

"If one more person pushes and squeezes me in the aarti again I'm going to scream!" The tears in her eyes are testimony to the very real and sincere pain this young woman from London is experiencing. To an Indian this pain is unfathomable. Pushing and squeezing are part and parcel of the Indian way of life and the spiritual sector isn't an exception.  Overcrowding is not, in these cases, the reason, for there is plenty of room if one is only prepared to be a little further from the center of the action. 

The reason touches upon something much deeper and more profound about the culture of India, and explains one of the reasons that visits to India, particularly spiritual pilgrimages, are so emotionally difficult for people from other countries. 

After living in India for nearly 15 years I have realized that there is absolutely no concept of social space the way we understand it in the West. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It just is. In the West, there is an unspoken but universally understood "buffer zone" around each of us, physically and emotionally, which can be trespassed upon only by intimate friends and relations.  If two people who are standing and speaking with each other start to get too physically close (unless of course there is romance brewing) an invisible yet almost tangible magnet will pull them backwards until the comfortable social distance is re-established.  In India this is not the case.  If two people are sitting next to each other, with a socially comfortable 5 or 6 inches of space between them, that space counts as a "seat" and an Indian could very easily come and squeeze him/herself into that spot with absolutely no sense of having committed a social faux-pas.  I cannot say the number of times someone has come and sat down basically on my lap in a variety of religious functions in halls, temples and elsewhere.  "But how in the world did a voluptuous, well-endowed woman think there was room to sit down in six inches of space?" I used to wonder.  "Didn't she realize she'd be sitting on my legs?" Of course she realized. The difference is that to her there's nothing wrong with that, if she's Indian.  My legs, my lap, my personal space are absolutely viable options for places to sit.  Of course, there is no accompanying sense of embarrassment or apology, for -- by Indian cultural standards -- there is no such thing as social space, and if it doesn't exist then it certainly can't be violated.

The same is true emotionally. "Are you married? Why aren't you married? How come your parents let you come to India? Don't they want you to get married? How much money do you make? Are your brothers and sisters married? How much money do they make?"  The questions flow out in a fast stream, like a waterfall upon an unsuspecting bather who went into a pond for a relaxing dip, not realizing what was about to rain down upon his head.  The look of bewilderment, of insult, of embarrassment on the face of the questionee doesn't seem to deter the questions either.  For, again, there is no personal/social space they have invaded. It just doesn't exist.

This is where the choice comes for Westerners visiting India or living in India. We have two options. Either we can try to turn India into America or Europe and attempt to impose our standards and cultural norms upon India or we can let India be India and open ourselves to the transformation which is possible. The former is what we normally do, but it is an exercise in futility and frustration. The latter is where the real possibility of India manifests.

India is not a country which can be seen at an arm's distance. It is not a country which can be seen from behind the lens of a camera. It is a country which can ONLY be seen when it has entered and affected every single cell of our being.  To try to hold India at an arm's distance is about as effective as holding up a stop-sign at an approaching tsunami.  You're going to get wet, stop-sign in hand or no stop-sign in hand. And that's the beauty of India. India does not show us India from the outside. It's not about the buildings or the sights. Yes, of course these are beautiful and interesting, but they're not India in terms of what India has to give.  They can just as easily be seen in postcards. India shows us India not in bricks, not in cement, not even in mud or thatch, but India shows us India only from the inside. Once it has entered our being, whether we invited it or  not, once it has held up the mirror of ourselves to ourselves, once it has brought out both the very worst and also the very best in us (sometimes alternating almost comically in a period of merely minutes or hours), once it has turned us upside down and inside out, then and only then has India showed us India.

Europe can be held at a distance. One can visit Europe, enjoy Europe and "see" Europe by visiting the various cities and country-sides, by visiting the cathedrals and ancient ruins, by sipping coffee in a road side cafe and eating baguettes and brie on park benches in the shade. 

But India wants to get inside. And it will, for our own benefit.  If medicine were unable to penetrate the cell wall, if it were unable to get deep within our cells and spill its contents there, it would be unable to help us.  Merely floating around in our bloodstream, helpless in the face of an impermeable cell wall, medicine would be futile.  Our flus and fevers and blood pressure and cholesterol and blood sugar would remain unchecked and untreated.

In the same way, India is meant to heal us. But only from the inside. Only if it can penetrate the walls. Only if we let it in.

When I first came to India I decided almost immediately that I would wear sarees. Many people tried to dissuade me by telling me how difficult it is to tie a saree, but I decided that if half a billion people (approximately 50% of the population of India is women), most of whom were uneducated, could figure it out, it couldn't be so complex. Hence, I started wearing sarees, and I wore them poorly at first.  So poorly in fact, that every time I wandered around outside of the ashram, random women would come up to me, stick their hands into my saree, grab the place where the pleats get tucked into the petti-coat, and --with a few sharp tugs -- pull my saree into proper place. The first time it happened, I remember thinking, "Oh my God. That woman just stuck her hands into my underwear." And I didn't even know her.  But then I stopped and I realized there was another way of looking at this. Rather than thinking that a random, unknown woman had just violated my personal space in a very significant way, I could also think, "Wow. That woman just did for me exactly what she would have done for her own daughter. That woman on the street just adopted me." Suddenly, rather than being violated, I had been adopted. Day after day after day by woman after woman, until I finally learned to tie my sarees correctly. The number of Indian women who adopted me in that way is uncountable.

India is a country where everyone is a family relation. Uncle, Aunty, Bhai and Behen are ubiquitous suffixes to everyone's name. So a new woman we meet, older than ourselves, is not just Vinita or Vinitaji, but rather she is Vinita Aunty.  A new man we meet of a similar age to ourselves is not just Vinod, but rather he is Vinod bhai. The concept of Vasudheva Kutumbhakam (the World is One Family) is not merely a trite platitude. It is truly the way that India operates.  If she's my aunty and I'm her niece then there's nothing wrong with her sitting half-way into my lap. If she is Mataji and thus I am her daughter, then of course she can put her hands in my underwear to fix my saree. 

So, when someone sits down on top of our legs because he/she has decided that the 5 inches of space next to us is enough to squeeze into, or when someone places their bags, or their baby, on our lap as though we were a shelf, or when someone asks us questions more personal than we'd comfortably tell our own therapist, let us pause for a moment and realize we have a choice.  We have either been violated or we've been adopted.  The choice is up to us, and the outcome of our trip to India - whether it was heart opening and transformative in a beautiful and divine way, or whether it was frustrating, infuriating and nerve-wracking, bears direct correlation to which choice we make.  Violated or adopted? What other country offers such a choice?

From West to East to West again - Seekers and Pilgrims in Haridwar and Rishikesh

So Parmarth seems to be more of a ‘city’ ashram, then, rather than a traditional ‘forest’ ashram, wouldn’t you agree?” the interviewer queries.  He is a young man from Bombay doing a story on Rishikesh, gurus and the spiritual path in general. He’s come to Parmarth Niketan to take my interview regarding the ashram, its activities, the types of people who come and other topics.  However, from this question I realize he has completely misunderstood not only Parmarth Niketan but the fundamental truth of the traditional ashrams of Rishikesh.  No,” I explain. “It’s not a city ashram. It’s a traditional forest ashram, actually, based upon all the principles of traditional Indian spiritual practice. However, a city has grown up around it.”

The exodus of pilgrims and seekers to Rishikesh in the last two or three decades has turned this quiet village-like refuge of ashrams into a veritable city. But the city which has erected itself in front of, behind and around these ashrams does not change the nature of the ashrams themselves.  The ashrams still are, in most cases, traditional Indian spiritual communities, places where sincere seekers can study yoga, meditation, the scriptures and the inner workings of their own minds. 

This distinction, between the traditional and the modern, the forest and the city, the Western and the Eastern is one that must not be lost as the holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh quickly become refuges for seekers from every corner of the Earth.  There is actually a tragic irony running through these cities, which I’ve watched spread, like an epidemic, in the twelve years I’ve lived in Rishikesh.  Indians, in general and those living on the banks of Mother Ganga are no exception, long for everything non-Indian.  Fairness creams are the fastest selling items in stores and items from Amreeka are inherently more valuable than their exactly equal Delhi-purchased counterparts.  I cannot tell you the number of times someone -- having acquired God-knows how much punya for good karma over lifetimes and lifetimes thus having been born and raised on the banks of Ganga -- asks me: “Please aap mere liye Amreeka mein kooch kara dijiye, matlab meri naukri lagwa dijiye please. Kooch bhi karo, muje Amreeka bhijwana do bus.” [1]

The tragedy of this almost laughable paradox is far greater than simply Indians not appreciating that which they have. The tragedy is that the local people’s own yearning for the West is leading to a situation where the very richness, the very treasure chest of ancient wisdom, insights and spiritual secrets which draws Westerners here, is being deliberately diluted.  Westerners do not come to India to sit in cyber cafés drinking cappuccinos. They can do that on their own corners. They do not come here to hang out in the Indian mimicry of Starbucks or to eat peanut butter and nutella. They come here, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, called, drawn, compelled by an irresistible force toward the Truth. They come here because their souls are searching for that which cannot be found in the West. They come here to find that depth of spirit, that pulsating, dancing, singing, ecstatic existence which touches the very core of our being. They come here to find their true Selves.

The problem is that Westerners, like everyone, are creatures of habit. If we’re used to sitting in coffee shops and cyber cafés, we will naturally gravitate toward these places if they are available. If we’re used to drinking lattes, we will choose them over lassis. If we’re used to eating pizza, and if it’s easily available, we will usually forsake the traditional fare for that which is habitual.   Thus, it is becoming more and more likely that Westerners who come to the holy banks of Mother Ganga -- called by that indescribable, unknowable, yet irresistible universal force toward Truth, Depth and Divinity -- can now successfully idle away their entire time here gossiping over cappuccinos or emailing friends back home.  This is a tragedy of universal proportions, for India, for the West and for the entire world which is, I believe, relying upon India to guide it back to a properly balanced system of values, ethics and priorities.

I believe, fervently, that it is the responsibility of those purveyors of this ancient wisdom, those who have blessed beyond blessed to call Haridwar and Rishikesh home, those who are making decisions about what to offer and how to offer it, to do as much as they can to gift the ancient Indian wisdom and culture to those from the West, to satiate their hunger and to quench their thirst with Indianness. If one has traveled across the world, to the holy banks of Mother Ganga, dying of spiritual thirst, the answer is not to be handed a coca-cola upon arrival.  The answer is to dip one’s hands into the flowing waters of Ganga, to be taught to take archana, to drink and drink of that sacred nectar.  But, if upon arrival, one is greeted only with soda pop, one could tragically depart from this holy land never having tasted the nectar of Ganga jal.

What is the answer then? Clearly Uttarakhand needs development. Clearly, we must move forward and not backwards. Clearly we must not thwart progress. Yet, we must ask ourselves: “Development at what cost and for whom?” We must ask ourselves: “What is really forward and what is really backwards?” Are shop after shop after shop selling trinket after trinket after trinket really development? Are stall after stall after stall selling pizza and coke really a step in the “forward” direction?  Are coffee shops and cyber cafes which obscure the banks of Mother Ganga from our view, and dump their waste into Her waters, really progress?

Yes, Rishikesh and Haridwar are starting to look more Western and more modern, but we must not forget that all those who travel here from across the world have left “Western” and “modern” at home. They have consciously and deliberately traveled across the world to the East, and once arriving in India they have consciously and deliberately chosen these holy teerth[2] areas over cosmopolitan Mumbai or Hyderabad.  Clearly, they didn’t come for a coca-cola, a slice of pizza, a cappuccino, or an internet connection.  They came seeking that ancient, true, priceless “experience” of India through which one can experience the Divine.  They came, not for the same conveniences they have at home, but for something they DON’T have at home.  My fear is that in the rush toward modernization for the sake of the foreign traveler, we must not ruin that for which they are coming in the first place.  In our rush to put up more and more ATMs, more and more coffee shops, more and more cyber-cafes, we must not obliterate that which has compelled the travelers to come here.  

The first and most crucial step lies in the awareness and consciousness of those who call this area home.  When we awake each morning and think not about how we can get to America, but how extraordinarily blessed we are to be on the banks of Ganga…..when first thing in the morning we rush, not for the newspaper or the TV to see the latest celebrity gossip, but rather to the banks of Ganga to offer our prayers and our pranams at Her holy waters…..when we fill our homes and our children’s minds not with Western sitcoms and soap operas, but with traditional Indian music and stories……when we stop spending our disposable income on fairness creams and spend it on traditional rose water or kumkum[3] instead…..when we realize how very, very precious and matchless  the priceless wisdom, insight and answers of Indian culture are, and how very blessed we are to have access to them.  Only when that full, deep appreciation and awareness saturates our own beings can we share that with the visitors.

Rishikesh and Haridwar need development, but they need development of that which makes this area sacred – traditional yoga and meditation, pious and pure puja, a clean and pristine Ganga in which to bathe and ashrams which maintain traditional standards of purity and devotion.  People come here looking for the birthplace of yoga and meditation. They come looking for purity, sanctity and divine, spiritual truth. Let us focus more on giving them that. They won’t even notice the lack of cappuccinos. I promise.

[1] “Please get me a job, any job, in America. I’m prepared to do anything, please just arrange something for me in America.”
[2] Sacred pilgrimage spots
[3] The traditional powder made from turmeric used to apply tilak

Uttarakhand as a Hotspot for Yoga and Ayurveda

The telephone poles, windows of cyber cafes and restaurants, and walls of the ashrams are plastered with signs advertising every form of yoga imaginable -- from the traditional, standardized and internationally renowned Iyengar tradition to obscure, mysterious offerings for "Tantra, Yantra and Mantra."  The yoga courses and classes at our own ashram are full to capacity 12 months a year. Students of every religion, every culture and every language flock from every corner of the Earth to come and study asanas, pranayama, meditation and Indian philosophy.

When I first moved to Rishikesh nearly fifteen years ago I was an anomaly. I could feel the stares upon me as I walked down the street, in the market, as I sat on the banks of Ganga. Everywhere I went the questions rained down upon me, "Your country, Madam? Where do you belong? Where is your family?" The curiosity of the locals was insatiable. Why had I come? How long was I staying? How did I feel about India?  It seemed truly inconceivable to them that someone from America, the "Land of Plenty" could actually leave that and find true abundance -- of mind, heart and spirit -- here in India, and not even in the fast-paced metropolitan cities of Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta, but here in quiet, sleepy Rishikesh.  Now, in the evening satsang given by Pujya Swamiji (Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, the President and Spiritual  Head of Parmarth Niketan),  the crowd is nearly 50% foreigners, sitting with their eyes closed, legs folded into perfect padmasana or siddhanasa, palms upward on knees in jnana mudra, soaking up the divine vibrations and wisdom of the satsang.  Now, wandering from Rama Jhula to Lakshman Jhula, one sees signs not only in English, but also in French, Spanish, German and even Hebrew. 

What is happening? What is it that's drawing these foreigners by not the handful but by the thousands? It's been nearly fifty years since the Beatles were here and the Maharishi ashram has been abandoned for decades, so it's not Beatles-mania.  Further, the type of foreigner who comes here these days is not a wandering hippie, looking to stay as long as possible on the smallest imaginable budget, one who has little left behind, one who is walking away from something back home.  No. Today, the flock of foreigners are well-to-do, established, successful in a wide variety of fields, in India for a fixed period -- whether it's weeks or months -- as they have families and careers waiting for them back home.  Today, those who come here seem not to be running from anything; rather are running toward something.

What is it they are running toward and what is that exists here to pull them, almost magnetically, here. They have traveled across the world to the East, and once arriving in India they have chosen this holy area over cosmopolitan Mumbai or Hyderabad.  They have come seeking that ancient, true, priceless “experience” of India through which one can experience the Divine.  These days one can learn asana and pranayama on nearly every corner of nearly every city in the world.  So, although they may be here enrolled in yoga, pranayama or meditation classes, it's not merely the teaching for which they have come.  Rather, it is the "touch." They come here, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, called, drawn, compelled by an irresistible force toward the Divine, toward the true, deep and complete meaning of "Yoga" which is Union. But it is not union of the hands to the toes, or the head to the knee. It is union of the self with the Divine. The foreigners are rushing here because their souls are searching for that which cannot be found in the West, regardless of the excellence being obtained in Western yoga studios and certification programs. They come here to find that depth of spirit, that pulsating, dancing, singing, ecstatic existence which touches the very core of our being. They come here to find their true Selves.

Interestingly, the root of the world health is related not to the opposite of sickness, but actually to the word wholeness. To be healthy is not simply remaining off of antibiotics. To be healthy is to be whole, to be balanced, to feel complete. The Western vision and concept of both health and yoga is one dimensional. It is about the body. If the body is limber and strong and the yogasana matches the one in the book, then the practitioner is seen as a "yogi." If symptoms of a disease abate due to the ingestion of chemical medicines, the patient is seen as "cured." But, yoga and health go much deeper. There are components and layers to each that far transcend the physical.  Hence, while the West has miraculously been able to "cure" so many of the infectious diseases that plagued humanity a century ago, we are now seeing a burgeoning of idiopathic diseases (diseases of unknown origin) auto-immune diseases in which the body attacks itself, cancerous growths in which cells inexplicably return to an undifferentiated state and multiply frenetically.  These are diseases of a system out of balance, diseases of a system gone awry.  More and more people abroad are realizing the inefficacy of Western medicine in treating these chronic, systemic illnesses. Western medicine cannot restore balance to an imbalanced system. It may be able to treat the disease but it cannot bring true health and wholeness to the being. Hence, people are turning to ayurveda, turning to practices like yoga, pranayama, meditation which restore balance and true health & wholeness to the individual.

The land of Uttarakhand is one of the few places on Earth where one can receive not only the teachings of asana or pranayama, but where one can actually receive that divine touch that makes true transformation possible. The sacred energies lingering in the atmosphere from thousands of years of enlightened masters performing yoga and meditation, the waters of Mother Ganga that sweep across your face on the breeze, the winds that blow through the Himalayas and into your lungs....The motto of Uttarakhand is "Simply Heaven" and it is only in Heaven that one can find that true depth and completeness of divine union which the word "yoga" actually implies. It is only in Heaven that one can find the true balance of body, mind and spirit that brings not only freedom from disease but true health and wholeness. 

Facebook -- A useful tool for the present, but not a doorway to the past

 Don’t look at the name, look at the face. You won’t recognize the name, but look deeply into the eyes. You will recognize them,” I am about to write to my first love, a boy from Panama who broke my heart more than twenty years ago.   I was fifteen years old, intellectually forty but street-wise only about ten.  The extent of worldliness I could call my own was that I had been taking the city bus by myself down the main boulevard to my karate class since I was eight.  I had been raised to believe that “strangers are friends we haven’t met yet” and had not yet developed even an ounce of suspicion, cynicism or street smarts.  Roberto was seventeen going on thirty, part of the Central American elite where the youth aged at rapid speed.  We met at an international summer camp in Switzerland, a place to which if my parents had truly understood what went on they never would have sent me. He called me his “baby” and I was. But, that summer -- for eight precious, timeless weeks -- I was an adult. He took me on a boat, a fancy yacht that sailed from Lausanne to Evian in France, just for dinner.  Dressed up, we sat on the deck at a round table shared with couples twice our age, sipping champagne (there was no enforceable drinking age in Switzerland) as though it were something we did every night.  Yes, an evening cruise to France for dinner, just the two of us.

The summer of 1986 ended as quickly as they all do, but along with it my attachment did not. We were in love, and of course that meant forever.  Shoeboxes in my closet quickly filled with letters from him, which he sealed with a spray of his signature cologne (I didn’t know ANY other boys who wore cologne).  I would sit on the floor of my closet, pulling letter after letter out of the box, not so much to read his effusively devoted words as to clasp them to my nose, my heart, and my nose again until I was sure I could feel him sitting beside me, there on the carpeted floor, our heads lost in clothes hanging down from the racks. The song Hotel California, to which we had danced over and over and over again all summer, played on constant repeat-mode from the stereo in my room.  I was impervious to the objections raised by my Jewish grandfather to whom the idea of his 15-year old granddaughter falling in love with a Panamanian boy must have been the equivalent of death by hanging.  After all, I was sure, true love could overcome all hurdles, break down all boundaries, and cross all lines of religion and race.

A mere four months later, before the dawn of 1987, he had found himself a real woman, one whom he could take to bed, a place his fifteen year old “baby” could not even imagine going. And that was it. Over.  I knew from the first few seconds of our phone conversation that something had changed. “I have a new girlfriend, from Panama,” he told me. “A real woman.” There was no place or time for negotiation. That was it. I called him back a few days later, sobbing, when the reality finally sunk in and the shock wore off. He was drunk and pretended not to recognize my voice.

Fast forward twenty three years.  The betrayal and anguish have become simply threads in the tapestry of my life, woven together with threads of great love, bliss, maturity and development, and have almost dissolved imperceptibly into the intricately woven canvass of who I am.  Hindsight’s 20/20 vision has enabled me to see the obvious shallowness and immaturity, albeit very real intensity, of the love I felt at fifteen.  Those four months have become one of thousands of brush strokes upon the painting of my thirty-eight years, barely noticeable amidst the solid background of peaceful contentment with flourishes of deep gratitude, understanding, wisdom and joy.

Enter facebook…..I join at the behest of a friend who has created a “cause” for our charitable organization. In order to be part of the cause, I need to have an account.  As I begin to browse through its functions and options, I find how easy it is to search for people by simply name or country.  The temptation is strong. After looking up a few old friends from Stanford, I type in “Roberto Silvo, Panama.”  There he is. The picture is too small to recognize, for it’s of a man standing in a mountainous panorama. I dare not invite him to be my “friend.”

I am fascinated, compelled, drawn inward into the world of this boy, now man, whom I certainly don’t know and probably never really did, regardless of how convinced I was that we were soul mates. I peek inward, into as much of his world as I can see without leaving any traces or disclosing my identity. I look at all of his 162 “friends” as though somewhere, somehow, in their random names and random faces with their random children and random pets I can catch a glimpse of a person who existed twenty-three years ago in my teenage heart.   What relation his friend Maria Santos and her smiling photo with two beatific children has to the boy with whom I danced in an old Swiss stone building, up a narrow, cobblestone street in Chailly-sur-Lausanne, I have no idea. But then why am looking so closely at her picture? Why do I expect, somehow, that if I stare long enough it will reveal to me the answers I am looking for? One by one, I examine his “friends”, a role into which I know I never will, nor ever should, step, drawn by some nearly irrational yet ever so compelling tug of heart strings I thought had been left behind in the shoeboxes on my closet floor.

Disappointingly, not only do his 162 friends offer absolutely no window into the current life or soul or heart of Roberto, but I realize I have wasted nearly an hour.  I who usually am so focused, so disciplined with my time and energy have just let it fizzle away like the bubbles on a glass of champagne we shared on the boat to France.

Despite the allure of this new internet toy, it is unfortunately not set up to allow me permission-less access to someone else’s life.  I can see pictures of his “friends” but they bring me no closer to him.  So I send a message. “Are you the same Roberto Silvo who went to ITC in Switzerland and the Hun boarding school of New Jersey.” The answer comes back in less than 24 hours. “Yes, that’s me. But I’m a little fuzzy on you. Did you go to Hun?”  I have changed my name since he knew me. I have moved to India, and taken vows of renunciation. I have become a nun, living in an ashram in the Himalayas. Of course he would not associate the Indian, Hindu name of a saffron-robed woman contacting him on facebook, with the fifteen year old girl whose heart he broke as a carefree teenager. 

The urge to respond is strong. Nearly irresistible. I want, for some inexplicable reason, to have him “face to face” again.  Not to pick up where we left off twenty-three years ago. I am deeply sure about my decision for renunciation, and fully aware of the idiocy of taking up with someone I knew for four months a quarter of a century ago, whose life bears no relation to my own.  What is the instinct then? I search deeply within. What am I looking for? An apology? Awareness of the pain he caused me? Not really. I realize that the urge is much more simply for the connection of the past, the urge to go backwards rather than forwards, the urge to be fifteen years old, dancing in a dark room in a quaint village of Switzerland, at a time when the greatest concerns were whether to choose badminton or tennis for the afternoon activity.  The urge is to lift back up the heavy curtain which has dropped, the curtain between yesterday and today, between past and present, between then and now.  The urge is to have one last look, nay looking is not enough, to actually go back to a time when, ironically, all one wanted to do was grow up.  The urge is to hold everything in hand -- that which was and also that which is --  to somehow have ever expanding hands which are able to hold tightly to every moment, every person, every experience of the past while simultaneously having infinite room to be fully open in the present. The urge is, of course, impossible to fulfill. Life either moves forward or it stagnates in the past. One cannot simultaneously hold tenaciously to the past and be open to the present.

This is why, according to the theory of rebirth and reincarnation, we do not remember our past lives. It is difficult enough to navigate the present without the past popping in as an uninvited guest.  Information of past experiences (from either this life or previous lives) is extraordinarily useful as means of insight and understanding for our fears, desires, neuroses, obstacles. But it is the information and insight gleaned from past experiences rather than every aspect of the actual experience itself which should find a place in our current awareness.  If we carry all the actual experiences with us, replete with their full casts of characters and set designs, our stage becomes too crowded to allow the divine drama of the present to unfold.   Further, as we hold on to costumes of yesterday, to the script of last week, to the backdrop of last year, we prevent ourselves from donning the robes of today, from speaking the truth of this moment and from walking onto the set of now.  There is room in my life for the experience, the lessons, the strength I gained from being heartbroken at fifteen, but there is no room in my life for the inevitable confusion and clamor which would come along with the actual presence of my teenage heartbreak.  I stood up, off the carpeted floor of the closet in my parents’ home, and brushed myself off more than twenty years ago.  It is senseless to try to squeeze my thirty-eight year old being back into a closet sized for a heartbroken teenager.   

I do not respond to his message which asks who I am. The curtain has dropped and life has moved forward.  

Blindness -- What is Sight?

"Before we leave, can I please have one photo with you?" he asks while taking a camera out of his pocket and handing it to his friend.  "Of course," I say and I start to move nearer to him.  I am typically opposed to random people taking pictures with me and try to discourage it as sweetly yet sternly as possible. However, when the universe has already denied him so much, I cannot conscionably deny him anything more.  With some eye that hasn't been blind for the last sixty years, with some faculty as yet unknown to modern science, he aligns himself exactly next to me, without laying a single hand on my body.  "Smile" he commands with a laugh, as his mouth widens into a full toothed grin which spreads across his entire face.  The camera flashes in our eyes. He doesn't blink, of course.  "Take one more," he instructs his friend. "Just in case."

What will he do with this photo of me? He could neither see me sitting in front of him nor see the camera he removed from his pocket nor see the rushing Ganga river that flows outside the ashram. He can see nothing, as he lost all sight at the age of eight or nine. Yet he sees more than I do. He sees more than nearly anyone I know.

At the age of 19 his mother had tried to kill herself when his father died. He had been four at the time, and his mother succeeded only in rendering herself completely deaf, not in actually ending her life.  Due to cultural circumstances dictated by severe lack of education and other constraints in rural Southern India, his maternal grandparents decided that the best thing for his mother would be to live out her remaining years, however many they might be, sitting on a bed, eating, sleeping and chewing pan[1]. "She became a hunchback from bending over all day long to spit out the pan," he describes.  "Sixty-six years she lived like that, a forced invalid due to the loss of her hearing."  Upon his father's death and mother's deafness he had been sent to live with his paternal grandparents.  "I made a decision," he explains, "that I would become something, that I would serve the world, that I would see even without my eyes."

The list of organizations he has initiated and headed would put any successful philanthropist to shame.  An active Rotarian, president of an NGO dedicated to women's welfare, a leader in the blind movement in USA and India.....He led India's first march for equal rights for the blind, only to be lathi-charged[2] by the police who thought the peaceful marchers' canes were sticks.  Grabbed from behind and tossed -- all fifty meager kilograms of him -- into a police van, attacked and beaten along with his fellow conspirators, before anyone in uniform realized the reason no-one's eyes squeezed shut before the lathi struck their heads.  Yet he laughs as he describes it; there isn't a trace of bitterness or anger, just lessons well learned on the need for proper publicity and education prior to undertaking any further public processions.

As he's getting ready to leave he asks me for literature, documents, on our organization, on Pujya Swamiji's[3] work.  I put a pile of brochures and books into his outstretched hands, touching his fingers to the spine of each as I explain what they all are.  "This is a brochure of our Foundation, this is Pujya Swamiji's book on Peace," I tell him, as he gingerly fingers each book with the loving and eager attention of a child feeling his mother's face for the first time.  "Unfortunately," I stammer, slightly embarrassed, "we don't have any books on tape, although after meeting you I realize that maybe we should undertake that as well."  He smiles. "Oh, don't worry. I will use these two eyes to read them. I will find a way."

Later in the evening, he is due to leave the ashram but is determined to have darshan of Pujya Swamiji first. He waits, along with so many others, in the reception area until his name is called. How easy it would have been to leave on time without waiting for Pujya Swamiji's schedule to free up. For, he cannot see anyway. How easy to offer respects in his own mind, or through one of us. But he was adamant. He would wait for darshan despite the long journey ahead of him.  I am reminded of the story of a great saint of Vrindavan, also blind, who would travel by foot each day to Banki Bihari mandir[4]. One day in the midst of torrential monsoons, he alone braved the flooded alleyways to be present for evening aarti.  The priest, looking upon the sole worshipper that day, asked him, "Swamiji, you of all people, here in this weather? You could have stayed home and offered your prayers to the Lord at home, in your own mind. You cannot see the darshan anyway, so there was no reason for you to come out in this weather."  "Oh, my child," the Swami replied. "I may not be able to see Him, but surely He can see me."

Later, seated in Pujya Swamiji's jyopri (bamboo hut) my new friend bows down low to that which is Light to us and yet couldn't have been anything other than continued darkness for his non-seeing eyes.  How did he know, before Pujya Swamiji even spoke, where to bow? How did he know the exact perfect angle at which to lay his head so it was just in front of Pujya Swamiji's feet? How did his otherwise vacant eyes shine when he lifted his head? What had been perceived?

What is sight? Simply a series of neural impulses, connections and information sent electrically from the retina through the optic nerve and ultimately to the occipital lobe in the back of the brain? If that's all it were then everyone who saw the same scene would encode it and perceive it in the same way, barring of course any weakness or fault in the mechanisms of sensation or perception. Then court battles wouldn't be fought with one eye witness saying the getaway car was green and another swearing it was blue.  Clearly our "sight" is so much more than the encoding of neural stimuli.  What is it then? Much research has been done in the field of neuronal perception, regarding differing abilities of the blind with regard to light, shape, colors, etc. Some are able, even many years after losing all function of the retina or optic nerve to still "think" in form and imagery, while others seem to descend to a completely formless, colorless existence relatively shortly.  Theories abound regarding the differences being related to damage in different areas of the brain, or due to different types of personalities or the way in which each patient "exercises" the abilities they still have.  

Yet, while science can study the way light is absorbed, or not absorbed, by the retina, or the way that form is perceived, or not perceived, in the occipital lobe, what about that sight which is so much deeper? What about my new friend's ability to know where to lay his head or to intuit exactly where I was standing and to stand perfectly next to me? What is he seeing through eyes with irises floating about aimlessly like lily-pads in a clear pond? Is there a mechanism of sight beyond that which we know?

Hinduism talks about a third eye, an energy center (or chakra) located on the forehead between the eyebrows. It is said that this eye, when awakened, is the eye of clear vision, the eye which sees truth amidst untruth, which sees light amidst darkness, which sees the path amidst the forest, the eye which sees the divine in all.  Perhaps through losing the functioning in his two "normal" eyes, my friend has actually been gifted with heightened functioning in the third. It is well documented that losing one sense leads to an increase in ability in the others. So, for example, blind people absolutely hear and smell better than seeing people. They are able to differentiate between sounds and smells that most seeing people cannot.  However, is it possible that in addition to having enhanced functioning in their other four senses, blind people -- or at least those as spiritually inclined as my new friend -- also have an easier time seeing with their third eye? Do we, so heavily and habitually dependent upon waves and patterns of light and form to see, actually miss that which is before us? Do we, even those with peripheral vision intact, actually succumb to a different kind of tunnel-vision by assuming that that which we can "see" is limited to that which falls upon our retinas? Do we unconsciously filter out the other sight?

Perhaps, in exchange for the picture and books I gave him, my new friend could teach me how to see....

[1] A betel nut concoction chewed and spit, like tobacco, by many Indians
[2] A technique of rushing a crowd with long sticks, employed frequently by Indian police to disperse riots and crowds. The sticks typically get used not just to instill fear, but actually to beat the rioters or protesters.
[3] His Holiness Swami Chidanand Saraswati, the spiritual head of Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, India, where I live. In Hindi, "Pujya" means "worthy of reverence" and it is the typical title placed prior to Swamiji
[4] A famous temple in Vrindavan, dedicated to Lord Krishna