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

A summer evening on the banks of Ganga in Rishikesh....

A sadhu[1] sits, his lean body draped in a single, worn scrap of orange-ish brown cloth, swaying every so gently in the rapture of his meditation. His head tilts barely perceptibly to the right. Otherwise his posture is perfect, his legs folded neatly and easily into lotus, palms up on his knees. His body ever so gently sways to a music only he can hear, a music which brings a faint smile to his lips.

An elderly woman gently unfolds her cloth asana and lays it on the red tile a few feet from the sadhu. Raising her saree, she bends her knees and leans forward, placing both palms on the ground, then ever so gently first squats then lowers herself to the ground.

A family splashes in Ganga[2], at least 10 or 15 of them, ranging in age from quite young to at least 60. The men are in their underwear, bright blue on the young boys and faded white on the older men. The women and girls are fully clothed in modest salwar kameeses. They shriek and run, splash and swim in the shallow water near the ghat. “Jai Gange,” “Jai Gange”, “Jai Gange”[3] one of the men yells as he flails his overweight self through the air landing back in the water next to his brothers, sisters, cousins and children causing waves of water to engulf them all. 

It is sunset on the banks of Ganga, summertime in Rishikesh[4], and I have come for my evening walk – a time of solitude and quiet (if not externally, at least internally).  I am walking on one of the numerous ghats – the marble and tile pier-like platforms built on the banks of the river – on which people pray, meditate, stroll or simply watch the river.  As I walk to the North end of the ghat the sounds of the Ganga Aarti[5] coming from our own ashram – 3 ghats northward -- fill my ears. A crowd of several hundred to several thousand gathers each evening to sing the praises of Mother Ganga as Pujya Swamiji leads in divine, ecstatic chanting.  At the northernmost end of the ghat I turn and begin walking back southward.

A young, professional couple has come to the ghat for their evening walk.  They are both in traditional Indian attire with bright white Nike running shoes on their feet. They walk side by side, quickly, at a pace that might be appropriate for the treadmill at a gym but seems markedly out of place on the serene river bank. No one seems to notice however.

A small group has gathered down on the last step, where the water flows just a foot below. A simple brass oil lamp in hand, they perform the same aarti ceremony which is going on – on a grand scale – at our ashram just 200 feet away. “Om Jai Gange Maiya” they sing, acapella and completely out of tune, each clapping to a different rhythm, but without even a trace of self consciousness. After all, they are singing for God.

I pass the sadhu again, his eyes still gently shut, the faint yet ever-so-present smile still on his lips, transported in to a far-off realm, ecstatically oblivious to the rowdy family splashing and shrieking gleefully in Ganga a mere ten feet away.

The elderly woman has lit a stick of incense, the bottom end of which she puts into an apple to hold it up, and she has pulled a long rudraksh mala out of her purse. She takes the pallu (tail end) of her saree gracefully sweeping it up from behind her back to cover her head before she begins her prayers.

As I reach the southern end of the ghat the sounds of a temple cassette playing the prayer “Swami Narayan, Swami Narayan, Swami Narayan” come blaring forth loudly from a temple across the river, sharing the sound waves with the chanting of “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare” from the Hare Krishna temple next door.  With each step that I take southward, the sounds of Hare Krishna become fainter and Swami Narayan become louder. Then, as I turn to walk back northward, Swami Narayan fades into the background, and Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna becomes louder. 

Two teenage girls come prancing down the ghat in their tight jeans and t-shirts, laughing as they take up their own place near the water, on the edge of the ghat.  One of them pulls out her mobile phone and they begin to take pictures of each other, in various poses copied from the covers of fashion magazines, with the sun setting into Ganga as the backdrop.

The elderly woman signals to me by waving her hand once as I approach. It is an order, not a request.  Had I not lived in India for thirteen years I might be taken aback by the presumptuousness of the beckoning. But I stop at her asana and bend down. She does not want to chat. She does not want to know “your country, ma’am.” She does not want one photo.  Rather, she simply and sweetly motions for me to give her some water from the river. Although the ghat where she sits is a mere foot above the flowing water, she is unable to reach down to it.  I step into the wet sand and bend down, cupping water in my hand.  Prior to beginning her japa[6], she wants the mala[7] to be blessed and purified by Ganga yet she’s unable to dip it herself.  As I pour the water from my hand into hers I am consciously aware of the fact that I am a foreigner. Indians somehow have an innate ability to hold holy water in their cupped palm for an indefinite period of time without spilling a drop, while the precious water slips freely through my fingers despite my best attempts at preserving it.   She does not seem to notice this shortcoming and her eyes fill with tears of gratitude as I pour the water into her cupped palms. Not realizing that I speak Hindi, she says, “Thank you” in English.  

The small group performing aarti sings louder and louder, their bodies now each swaying to an individual tune, the smoke rising high in the air, but the sounds of their aarti quickly dissipate as I near the north side of the ghat and the melodious, beyond professional sound of Pujya Swamiji singing fills the air – coming from nearly 200 feet away.

The family is still shrieking and splashing in Ganga, children diving into the water off the rocks…..

A mangy white dog chases a mangy black one, trying desperately to mount. The black female yelps as she runs across the ghat, her wet tail spraying water everywhere. Nearly knocking over the sadhu and the elderly woman (neither notices however), the dogs tear through the small crowd singing aarti. Devotees gently step aside to let the dogs pass; no one other than the children pays attention.

Across the river I notice a large fire burning, one of the numerous cremations that takes place each day. In the fading light of sunset I can barely make out a small crowd of mourners gathered around the burning body of their loved one.  The fire is huge and its flames and smoke rise quickly into the air, mingling somewhere not so far off with the smoke and flames of the aarti being performed in groups large and small up and down the river banks.  I try to imagine what it must be like, standing on the edge of a river watching your mother or father or spouse or child go up in flames against a backdrop of celebration.  Personally, I do not think I could tolerate it. “How dare the world not come to a complete halt now that my loved one is no more? How dare the sun rise when my loved one is not here to greet it?” 

Yet here in India, birth and death, joy and sorrow, rich and poor, somber and rambunctious all seem to flow together as seamlessly as the waters of Ganga carry both the ashes of the deceased and the flowers of the devotee.

In the West we seem to have compartmentalized our existence. This is a temple. This is a funeral parlor. This is a moment of celebration. This is a moment of despair. This is where the wealthy gather. This is where the poor gather. This is where teenagers hang out. This is where the pious pray and seekers meditate. This is where families spend their holidays.   On the banks of Ganga there is no such compartmentalizing.  The drops of water from a young boy’s playful splash are no different from the drops I pour into the eager hands of a woman at prayer which are no different from the drops that rise up to embrace the burning embers of a body that used to house a soul. As the smoke of the cremation mingles with the smoke of the aarti, as the sounds of “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna” mingle with the sounds of “Om Jai Gange Maiya” which mingle with the sounds of “Swami Narayan” so the stages of the cycle of life and death mingle, seamlessly, one fading into the next with neither beginning nor end.

[1] A Hindu renunciant, wandering monk
[2] Ganges River
[3] Term of reverence for the Ganges River - Jai means "glory to"
[4] town in the lap of the Himalayas, about 200 miles north of New Delhi
[5] the evening prayer ceremony on the banks of the river, which has become famous at our ashram, Parmarth Niketan
[6] sacred chanting on the beads of a rosary
[7] the rosary, typically made of beads either of the rudraksh tree or tulsi plant

Mind Control and Cults: A Possible and Tragic Error in Logic

Mind Control and Cults: A Possible and Tragic Error in Logic 

  1. Milieu Control
  2. Mystical Manipulation
  3. Demand For Purity
  4. Confession
  5. Sacred Science
  6. Loading the Language
  7. Doctrine Over Person
  8. Dispensing of Existence
These are the 8 criteria to ascertain whether a situation or group is engaged in the insidious act of “brainwashing”, as outlined by Robert Jay Lifton, one of the most renowned voices in the psychology of mind control.  The criteria are used to examine cults hiding behind the veils of religious, charitable or self-help organizations. They are used to examine groups, organizations and institutions to which people flock in our never-ending human quest for deeper meaning, higher purpose and connection in our lives.  If the organization fulfills the majority of the criteria, closer examination, regulation, warning and even disbanding is required.

June 1993, Palo Alto California. Dr. Phil Zimbardo, Stanford University’s famous psychology professor, author of the renowned “Stanford Prison Study” — the most famous (or infamous) study of its kind, showing how normal, educated, healthy young adults can so completely adopt the norms of the milieu in which they are placed that they lose both their own sanity as well as their own long-cultivated sense of self and morality — and the undisputed academic expert in the field of mind-control, is standing with his fatherly hand on my shoulder. The hot June sun pierces through my black graduation gown, and I begin to perspire under the weight of the gown.

Dr. Zimbardo keeps his hand gently and tenderly on my shoulder, occasionally giving it a slight squeeze, as he speaks proudly to my parents. “In all my years of teaching this class, she is the first person who has ever gotten an A+.  There are at least 200 students a semester in the Psychology of Mind Control, and I’ve given many A’s, but never an A+. You should be very proud of her. I am sure she will achieve great things in her life.” Fortunately the warmth of the summer day coupled with the insulation of the heavy black gown had already made my face red, so the flush of pride turning my cheeks pink went unnoticed.

September, 1996: Rishikesh, India. The marble grows cold under my thin burgundy “salwar kameez” the Indian garment worn by young ladies, comprising a pair of loose fitting cotton drawstring pants and a flowing, long, matching blouse.  After the rains end like clockwork on September 15, the coolness quickly begins to set in, bringing relief to a land which has baked for the last 4 months under first the dry, scorching heat of May and June and then under the wet, humid, heavy heat of the monsoon season.  I sit on the marble steps leading down to the banks of the rushing waters of the Ganges, a river worshipped by over a billion people as the embodiment of the Mother Goddess, a river to whose banks millions of Indians flock from across the world, sometimes spending their last rupee to arrive here, full of faith that the  touch of the waters will wash away not only the tiredness of the body but lifetimes of karma – that account which has built up due to positive and negative deposits we’ve made through good and bad actions, and whose returns we will surely have to reap at some point in this lifetime or next.

The water rushes by, a thick layer of ethereal mist floating above it, blurring the entire landscape into an impressionist painting : a surreal image of lush, wet green mountains on a canvas of deep blue sky turning dark with night, the painting sprinkled with splashes of light, first yellow then saffron orange, as the sun completes its descent, dropping slowly into the waters of the deep river. The translucent layer of mist blows across the landscape, carried it seems by the waters of the river, obscuring the form and definition of objects, permitting only the bright rays of the setting sun to pass through.

My vision blurred with the landscape, tears cascade from my eyes over my cheeks. Unable or unwilling to maintain focus on any one object, I let my visual field expand, filled with the neverending waters of the continually moving river. My eyes tear even more as the waters flow right to left, downstream, moving, moving, moving in a blur of blue and grey and yellow light across my visual field.  Eyes open, yet not seeing, my retina simply a canvas upon which the paint of the landscape is thrown.  I cannot process the visual information. Movement, colors, light – they merge together into what seems to be a hallucination, a temporary loss of consciousness, a loss of connection with the predictable world of form.

My cheeks are wet, my lips salty. I am crying without realizing it.  The formless, nameless, indescribable reality moving across the waters of the Ganges has pierced the thin wall surrounding the existence to which I am accustomed, and has entered my consciousness, changing it forever.  The outside world, the previous world, the world of all the people, places, goals, ideas….it fades from reality, blurred out as if the painter had taken his thumb and smudged the neatly drawn lines, neatly defined reality. That which had been definite, that which had been real, that which was filled with form and meaning becomes, in one stroke of the unknown painter, a smudge, a blur, a distinct impression of some previous existence yet one which no longer has any definable quality, form or shape.

Time? Time has no meaning. The rays of light bouncing, dancing on the rushing water, twinkle and shine, piercing the film of tears across my eyes, blinding my sight, forcing an attention. An attention to what?
The suns last rays, as it dips into the river, continue to dance in the thin, clear, visible band across the top of the water, just below the layer of mist which obscures all from sight. The light pierces my eyes and my consciousness; tears stream down my cheeks. Tears due to the natural reaction to bright light? Tears of an awakened consciousness? Tears of that merging, melting Oneness? The part of my brain that would have wondered from whence the tears came has long ago been silenced, smudged and blurred into the age of my past.  Thus, free to flow with no fear of being analyzed, the tears continue to drench my cheeks as I sit on the ever cooling marble steps. My awareness merges with the rushing waters of the current, with the flowing mist, with the blurred landscape. I swim, I bathe, I melt into that moment, into the streaming rays of light dancing on the waters.

How long has it been since the aarti ended? How long ago did the sounds of His voice, singing from another world, fade away? When did the last oil lamp slowly burn out? Has it been minutes or hours or days or lifetimes? Any answer is both possible and plausible, as the ridiculous concept of time as we know it – as I had previously understood the seconds in a minute, the minutes in an hour, the hours in a day — loses all meaning. More tears gush as I laugh out-loud at the concept of linear time, just as an ever wise 10 year old laughs at the way his younger sister still believes in Santa Claus. “Yes, I also used to think that,” he realizes proudly. “Then I grew up.”

The whole idea of linear time a mere joke, our legs pulled by a society that has got us in the palms of their hands….Time. Was it less than 3 weeks ago that I sat on the airplane to India, wondering if it’d really make it 3 ½ months without getting sick, or lost or intolerably fed up from the crowds and, the poverty and the dirt? Was it less than two weeks ago I had first stood on these marble steps, first heard the sounds of Him sing,  first watched the flowing waters through the dancing flames of an oil lamp? I laugh again, causing another wave of tears to fall from my eyes. A cosmic joke this idea of time. I have been here forever. There has never been a time I was not listening to Him sing, not watching the river flow past, not dizzy from the blurring mist as it obscured all scenery from view. Or have I just arrived, this very moment? Just awakened, just touched for the very first time? Just born out of the womb, onto the warm, rushing, healing waters of the Ganges?

Lifton’s Checklist. A checklist of what?
  1. Milieu Control
  2. Mystical Manipulation
  3. Demand For Purity
  4. Confession
  5. Sacred Science
  6. Loading the Language
  7. Doctrine Over Person
  8. Dispensing of Existence
I walk up and down, barefoot on the marble pathway, the sun long since set, the mist cleared, the mountains obscured now simply by the darkness. The moon has begun its ascent over the Himalayas and soon would shine brightly overhead.

Was I being brainwashed? Was this a cult? What had happened to me? I recited Lifton’s criteria over and over in my mind.

Milieu Control. This refers to creating an isolated physical environment, one in which the members are not in touch with the “outside” world, including friends, family or society.

I was, of course, isolated in that I was in India and my family and friends were back in USA. But, it went even deeper than that. The ashram has no TV; they are, in fact, forbidden. There was no internet. Phones were available in the marketplace outside, but the difficulty of placing an oversees call ensured that one would rarely invest this much time.  There is a small marketplace where one can buy all necessities ranging from toilet paper to shampoo to cashew nuts.  Yet, the shopkeepers themselves are isolated, also living in this small village, across the river from the city of Rishikesh, the city itself tiny by Indian standards and itself based on the same principles as the ashram.

Mystical Manipulation
.  This has to do with the creation of experiences that seem divinely orchestrated, demonstrating the divine/higher power of the Leader. Events take place, actually planned insidiously by the group and/or Leader which appear spontaneous in order to convince others of the special powers held by the Leader.

In my mere two weeks in this unimaginable land, I had been witness to countless moments where Swamiji’s connection with the Divine was clear. His powers of knowledge, of insight, of vision, of understanding were clearly far beyond that of a human.  His power over himself, over others and over the natural world around him was  obvious. Yet, had it been manipulated? Was I a pawn in someone’s hands? Was the whole thing a trick?

Demand for Purity
. According to Lifton, the members of a cult are exhorted to be “pure” compared to the outside world.  Actions, thoughts and tendencies of others are condemned, and great emphasis is put on purification of one’s own thoughts and habits. Members typically learn to feel guilt and/or shame when they do not live up to these demands for purity.

Yes, this too was part of my new existence. Aspects of my previous world which had seemed perfectly normal and natural were now impulses to be quelled. Alcohol – even a small glass of wine with dinner or champagne to celebrate an occasion – was forbidden and seen as poisonous as heavy drugs. Sex, romance, passion – all were impulses that must be checked and overcome if one was to live a truly spiritual, pure and holy life. Idle harmless gossip, meaningless chatter, entertaining games of cards or evenings at the movies – while not considered “evil” or “sinful” these were all activities which must not be engaged in, for they distract one’s attention and waste one’s precious time, preventing the true attainment of spiritual illumination and divine purity.

Yes, we learned quickly that one’s thoughts, actions and words all must be pure. That which was not pure must be given, sacrificed, surrendered, and prayers should be said for the strength to remain pure, holy and divine.

. In a brainwashing situation, Lifton and others explain, the concept of confession is of prime importance. When a member of the cult commits mistakes, when one does not live up to the ideal of purity, it is imperative to confess, either privately to the Leader or publically.

Here, yes, I can see how people come to Swamiji, bow down at His feet, and – with tears pouring from their eyes – admit the mistakes they’ve made, praying for Him to somehow absolve them of both the guilt as well as the impending negative karma they know they will face.

He is infinitely compassionate, forgiving all, yet warning them that confession, itself, is not the ultimate answer. They must truly change themselves, vow to be different and pray for strength not to continue their erroneous ways.

Sacred Science
. As defined by Lifton Sacred science refers to the idea that “the group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.”

Yes, I realize as I begin to pace back and forth on the cold marble platform overlooking the rushing current of Ganga, the moon now high overhead, casting its glistening light upon the dark waters, this too, rings true for the ashram.  The ideology, though not unique to this particular ashram yet shared by millions of people across the country of India, certainly is considered to be the ultimate Truth.  The practices, the theories, the concepts, the ideas – these are definitely considered to be the best way, the Truest way, the purest way.  Pujya Swamiji is seen not merely as a spokesperson for God, but actually as a divine incarnation, as a manifestation of the Divine on Earth. I, too, in His presence, have had the indisputable, undeniable awareness of being in the presence of Divine Love, Divine Light and Divine Truth, the closest experience to God that I have ever had or heard of.

Loading the Language
. This includes ways of thought-stopping, so that negative, critical thoughts do not arise, as well as particular jargon and language which are used to make the new members’ thought processes conform to that of the group/cult.

Here, in order to rid ourselves of the endless chattering of the mind (yet, also, one could argue, to put an end to negativity and critical thinking) mantras are used – sacred phrases from the scriptures that one chants, over and over again, hundreds of times a day until the chanting becomes automatic and unconscious. As the mantra takes over the mind, and the mind becomes still, free of the ceaseless chattering, constant wandering and incessant commentary to which we have grown accustomed in our lives, a distinct and pervasive serenity takes over. The mind is no longer either the master or an annoying yet omnipresent guest in one’s home. Rather, slowly, the mind becomes the slave, no longer wandering of its own free will, but a tool in the hands of the Higher Intellect. This is a moment to be yearned for, worked for, prayed for – the moment at which one has achieved control over the mind, ridding it of its automated thoughts and bringing it into line with the Divine.
Mantras are certainly, I concede as the pace of my steps quickens, thought stopping techniques; their very goal, as stated, implied and understood is to stop the thoughts, to, in fact, replace the thoughts with the mantra. The measure of success in one’s spiritual progress is how easily one is able to still the mind and stop the thoughts.

Doctrine over person
. The seventh item on Lifton’s checklist refers to members’ individual and personal experiences being subordinated to the group ideology. Experiences that run contrary to the ideology are reinterpreted in order to fit the schema of thought.

Yes, I have occasionally heard Swamiji and others dismiss criticism of the ideology as ego or fear or ignorance. Experiences which vary from the ideology are not denied completely; yet they are certainly re-stated in such a way as to be understandable to other members and to better fit in with the belief system.

Dispensing of existence
.  This last criterion means that the group/cult typically claims that only they are saved, enlightened, awake, conscious, etc. and that others are not. Further, the members must try to convert others to the ideology, to make them a part of the group, for their own well being. Those who are not part of the group/cult must be rejected.

This last criterion is the only one I could not fit my experience into. Yet, according to Lifton and others, not all 8 criteria are essential for an experience to be one of brainwashing and a group to be a cult. Seven out of eight is certainly more than enough to safely put the ashram in which I was staying, the place to which my heart had pulled me more strongly than anything before, the place which I was sure was to be my home, into the box of “cult”, my Guru into the box of “Cult Leader” and the opening, awakening, illuminating, transforming experiences into the box of “brainwashing.”


I pace back and forth, first quickly with that familiar sense of anxiety that arises whenever I fear I am making a mistake. What if this is a cult? What if I’ve been brainwashed? What if I will need to be de-programmed when I go home? The experience fits Lifton’s criteria which are surely well-researched, well-authenticated, replicated and widely agreed upon by the experts.

Yet, in the midst of that moment of inner panic, that moment of doubting myself completely, that moment of suspecting that my own intuition and feelings may actually have been mystically co-opted by another, I stop walking. Wait. Here I am. Sane. Aware. Awake. Conscious. Still able to let my mind wander. I silently sing all the lyrics to Fire and Rain, my favorite James Taylor song. I still remember them. I sing commercial jingles – for soap, for car dealerships, for fast food joints. Still remember them all. I complete the multiplication tables, first of 3, then 4 then 8. As quick as ever.  I begin to subtract by 3’s from 100. 97, 94, 91, 88, 85….no problem. Brain still works. I name the capitals of the 50 states of America. I can still do it. Brain is still there.

Wait. I am here. I am me. I know and remember and can do all that I ever knew, remembered and could do. I am here. I am me. I am conscious and awake and aware.

My steps become slow and calm. I am comforted, oddly enough, by my own ability to still go back into the senseless world that God has taken me from.  I am comforted by my ability to repeat and remember things I would never actually want to repeat or remember! But it is more than that. I am comforted by an awareness, a deep awareness from a place in my being that did not take Dr. Phil Zimbardo’s mind control class, a place in my being that has not been completely indoctrinated by the Western, psychological, scientific community, a place in my being that is still free to feel, to sense, to intuit, to know. A place in my being that does not need to be told by another – yes, this is right, or no, this is wrong. A place that knows.

The awareness begins to wash over my consciousness, welling up from this place deep within and then overflowing, almost volcanic in the strength and speed of its eruption. This is right. This is true. This is not an insidious cult, but a divine intervention in that which was sure to be an otherwise very mediocre life. My brain may certainly be getting cleaned, but it is far from being washed!

A possible error in logic and assumption
As the awareness of the Truth, the realness, the rightness of this place and this experience washes over me, I wonder about Lifton and his checklist.  He is not wrong. These criteria are certainly indicative of cults and brainwashing. One could, as we had done in Zimbardo’s class, apply them to Jonestown, to the Moonies, to a dozen other organizations stealing the minds, freedom and funds of their members for their own benefit.  Yet, does that mean that this place, this sanctuary of peace, meaning and divine connection for tens of thousands of people, is also a cult engaged in mind control?

I thought about the “logic” questions on the GRE exam. Numerous questions are some variation of the following theme: “If all zingbats are zoonies and all zoonies are zoftings, are all zingbats zoftings?” Or, “If all patseys are palsies and some palsies are platsies, are all platsies patseys?” In order to answer these questions, if one is not familiar with the common errors in logic the exam is testing, one merely has to substitute common words. So, if the question reads “If all zingbats are zoonies and all zoonies are zoftings, are all zingbats zoftings?” one simply has to say “Okay let zingbats be tangerines, let zoonies be oranges, and let zoftings be fruit.” The question now reads: “If all tangerines are oranges and all oranges are fruit, are all tangerines fruit?” One can easily answer yes.

However, a tiny sleight of hand renders the answer negative. All zingbats may be zoonies (tangerines are oranges) and all zoonies may be zoftings (oranges are fruit) but even though all zingbats are zoftings (tangerines are fruit) that does NOT mean that all zoftings are zingbats (fruit is tangerines). There are many types of fruit which are not tangerines.  The makers of the GRE exam catch innumerable unsuspecting graduate school applicants in this way.  If the answer to “Are all zingbats zoftings?” is yes, then we assume that the answer to “Are all zoftings zingbats?” must also be yes. But this is an error in logic. All tangerines are fruit, but not all fruit is tangerines.

Might we be making the same mistake in society as students make on their exams? Might we be just as easy to catch in our judgments as graduate school applicants? If all cults fulfill Lifton’s criteria, does that mean that simply fulfilling the criteria makes an organization a cult? If all instances of brainwashing abide by these criteria, does abiding by these criteria automatically mean that one is engaged in brainwashing?

If we assume that just because all tangerines are fruit, that all fruit is also tangerines, we will miss out on the infinite joy of experiencing apples, berries, melons, banana. Similarly, if we assume that just because all cults fulfill these criteria, that fulfillment of the criteria is, in and of itself, enough to define an organization as a cult, might we miss out on the possibility of organizations and groups that challenge us, teach us, touch us and transform us in a way far beyond that which we are used to? Might we, in our insatiable effort to name, define, list and categorize all experiences according to that which we have studied, make a tragic mistake of sticking a potentially beautiful, beneficial, positive and progressive experience into the box of “cult” simply because we don’t yet have any other way to define it?

If we tell society that just because all tangerines are fruit that all fruit is, therefore by definition tangerines, we are stealing from them the possibility of picking blackberries, of spreading raspberry jam on hot toast, of having mango juice run down their chin.  We have limited their entire fruit experience to simply tangerines. Similarly, if we tell society that to control your environment, master your mind, strive for purity, confess your mistakes, chant mantras to tame the wandering thoughts, and live in the presence of one who is a manifestation of the Divine, is to join a cult might we be depriving them of an environment that could help them, heal them and bring them peace?

Our responsibility as psychotherapists
People join cults as well as valid spiritual organizations because they are searching for something – either consciously or unconsciously. Someone who is completely content and satisfied with his life is unlikely to reach out to an organization promising greater peace, meaning and fulfillment.  There just isn’t enough time in life.  If we are thoroughly fulfilled by that which is already on our plate, we are unlikely to want to heap something else on there as well.  The fact that people who are educated, intelligent and prosperous and whose lives are full of potential still get trapped by cults and brainwashers should be a message to society. What is it that the cult, charismatic leader or brainwashing organization is offering them that is so appealing they are prepared to leave their discerning minds at the doorstep? The answer, of course, varies from person to person and situation to situation. However, nearly all answers will fall within a few categories: love, acceptance, defined and definable rules, a commonality and community with others, a sense of service and thus meaning in life, connection to a Higher Power either one within ourselves or one in the form of the Leader.  If educated, intelligent people were not hungry for meaning and peace in their lives and love and acceptance in their relationships, and some kind of understanding of the greater purpose of our lives on Earth, there would be no need for Lifton’s checklist because so few people would join cults as to render them virtually irrelevant in the bigger picture of society.  If people were not so fed up with their own inability to understand and master their minds perhaps they would not be so ready to give up these minds into someone else’s hands.

If we are going to study the methods of mind control and the criteria by which something qualifies as such, it is important I believe to also study the underlying causes in society which may be leading otherwise intelligent, capable and discerning people into the clutches.  Their needs are valid. Their yearnings are valid. Their emptiness and lack of meaning is valid. Therefore, if – as professionals in the field of psychotherapy – our goal is to not merely classify and categorize organizations as “cult” or “not cult”, “brainwashing” or “not brainwashing” but rather to actually help people, we must be prepared to allow organizations which DO provide what people are looking for to flourish.  To simply name the need for connection, meaning or purpose is not enough. We have not served the people if we simply say, “Oh it is the need for connection, meaning, purpose and understanding in life that leads people into the open arms of a cult.” Rather, we must be prepared to a) accept that typically our society and culture does NOT provide what people need on an inner, deeper level for true peace, serenity and joy in life, and b) that generally spiritual organizations DO provide this.

Yes, some doctors rape their patients on the operating table. That does not mean that one should go into an operation exceedingly wary of the doctor or suspect all doctors of being potential rapists. Similarly, some clergymen rape young members of their congregation. Yet, in general, clergymen provide an invaluable and irreplaceable service in our society, bringing understanding, solace and a meaningful framework of existence to countless people.

Some spiritual leaders or charismatic leaders of organizations are megalomaniacs and narcissists, concerned only with their own power, image, fame or other motive.  The organizations they run use a variety of sinister methods to mask their true motivations and to trap members. However, the methods they use are mostly just mischievously co-opted forms of legitimate techniques employed by legitimate organizations working to help people live better lives.

While we work to ensure that all members of society retain control over their own lives, their own minds and their own bank accounts and that the power hungry, dysfunctional leaders and members of cults do not rob fellow citizens of their inalienable rights, we must not lose sight of the reality that spirituality and both ancient and modern spiritual traditions may share many characteristics with the cults to be avoided, yet they actually hold within them crucial and irreplaceable keys to helping people live lives that are satisfying, meaningful and deeply connected.  We must not, as the old saying goes, throw out the baby with the bathwater.


  1. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, Norton (New York City), 1961
  2. Layton, Debrorah. Seductive Poison: Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple, Anchor, 1999
  3. “The Psychology of Mind Control” senior year psychology course taught at Stanford by Dr. Phil Zimbardo, including innmerable articles, lectures, movies etc.