Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays

Best wishes for a happy and safe holiday season!
I left North America a long time ago. Looking back today, I feel that the sense of the specialness of the Christmas season has slowly dimmed over the intervening years .

But upon reflection, what has really dimmed is the concept of the commercial shopping mall Christmas. I find today that the holiday as an excuse/occasion to express that which should be said every day is as alive as ever:

I wish peace, good will and safety to you all
I wish for days filled with happiness and not clouded by fears,
I wish for safety and health and an absence of fear and decay,
I wish for harmony among all and no clash of swords or ideas,
I wish for unity, understanding and acceptance for all.

I wish you all the best in life for all the days that follow.

The Yoga of Devotion

Bhakti Yoga for the Kali Yuga
Sri Ramakrishna, in his teachings, tells us that Bhakti Yoga, or the yoga of devotion, is the path of discovery best suited to the Kali Yuga, or the Iron Age. That meditation on and devotion to the purity and goodness of God (in the universal rather than the sectarian sense) through chanting, song or other arts, is the surest way to self-realization amid the distractions and pitfalls of the modern world.

Swami Mukundananda
During my time at the ashram near Bangalore, I met Swami Mukundanda, a Bhakti Yogi who is apparently of considerable fame in India. One morning, sitting on crag atop the dramatic mound of Durga Hill, Swami-ji put his arm around me and said "Yuri, this path [the path of yoga asana, or physical practice] is not for you, you are a Bhakti in your heart."

Now this does not mean that I am about to drop the practice of asana, but it did start me pondering where the practice of devotion is in my life.

I have written previously about my feeling sitting in my parents' church as a child, feeling at one with a community while singing hymns with abandon. Those, of course, were battle hymns of the evangelizing Christian machine:

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to War
With the cross of Jesus, marching on before

The other morning, sitting at the Bhajan at Upa House, here in Tiruvanamallai, I felt again that feeling of community - singing and chanting with abandon and ananda (bliss). But this time it was not crusade anthems, but chants of devotion to the concept of a pure God and his many incarnations in the form of the great prophets of history - and in each of us seated in that room, swaying, eyes closed, hand-in-hand:

Saraswati, Ma Lakshmi, Durga Devi, Ramana

Being truly in that moment, singing without a hint of self-consciousness, smiling a smile that expressed a true state of BEING.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Ram Ram, Hare Hare

Ironically, these were moments that embody what I am looking for on this trip, and were moments that, while not being indicative of the general tenor of my mind thus far in my life, have been repeated often in my experiences - generally when I am in song, but also in the company of family and truly close friends, of the people that I love and in the places that I love.

So I am not looking for something new herein India or at this point in my life, but am trying to foster a feeling I know well and have it flourish in every living moment; to have it burst forth self-illuminated and self-sustained instead of being dependent on another person or another place - or even on a song springing from my lips.

So I am a Bhakti!
I need to don white robes, join an ashram of the Bhakti persuasion and chant morn til eve! Well, not exactly. But I do need to find the rhythm that I know is in me, but never seems to translate into smooth moves on a dance floor, a tuneful rendition in song or any more than trepidatious tap tapping on a drum.

Four Paths of Yoga
In the bigger picture, there are four paths of yoga that all lead to enlightenment - or self realization. Bhakti is one amoung these four, and I am at different points on all:
  • Bhakti - the path of devotion: I know I have a love of song and find joy and moments of pure self-realization in the ecstasy of song. So, I need to sing, dance and make music with abandon to bring that ananda to my heart and to help ignite it in the hearts of those around me;
  • Karma - the path of service: I hope that giving my love, friendship and support to those I know and cherish and those I encounter in the travels and travails of daily life counts as selfless service to others. Beyond this, the charities - individual and institutional - that I choose to support are my karma yoga;
  • Jnana - the path of knowledge: This path I have followed most days thus far in my life, studying literature and inquiring to learn from the people I encounter. I will continue on this path, with perhaps slight adjustments in focus;
  • Raja - the path of physical and mental control: I set out on this trip 6 months ago to foster my practice of this path, and feel no need to judge the level of "success" I have met with thus far - that will be seen in the course of my lief rather than the days or mere months that pass. I have taken steps...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vipassana Meditation

Dateline: Tiruvannamalai.
Having just finished a feast of fresh cooked parota, dosa and idly with chutney, I stepped out to the wet and muddy curbside of downtown Tiruvannamalai, accepted a steaming hot cup of chai from the wallah, and sighed in satisfaction.

The noise of the passing trucks, motor scooters, ox carts and buses could not touch me - they were all external factors that could not influence my internal contentment at the moment.

Looking around at the crowd of Indians and travelers from all corners of the world - this being a primarily Indian-patronized local eatery that is slowly being appropriated by tourists - I spied a set of bright eyes that held my attention and made me think twice.

Yes, its Pricilla!

Now I expect to meet friends in Bangkok. Exotic though it may be in itself, that is just something that happens whenever I arrive in old Siam. But in tiny Tiruvannamalai, in the shadow of mighty Mt Arunachalla and the embrace of Sri Bhagavan Ramana's spiritual legacy?!?!? Wow.

Spiritual Energy
And this mountain and this town is a place of incredible energy and focus. I am staying at a local ashram called Athiti, which is, for lack of a better term, "the real deal" - a place established for spiritual edification rather than profit, and expecting payment in the form of meditation time in addition to a cash donation of your choosing.

I spend a few hours a day meditating in the ashram hall, and the rest exploring the mountain and the other ashrams of the town. The other day I sat in contemplation for a few hours in a cave on the mountain where Sri Ramana lived and meditated for six years. It was a truly profound experience...

Meditation is something very new to me, and, like yoga, is something that is not yet a part of the fabric of my life. I hope that it will be eventually, and to that end I recently completed a Vipassana meditation retreat.

Vipassana meditation teaches the impermanence of all sensations and thoughts, in the process trying to free the mind of its dependence on external stimuli as its basis for happiness or misery. But I will not even try to paraphrase the philosophy of this ancient practice, so check out the homepage if you are interested:

10 Days of Noble Silence
The retreat was, with no exception, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but not for the reasons I expected. It turns out that it is relatively easy to spend 10 days in noble silence, with no eye contact, no reading, no writing, no music or any other diversions. What is excruciating, however, is sitting for even just one hour without moving the body or even allowing the mind to wander.

The former I managed, if only for a few sessions - believe me, even if you reposition yourself 25 times to find the perfect, comfortable pose, you start to ache and pain after about 5 minutes and the body starts to scream in pain after about 30 more.

The latter is the bigger problem. The mind is exceedingly difficult to work with, especially if it has spent 33 years accustomed to being amused, distracted and otherwise entertained by whatever catches its fancy - TV, tunes, advertisements, people, clothing, cars, stereos, alcohol, food, etc. Even after 10 days of strict attention, I think I may be able to concentrate fully on 6 to 8 breathes in sequence if I am lucky...which is VERY frustrating.

Silver Bullet
That being said, this was a very positive experience, and one I learned a lot from. But it was not a silver bullet that solved all of my problems - as I knew it would not and could not be, but nonetheless hoped it to be.

Did I "love" it?
I don't think loving Vipassana meditation is possible until you have worked through a lot of physical and emotional pain. Goenka, the virtual teacher via recorded videos, keeps saying in the lectures that we are doing a "deep surgical operation," and I am very aware that I did not go so deep during this retreat - I am not being negative here, but am realizing that I went as deep as I was ready to / capable of going at the time.

What am I left with?
Well, the same thing I knew before in one way: That my mind is a mine field of distraction and aversion to self and environment, and that something has to be done to set my house in order.

I am also left with a new tool to attack this problem with, and the task of leveraging it instead of running away into the arms of the sensual world, which is very tempting (it even tempted me a lot during the course, with distractions often taking the form of sugar in various manifestations: brownies, ice cream, crepes, etc.

However, I am not sure that I leave the course actually prepared or equipped to practice Vipassana meditation as a pure technique. I am practicing anapana sati (awareness of breathe) regularly since leaving the retreat, and hopefully this will prepare me to either: 1) begin introducing the full technique in my life; or 2) do another course and more firmly establish myself in the practice.