Sunday, February 28, 2010

The return of the gray-haired lady


When Arjuna was a young acolyte, he asked one of the swamis how he could tell if he was making spiritual progress. The answer: You have made spiritual progress if you have moved from the back of the class to the front, if the novels on your bookshelves have been replaced by spiritual books, and if your late nights have given way to early mornings. By those measures, I have made huge strides, though spiritual progress may not be the muse. Deafness has made me seize a front-row seat, greed has made me buy every promising yoga volume, and motherhood and work rouse me from my bed before dawn. I hope that this is the case where the destination, not the path, is what matters.

Arjuna also imparted this Indian expression: A woman is the banks of the river, keeping her man on a true course. I think in my case, I am the river, and Other is the riverbed.


At yesterday's morning satsang, Arjuna called on a young woman in the teacher-training program to come forward and lead the assembly in kirtan. She demurred. He urged her, saying her mother would be so proud of her. She demurred again. He insisted. She resisted. At today's morning satsang, Arjuna said another student had come up to him after yesterday's satsang and accused him of failing to practice ahimsa (nonharming). By singling out the student, putting her on the spot, pressing her to do something against her will and embarrassing her, he had caused her harm. But that wasn't really the point, Arjuna said. The teachers-in-training were heading back into the world, where they would be looked upon as spiritual leaders, and they needed to be prepared to respond to the unexpected challenges of leadership. Then he rashly said any of the male students would have risen to the challenge, and he requested that the half-dozen or so male students stand, and he asked each one whether he would be willing to step forward and lead the kirtan. One said he'd "have to think about it," another that he "guessed" he would be willing, and the rest refused outright. Ouch! Then Arjuna asked the female students who among them would be willing to step forward. Just one woman stood. Invited to the podium, she led a chant … in Hebrew. Arjuna had inadvertently set off a small rebellion among the students, who after 28 days of yoga boot camp had bonded and were acting in solidarity with the student they perceived as wounded. And they had won a small battle. The larger victory will come later, I'm sure, when they reflect back and realize Arjuna was right.

All around the compound there are pictures of a chubby, jolly-looking man with a beguiling smile: Swami Vishnu-devananda. But to the uninitiated, the stories Arjuna tells about him are anything but jolly. Many of Arjuna's stories have to do with lessons conferred upon him by Vishnu-devananda, who was his guru and the leader of Sivananda until he died. Among those lessons: For five years, Arjuna did the books for Vishnu-devananda, and for five years Vishnu-devananda refused to acknowledge Arjuna by name. And that rudeness infuriated Arjuna. He fumed and ranted to his friends. The lesson, which eventually came to him: Get over your ego. This seems an odd method of teaching—and one with a high risk of lessons gone unlearned and resented.


After a two-day class in meditation and mantra, I have a mantra. The god it invokes is Ganesh (above, painting by Uma, a Canadian iconographer of Hindu deities). And I chose it in part because I loved the story of the elephant god: Parvati, consort of Shiva, wanted to bathe, but Shiva wasn't at home, so she fashioned a little being out of scurf (dandruff and other body detritus) and had him stand guard at the gate while she took her bath. While she was bathing, Shiva returned home and was blocked by the scurf child. Enraged, Shiva lopped off its head. Parvati was distraught when she learned of the beheading of her scurf child, so Shiva ordered his hordes to find a child whose mother was facing away in neglect and to cut off that child's head and return with it. The first "child" they came across that fit that description was an elephant baby, so they removed its head, and it was transplanted onto the scurf child, whom we now know as Ganesh. Delightful, no? Also delightful is Ganesh's specialty: removing obstacles.

Two people at the ashram had their flights canceled by the big snowstorm in the Northeast and were forced to remain four days beyond their planned stay. One woman accepted this new arrangement with delight. But the other was distressed by the change in plan. She struggled to enlist the indifferent ashram staff to help her get out sooner, lamented the extra cost of accommodations, worried about lapsed medications. In short, she was miserable. But the following day, I ran into her at the ashram office, where she had failed once again to secure an earlier flight. But this time she was resigned and cheerful. "Yoga isn't about accepting your fate only when things are going your way," she said. "It's also about accepting your fate when things seem to be going against you." And with that acceptance, she embraced her morning on the beach, a wonderful workshop on Hindu gods and goddesses, another vegetarian meal. In an instant, she had transformed misfortune into good luck.

I was hoping that my flight too would be canceled and I would be forced to extend my stay. Alas, Ganesh has apparently cleared the path for me to go home, and I am in the Nassau airport awaiting a flight purported to be on schedule. I'll be glad to get home to Other and the cats and wash my clothes and resume my ordinary life. But it is sad to say goodbye to a place that has been so deeply interesting to me and that I will remember in vivid detail yet to know that it will not remember me, that I have left no mark other than a pile of soiled sheets and a damp towel, which by now may have been laundered and returned to my little hut for another guest.

It embarrasses me that I am drawn to acquiring T-shirts, mugs and other touristic trash, as well as malas and om insignia. But I know why I do it. It is a method of calling to mind my experience. Like a whiff of fragrance, that silly cup, which will horrify Other ("What can we throw out to make room for it?"), takes me back to a certain time and place. And by wearing the marker of a mala or the curlicues of om, I silently identify myself to other members of my tribe who might otherwise remain anonymous to me and invite them to introduce themselves.

The ashram is barely comfortable. The mattresses are narrow and thin and covered in plastic that crackles when you roll over in your "bed," which is just pine planks laid across three cubby holes, which serve as your bureau. The pillows are anything but pillowy. The sheets and blankets are synthetic and slip off in the night. The single towel you are issued is threadbare. The tapwater is brackish. The toilets are delicate and sometimes must be plunged—and no, there's no one on call to do it for you. The people at the reception desk can be abrupt and unhelpful. The food is sometimes merely interesting, and nicotine, alcohol and coffee are prohibited. But the other guests are members of your tribe, and any of them is willing to sit next to the gray-haired lady, who for the first time in a week sits alone—chugging back a coffee in the airport.

No comments: