The Coffee Cup is the Clue! Liberation and the Game of Thrones

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

We talk all the time in our Yoga Sutra class about how the world is an illusion and how we need to pierce the veil of maya to see the truth. We wonder why we have so much trouble seeing beyond the false superimposition over actual reality. But the recent hubbub over the accidental coffee cup in Episode 4 of Game of Thrones really brought home to me that far from seeking the truth, we are horrified when it is accidentally revealed even for a brief moment. We don’t want our illusions shattered. Not one bit.

Twitter was ablaze with outrage. How dare they be so sloppy? How could such carelessness exist on set and during filming? And even if it did, how could the directors and editors miss it? How was it ever allowed to be aired that way? The error was quickly corrected and the cup edited out of the episode for future airings but the damage it seems had been done.

The coffee cup in Game of Thrones was an unwelcome clue. It pointed to the fact that the elaborate fantasy we had been following for nearly a decade was just that, a painted set with costumes and wigs and cgi, brought to life by actors and actresses, people just like us, who needed their cup of coffee during endless monotonous takes. Utterly out of place in the great hall at Winterfell, it was a jarring reminder that this world we were immersed in was not real. It exposed our willingness to suspend disbelief and our need to cherish an imaginary place where dragons exist and heroes die valiant deaths and beautiful women ruthlessly fight for power.

The coffee cup ruined that perfectly woven illusion and it made us mad. If we can get so attached to an illusion that we know from the start is merely a fantasy, destined to last only 8 seasons, then is it any wonder we can’t shake off the illusion we are born into?

Lasting thousands of lifetimes and with a plot fueled by our own desires, casting us as the heroes of our own endless adventures, its grip on us is incredibly strong and impossible to escape, unless we want to.

There are many clues on our journey, that like the coffee cup, give us hints that all is not as it seems.

We can choose to ignore them, the teachers, the scriptures, the techniques that give us a glimpse of reality, or we can protest at the unpleasant intrusion into our much cherished beliefs, and do our best to erase and edit out whatever shatters the myths we hold dear. Or we can pay attention to the clues and bring our own much-too-long-running fantasy series to a final and fitting end. We can stop entertaining ourselves with what is impermanent and unreal and finally experience the Truth.

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The Prison of Memory

AhalyaEvery morning I take the dogs for their walk through our neighborhood in Irvine, California. It’s the most peaceful hour of my day, as I stroll through the tree lined streets, birds chirping, tranquil blue skies overhead punctuated with an occasional fluffy white cloud. Sunshine filters gently through the leaves as my goldens take in the bouquet of scents, tails wagging in their eagerness to experience the sights and sounds and smells of a new day.

As we pass a house on the corner, I am overwhelmed by the memories triggered by the smells from their kitchen. It’s freshly made dal, with hing and garlic fried in ghee, the pungent aroma an unmistakable throwback to my childhood in Marredpally. I stand still, taking in deep lungfuls of memory, transported to a blissful time when life was carefree. The mere smell of dal is all it takes to propel me through time and space, no fancy technology needed. It takes a moment for me to break free and continue my walk and as I do I wonder about the power of memory.

So many wise men tell us to live in the moment and not to dwell either on the past or the future. But what is so wrong about dwelling on pleasant memories? The dal doesn’t cause me grief or suffering, it merely reminds me of my country, my childhood, my culture and my family. What’s so bad about that? I can see my grandmother’s smiling face as she serves us lunch, I am back in the sunny afternoons on Road No. 7, surrounded by family and comfort and pleasure.

But that I realize, is exactly the problem. I can’t be two places at once. If I am back in that time and place, then I am no longer in the present. I can no longer appreciate the soft air on my skin, the leaves glistening in the sunshine, the joyful rolling of my fur babies on the lush green lawn. I am no longer gratefully taking in the blessings of the moment, imprisoned instead in a distant time that is long gone.

It occurs to me that even when I really was in that past, I was a teenager with my head in the clouds, constantly dreaming of a future where all my wishes would come true. While I do remember some of the sensory details of food and smiles and colors, I was not fully present even then. If I were, perhaps I would have spoken more kindly to my grandmother, listened more attentively to the stories she told me. Perhaps I would have noticed the occasional sadness in her eyes and done more to cheer her up when she felt the pains and isolation of old age. Now she is gone and it is too late.

If I were fully present, I would have been grateful for my youth and my boundless energy and for the blessings of caring parents, a beautiful home, the opportunity to receive an education, and siblings with whom I could share my joys and sorrows. Instead, I spent those years longing for a future where I would be happy, free, in love, with a dream husband who would fulfill all my wishes, and a home of my own.

While age and experience have taught me to appreciate the here and now, I still catch myself as I did today drifting off into a past made rosy by time and distance, or an ephemeral future that holds the key to perfect peace and happiness. I see now why that is discouraged by the wise. Memory is a prison that holds us captive, unable to be fully in the present moment, which is all we have, all we have ever really had. We can live our entire lives engrossed in the past or gazing into the future and all our present moments will have been lost to us, moments when we can actually live our best lives, helping, loving and caring for each other and for the world around us.

I come home and call my mother, eager to let her know I am thinking of her. I text my son to wish him a happy day at work. The avocado toast I make for lunch after my walk is far superior to the ghost dal of my childhood, simply because it is here in front of me, and I have the sense to appreciate every creamy, crunchy mouthful. I see the green of the avocado and the white of the alfalfa sprouts, I taste the tang of the lemon and feel the crunch of the hemp seeds. I realize the present is a delicious gift and we need to savor its freedom in every bite.



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The Invisible Sheath

aura-1079746_1920We had a great discussion today about identifying with the Higher Self vs the lower self. The Higher Self is nothing more than the pure all-encompassing Soul. We agree that the Soul is everywhere, outside the body as well as inside. It doesn’t need a body. We understand that the body is nothing more than a clay pot, a temporary covering, donned for the purpose of working out one’s karma.

But here’s the question. If the Soul is pure, then why would it acquire good and bad karma or have the need to work it out?  Yogananda’s interpretation of the Gita, which we are now reading, provides a perfect explanation, which has to do with the corrupting influence of the body and the mind.

In the human brain, the Soul is still apparently in its perfect state of supreme consciousness. Seated in the thousand-petalled lotus in the medulla, it silently witnesses the modifications of the body and mind. But as the Soul spreads from the brain down the seven chakras along the spine, as it radiates from the spine into all the nerve channels within the body, empowering us to work and move and think and feel through the organs of action and perception, it generates a new and dangerous force. The Ego.

The ego, which is the individual sense of feeling, thinking and doing, born only because of the soul’s energy infused into the body and mind, a mere reflection of the supreme consciousness that pervades all things, raises its tiny head and says, “Me! I am the doer.”

Forgetting its source and the fact that it has only appeared because of a false sense of identification with the processes of the mind and body, the ego once generated, begins to grow rapidly and take over. “I am Jyothi,” it claims. “I am a woman, I am intelligent, I have a temper, I am spiritual, I am hungry, I am happy. I have a husband, I have a son.”

The ego is wholly tied to the physical and mental faculties and the senses. Ego breeds attachment to one’s body and to all those beings and possessions that the mind desires. It’s hard to fathom that the mind and the intellect, in which we normally take so much pride, are also temporary faculties. They will also disappear, along with the temporary body in which they reside.

So if even our mind and intellect dissolve, then what’s left when we die and move along to the next life and the next body? Do we start from scratch with a clean slate? Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on what we have done in the past, the answer is no. The sheath, created by our actions and our thoughts in this life and the countless lives that came before it, goes with us. Our likes and dislikes, our cravings and our passions, our dreams and our desires, created by the ego and the mind through several lifetimes of identifying with the body, build a thick layer that surrounds the pure soul, masking it from view. We carry that sheath with us to the next body and compelled by the nature of our individual sheath, we act and are born again and again.

Then how do we escape this sheath and the cycle of birth and death? How do we merge back into pure soul? We can begin by controlling the ego, becoming aware of it and not giving in to its constant call. We can step back and become observers of its dance, which keeps us unaware of our true nature. Anything which we can observe with dispassion soon loses its power over us.

In meditation, we are taught to raise the kundalini, the part of the soul which has traveled to the base of the spine and sits coiled there asleep. By stilling our mind, even for a brief period, and identifying with the soul and not the body, we focus on awakening the sleeping energy and lifting it back up through the centers all the way to the top of the head, where the Soul waits in all its splendor. When the individual kundalini merges with the Universal Soul then there is no more sense of difference or duality. There is no more individual ego that ties us to the body and the mind. The sheath with all its burdens from countless lives dissolves and we are free.

All the more reason to meditate.

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What Dogs can teach us about God

subbumimigate They say everyone we come across in our lifetimes has something to teach us. But what about animals? They too are reflections of the same Divine Atma and don’t come into our lives by accident.

I used to think my dogs were here to teach me about loyalty. Their effervescent joy at being with those they love, their gratitude, their empathy with others, all seem divine qualities in themselves and worthy of emulating. I thought they were teaching me patience and tolerance as well, since their mischievous and sometimes destructive antics mean lots of cleaning up, and expensive repairs. I thought they were providing an exercise in humility, because whether they vomit all over my rugs, or eat the wrong thing and have loose stools all over the yard, I clean up after them without complaint and without a murmur. Every few days I set out bucket in hand and pooper scooper ready to clean the yard, proud of filling the bucket and clearing the lawn each time. Not once do I get angry at having to perform this unpleasant task, or feel unappreciated or accuse them of making my life miserable.

But lately, as we go through the Gita, I realize my dogs are here to teach me something much more valuable than merely tolerance or humility.  My dogs are here to give me a glimpse of what I am striving for with all my satsang and sadhana and meditation: the sheer bliss of the Atmic state.

The Gita says we need to counter anger with love. But the common conception of love, whether for our spouses or for our children is entwined with expectations, which breed disappointment when unfulfilled, and result in anger and frustration when unresolved. No, that kind of love doesn’t counter anger, it is often the most likely cause. So what exactly does the Gita mean by love?

And then it hit me. The love I feel for my dogs, the kind of pure unadulterated unconditional love that allows me to wake up each morning no matter how tired or cranky or busy, and smile spontaneously at their waiting faces, feed them with joy, play with them in order to make them happy, comfort them with cuddles, and always treat them with unfailing compassion and kindness, is the kind of love that creates pure bliss. Because in that love there is absolutely no expectation. It is love for love’s sake. I don’t wake up each morning setting out to fix their flaws, or to train them out of some behavior, or to change their personalities. Instead, I accept them just as they are, flawed and imperfect and absolutely beautiful. I don’t merely tolerate their antics, I take joy in them.

And yet, and this is supremely important, I am not passionately attached, but compassionately detached. Despite my love for them, I know that they are here for a limited time, I know their lives are fragile and short, and that they will pass sooner or later from some cause or the other, as we all must. I know they are merely visitors in my life, here for a brief moment, sharing their love and accepting mine. And I accept their transitory presence.  And that is why I am able to experience such joy. Where there is no desperate attachment, there is no fear. Where there is no fear, there is peace. And where there is peace, there is the capacity to love fully.

This is what my dogs are here to teach me. An incredible lesson. How blessed am I to be able to experience divine bliss right here, right now! This tiny taste is a privilege and allows me to see what life could be like, if I were able to love all beings in the same way. If I could let go of my expectations of everyone around me, if I could marvel at their uniqueness and accept and love them with all their flaws, if I could accept their transitory nature and fully enjoy the shared journey, I am sure my heart would overflow with unmitigated bliss. And I am sure that everyone around me would feel equally blissful, having been released from the burden of my expectations and having been accepted just as they are.

When my husband forgets to put the garbage out, or when my son prefers texting me to speaking on the phone, when my parents or my friends annoy or disappoint me in some way, I need to remember how accepting I am of my furry friends and their charming foibles. When I am upset that despite all the work I do around the house, I get no appreciation, or that I am stuck with chores I feel are beneath me, I need to think of that pooper scooper and how willingly and cheerfully I perform my duties when my love is unconditional. When I am feeling down because I see family rarely, or my only child is moving far away, I need to recall the transitory nature of everyone in my life, to truly cherish the moments I have with them, but be able to compassionately detach when we are apart.

It just goes to show that no creature great or small is without purpose and no interaction without meaning. Having understood the nature of my relationship with my dogs, my goal going forward is to face the world with the same humility, joy, love and compassion I have until now reserved just for them. They are here to show me what Divine Love feels like, and for that, I am forever grateful.

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Writing it Down

Shakuntala_RRVIt’s hard to believe it’s been an entire year since my last post. We moved and life changed drastically. New city, new home, new job, new schedule. My writing has suffered as a result. When I fail to write, I lose a whole dimension of reflection and discrimination that comes with the act of writing. It is a dimension I am unwilling to sacrifice any longer.

Fortunately, the one thing that hasn’t changed over the past year is our continued study of the Gita. We still meet online come what may, four times a week, expanding our study beyond the Gita to include Tattva Bodha and Viveka Chudamani by Adi Sankaracharya and works by Swami Chinmayananda.

These other “more advanced” scriptures are interesting in that they approach the mysteries of the Self in a scientific manner, dissecting body, soul, universe and consciousness in order to get to the essential truth that all is One. Still, there is nothing as simple and beautiful as the Gita.

It is amazing to see how we continue to discover hidden truths with each reading. This morning we realized for the first time that jivatma, the individual self, and paramatma, the universal Self, are both distorted reflections of Atma, Supreme Consciousness. Collective mind blown.

We have been taught from childhood to regard Paramatma as God and as Goal. Our earnest prayers and elaborate rituals have all been directed at that Universal Soul which apparently determines our fate, metes out our destiny and controls the very planets in their spheres, ensuring that the Universe runs smoothly. Imagine our shock to find that even that mighty power is merely a distorted reflection of the Absolute. So who shall we pray to now? And for what?

After our initial shock, we agreed that this truth is not really at odds with what we have always believed. Yes, there is a Higher Self, that hears our prayers and determines the course of the Universe, and yes, it makes sense to have faith in that Higher Self, but not with the yearning to merge in it but rather for guidance to the ultimate goal. How can we merge with something that is itself a distortion? We need to realize instead that while we as individuals are smaller more impotent reflections and the Higher Self is a vast and extremely powerful reflection, we both are one and the same and do not exist apart from Atma.

All this sadhana, satsang, meditation, prayer, have been directed at cleaning the mirror so that the reflection can be brighter and more accurate. And we cannot stop that process but must redouble our efforts. What changed today is the ultimate goal, from merging with the Higher Self, to realizing that there is nothing but Atma. We are not the body or the mind or the intellect or the senses. All these form a shell around our true essence, which is none other than the Absolute.

As I read back what I’ve written, I find it sounds convoluted and confusing. Perhaps because I am not yet clear myself in my understanding. But, I have written it down, and that’s a start.

Image: Shakuntala. Raja Ravi Varma, Wikimedia Commons.

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Leaving Home

possessionsvarmaIt’s been a while since I’ve blogged our progress on the Pragmatic Hindu. Life has gotten in the way, not of the progress or the classes, but of the time to sit and reflect and write about them. In fact, we are meeting more often now, and I am able to recite, hear and discuss the Gita every other day instead of just once a week.
What’s important is that I can see the progress in everyday life, which is where it counts most. Sure we can all talk very loftily about the ultimate goal and attaining liberation but it’s when the world intervenes and all the samskaras and vasanas of the past along with all the tentacles of powerful desires spread, that our change is best tested. I am currently undergoing just such a test.

We are selling our house this summer. The sign went up in the yard yesterday and as it flapped back and forth in the wind, I felt only the slightest little twinge. This was my dream home, one I never thought I could actually own. After years of living in apartments and moving from place to place nearly every year, we had settled down. Five years ago, excited beyond belief that I had finally attained homeowner status, thrilled that I was able to pick and choose my granite and my tile and my flooring, I celebrated with friends and family. We threw a huge housewarming party and exulted in the excitement of possessing a sprawling four bedroom, three bath, two story home with our very own backyard and a three car garage.
Not content with the mere acquisition of the house, I spent the next few months furnishing every single room, picking out sofas and tables and chairs, desks and carpets and curtains, patio furniture, art. And once the house was full, I focused on the yard, hired a gardener, chose the trees and the flowers and the type of grass, deliberated between building a pool or installing a hot tub. The money flowed out and the possessions piled in until every corner was just right and I was somewhat satisfied.
It has been a good house, a comfortable house, a house that was blessed at its very inception by my Guru who was generous enough to come inaugurate its use with a Chandi Havan and sprinkle holy water all along its periphery. Since then there have been many auspicious occasions and pujas performed on its premises. My brother got married here and it has been a place for my parents, and my mother in law and my son to come and spend time. My parents and I have spent many happy hours on the patio discussing the Gita, my son has retreated here each summer to study and pass his exams and explore nearby Yosemite and Kings Canyon. My dogs have frolicked in the spacious yard and I have grown tomatoes and eggplant and squash and chilis in my garden. My husband and I have lounged in the beautiful backyard and enjoyed the starry nights and the melodious birdsong each morning.
Yes it has been a happy house full of good memories. And yet, five years later, as I stand here and look at that For Sale sign, I am not overwhelmed with sorrow, or attached to the rooms and the furniture and the yard and the garden. I am grateful for the years I have spent here but I am perfectly happy to let it go. However happy, pretty, or comfortable it may have been, I realize now that it is just a house.
We are moving from a rural town where the cost of living is very low to the bustling bay area where housing costs are astronomical. We already know that we can afford very little there. We may be cramped into a tiny apartment for a while and we may eventually find a small older home that we can afford. Five years ago this would have been devastating. I can now contemplate the change with equanimity. I can look at my future home as a place to live, to rest my head, and to continue my sadhana. It is no longer my burning goal to own and furnish and celebrate. What I am choosing instead is to follow a higher purpose, to use my God given talents and work for the common good, even if that involves sacrificing some creature comforts.
Looking back, I can see how just as the Gita warns, desire leads only to more desire. My desire for a home gave birth to the desire for appropriate furniture, and idyllic landscaping and just one more painting and just a few more area rugs, and on and on until now as we attempt to pack, I am aghast at the sheer amount of things I have managed to collect. I have filled bag after bag for Goodwill and yet cannot seem to make a dent in the vast mountains of clothes and knickknacks and sheets and towels and placemats and furniture.
Knowing now how desire leads to desire and how the lure of material possessions leads us not only into debt but away from peace and tranquility, I have vowed not to acquire any more than we absolutely need to live our lives in modest comfort. This clutter, which is what it looks like to me now, clearly reflects the clutter within my mind, the longings and the cravings and the compulsion to possess. I am intent as I clear the shelves in each room, to also clear the shelves of my mind, and make them clutter free.
With the Gita as my guide and God as my charioteer, I too like Arjuna want to fight the good fight for realization with as little to weigh me down as possible. It’s enough that we all come burdened with our past samskaras and must do battle with ever present temptations. Why saddle ourselves on this difficult path with the weight of useless possessions as well? I bid goodbye to my house with gratitude and joy, ready to live wherever God places me and determined to live simply, with my eyes fixed on the only prize worth having.

Image:  Raja Ravi Varma via Creative Commons

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The Only One You Can Change…

Radha_Madhavam“If the people we love won’t change for our sake, does that mean that we are not loved enough?”

An intense discussion today about getting those around us to behave the way we want them to. It simply isn’t going to happen. At least not because we wish and demand it to be so. So does this mean we aren’t loved enough? That if only our loved ones reciprocated our feelings, they would certainly do what we ask of them and do so happily?

The Gita says that we must perform our duties, and that includes towards our nearest and dearest, with love, compassion and devotion. It also states that we must do so with absolutely no expectation of getting something, whether that be love, appreciation or gratitude, in return.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, certainly. But some of us argued that love in itself, at least our limited human interpretation of it, is nothing more than a possessive need to control the ones we “love.” By love, we most often mean a sense of ownership and belonging, of obligation and need. But real love, in the divine sense of the term, is compassionately detached. It makes no demands and expects no returns. It is the kind of love God has for us, allowing us to make an infinite number of mistakes, to turn away from our source, to chase after foolish goals, and yet be always compassionate and full of unending Bliss. Bliss cannot be offered to those who do not want it or see its value. But it is always there regardless, complete within itself.

The Gita urges us to seek that inner Bliss and remain content. By seeking to control others we lose control over ourselves. We dwell in a place of longing and misery, anguished by our lack of power, eager to create and maintain an illusory perfection in our little world. The Gita points out the foolishness of putting all our faith into others who are imperfect like ourselves. See them rather as fellow beings on their own journey toward perfection.

One of our members put it well. “You can either stay and be loving yet unaffected by expectations, or you can leave. There is no middle ground where you stay and insist on change. The only one you can change is yourself.”

I spent twelve years doing just that. I was determined to make my first marriage work. I had my dream of a perfect marriage, with a loving husband and beautiful children, a happy home and a healthy family. I refused to let that dream go. And in the process, I allowed myself to be hurt and damaged, I sought to control my spouse, I made desperate efforts to “fix” things, so they would go according to plan. What I realize now is that I was demanding things he simply could not give. I was willing to stay and fight and struggle and endure abuse and pain, rather than give up on what I wanted. Like one of our members today, I wondered if this meant I simply wasn’t loved. But what I was locked in was not love at all, but a battle for control. I chose finally to walk away and give up on that particular dream.

Does this mean I failed? Yes, I failed at establishing control and getting what I wanted from someone who was unable to provide it. But is that what we are seeking? Or is it peace, contentment and a compassionately detached attitude that allows us to love others freely, happily, and without expectation? In that sense I succeeded in letting go and moving on. And this allowed me the freedom to love again, only this time I learned quickly to do so without expectation. The peace that such an attitude brings is beyond comprehension.

I think the Gita is warning us to guard against the immense pain and damage we can cause others and ourselves by demanding that our expectations be fulfilled. Instead, we need to love fully and yet be fully satisfied within ourselves, regardless of the impermanent relationships that come and go in each of our lives. I’m certain that’s where God comes in, to fulfill that need for love that all of us have, by loving us enough to show us the way home.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma, Wikimedia Commons.

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