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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Receiving Grace

Raja_Ravi_Varma,_The_Milkmaid_(1904)The Gita says nothing can be achieved without God’s grace. So what should we do in order to receive it?

An urgent question from one of our members this week. She has completed most of her householder duties, and at this stage of her life has her eyes fixed on the ultimate prize of self realization.

We were fortunate to have not one but two guest speakers to address this question, both of whom are practicing sannyasa. They also happen to be my parents, so I was doubly blessed.

Swami Matrukrupananda talked to us first about achieving the goal through total concentration and single-minded focus. As long as you have any other goals in mind, he warned, you cannot achieve the most important one.

“While this might be feasible for some of us who have retired from the world, what about those of us who are still in the thick of it?” I asked. “We have many mini goals still, at home, at work, with our children. How can we stay focused only on realization when we are still very much embroiled in the world and all its activities?”

My father’s answer was that we could. It’s a matter of shifting our concentration. We do what we need to do, we conquer challenges, continue to achieve success, but with a sense of detachment, a sense of surrender, and an implacable belief that everything we do and everyone we come across is a part of that larger plan of self realization.

“Working without being attached to the fruits of action, having faith in God, and surrendering our ego will only bring us so far, “ he warned. “Ultimately, there is the role of grace.” He ended by urging us to pray for grace since with it, all things are possible, all sins are wiped away and we can step over that final boundary into immortality and bliss.

It was at this point that our member asked her question. If grace is so crucial, then how and where do we find it?

It was Swami Gurupriyananda’s turn to answer. What she said gave us all a jolt. “Grace,” she said, “is not some rare thing you need to seek out. It isn’t given out sparingly or reserved for the chosen few. In fact, grace is something God showers on us day and night without limit and without reservation.”

We found this hard to believe. If grace was so plentiful then why couldn’t we get any? Why were many of our prayers unanswered and why were we having such a hard time implementing even the most basic discipline on our path to realization?

My mother went on to explain that grace is like rain, it showers down on us like a torrent on empty clay pots. If the pots are turned down however, with their openings facing the ground, no amount of rain will get in. The pots need to be turned up, mouths open, and then they will quickly fill and overflow.

She gave us yet another very illuminating example. She urged us to think of grace as the extra credit on an exam. If we do our best and get very close to the top mark, then those few extra credit points will make all the difference. If we don’t try, however, and get a low score, those points won’t help us in the least.

This was a pretty eye opening moment for all of us. Rather than whining about not receiving grace we needed to simply turn ourselves in the right direction to receive it. Rather than rely wholly on outside help, we needed to make a determined effort first, as my father had suggested, so that this freely available grace could make a difference.

We realized that our hard work with the Gita was our sadhana and this dose of instant wisdom from our elders was the grace we had prepared ourselves to receive.

Our homework this week is to continue to be open to what is already abundant, by focusing on the goal, practicing nishkama karma, dissolving the ego, and having faith.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma, Wikimedia Commons

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little self/Big Self

336px-Ravi_Varma-Dattatreya“As long as we live our lives with a sense of acceptance, as long as we do our duty without any sense of attachment to the results, why do we need to consciously offer our work to God? Why do we need to say I am not the doer, You are the Doer?”

This was a question that came up today in class.

The Gita says that not only should we perform work without attachment, but to truly escape the bonds of karma, we need to offer that work to God as well, remembering that we are not the ones performing the action but that we are merely instruments of God’s work in the world.

So what is the difference? Isn’t the fact that we are releasing our attachment to the results of our work, evidence enough of our progress? Doesn’t that alone rid us of a tremendous amount of stress? Once you no longer worry whether you succeed or fail, but work only with a sense of dedication, then all the disappointments and brief elations of life seem to disappear and life becomes quiet, harmonious and peaceful.

For example, in the past I taught my classes with excitement and a strong sense of ownership. I researched all kinds of articles and printed them out for my students. I created exciting and engaging lesson plans and implemented them in class. Sometimes students would respond with interest and class would be amazing and I would come home floating on a euphoric cloud that I had aced the lesson.

Other times, my carefully designed activities would fall flat and I would be devastated that what I considered brilliant pedagogy had not been well received. “Pearls before swine,” I would mutter to myself. “Why do I even bother going to so much trouble for people who can’t even appreciate it?”

Since I’ve been practicing nishkama karma and letting go of the results, content merely to do my best and leave the results to God, I no longer fret and fume at perceived failures or go on an egotistical high when things go well. This is definitely a step forward.

However, while this attitude gets us to a more relaxed and calm way of living, it fails on its own to take us to the next level of spiritual progress.

While I am calmer now when faced with either success or failure, I still consider it my success or failure. I wrote the lesson plan, I created the activity, I did all that work, I was so eloquent, I just couldn’t get through to them. Or alternatively, my idea was perfect, I was so good at directing the conversation, I was able to get my students to think critically, I am a really good speaker.

The problem is that my ego is omnipresent here, taking all the credit, shouldering all the blame, and in both cases accumulating more and more karma by believing that this little self in this temporary body is solely responsible for all my actions. It’s only when I can release that sense of ego, when I can see my actions as prayerful acts of service to a higher being and a higher purpose, that I will really escape the bonds of karma.

Nowadays, when I set out to teach, I say “God I am merely an instrument to perform this work. You have given me both the work and the capability to do it. I will do it to the best of my ability knowing that I am not the doer at all. You are the teacher and the taught, and I am merely a vehicle to convey the knowledge. You speak through me, and teach through me.”

Amazing what such an attitude can do for one’s work ethic. While it may seem at first glance that removing ourselves from the equation would make us less inclined to put in too much effort, I find that I have become so much better at what I do. After all, doing anything less than my best would be incredibly disrespectful to my Maker.

Knowing that it isn’t just me, the fallible and mercurial little self that considers herself a professor with all kinds of great ideas, but God who is teaching, and remembering that my students are not just the various little selves who moan and complain about homework, or turn things in late, or fail to see the relevance of my lectures, but God who is being taught, is an incredibly humbling experience. It allows me to push my little ego aside and work doubly hard to deliver the lesson and to facilitate learning among my students. It enables me to consider my work as an offering, rather than something I do merely as a duty.

That, to answer our member’s question, is why I think we need to do more than merely work without expectation. We need to transform our work into constant worship, so that along with attachment, we can rid ourselves of our ego as well.

Image: Dattatreya, the Supreme Teacher. Raja Ravi Varma, Wikimedia Commons.


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A Lesson in Humility


512px-Raja_Ravi_Varma,_ExpectationIt’s been a couple of months since I’ve had the chance to blog. The learning though has gone on unabated. I went to India, spent time with family, was inundated by the sights and sounds and smells and tastes, and the many temptations that lie in wait in the crowded marketplaces and the luxurious showrooms full of silks and gold.

I kept up as much as I could with the classes over zoom, although I missed a few when I was either traveling or attending events.

So many lessons to learn! It’s easy to sit at home, secluded from the world and its siren call, immune from the conflicts and chaos that come from being among lots of people and lots of situations, and feel we are indeed progressing on the spiritual path. The real test comes when we are in the thick of things, right in the middle of raw unfiltered living.

There were highs and there were lows on my journey. I cherished the moments with family, there is nothing like going back to your childhood haunts and being among old familiar faces who have known you forever. I was swept away with love and joy when I was back in Odisha with the children who have become so dear to me over the past eight years. They are graduating this year and I had a chance to say goodbye and to share what words of wisdom I could as they set out into the world.

But I also found myself faltering, losing my temper with my fellow adults. I found myself condemning, judging, being impatient and intolerant, failing to see my fellow atmas in those I encountered, unable to recognize them as teachers and guides who were helping me on my spiritual journey. I let desire for material objects tamper with my peace of mind. Not for long, but enough to cause me to lose my balance temporarily.

I tried my best not to gossip but was pulled into it time and again. I tried not to harbor resentment but found myself losing my cool very quickly. I made every effort to be patient but burst into a fit of uncontrolled anger at least twice during my trip. So much for my imagined progress! It all fell apart when I was under duress.

The Gita says as Karma Yogis, we need to stand up and fight for our own progress. If Arjuna, a prince surrounded by every temptation, in the thick of political intrigue and family drama, could maintain his composure and put his full faith in the Lord, then I with my little dramas and silly conflicts can surely rise above them and push forward. To be fair though, even Arjuna threw aside his weapons and was willing to surrender rather than fight such a difficult battle. It was only because he had the sense to choose the right charioteer that he was given the guidance and strength he needed in his darkest hour.

I’m hoping that because our little group has chosen the Gita as our guide that we too will receive the same kind of strength and wisdom to keep going and not give up, despite an occasional defeat.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma via Wikimedia Commons

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The Slippery Slope

Urvashi-Pururavas_by_RRVIs it wrong to want to buy gold ornaments for our daughters? Is it wrong to want a bigger house? Is it okay to buy a fancy new car?

Ah, Desire! Always present, never satisfied, seemingly within our grasp, but always elusive. We talked about the nature of desire this week. Like fire, the Gita says, desire only grows fiercer when it is fed. So the idea that once we achieve the right position, status, or economic level, or we possess the right car, house, family, then we will finally be happy is completely and utterly false. We see proof of that all around us on a daily basis, especially among the suicidal rich and famous, who despite having all of the above, are unhappy enough to take their own lives. And yet, unsympathetic, we condemn them for their folly, thinking what could have been if only we were given the same opportunities.

One of our members wondered what was so bad about desire. Isn’t it important to want something in order to act? If we were all in a desireless state how would the world even function? A good question. If we look at the root cause of all action, good or bad, we find desire. We work because we desire money. We create families because we desire love and affection and stability. We acquire property because we desire comfort and luxury. We struggle to climb the social ladder because we want status and dignity. So if we didn’t desire any of these things what would happen? Why would anyone bother to work or even get an education? Wouldn’t the social fabric fall apart?

The Gita cautions us though, not to confuse duty with desire. Once we are born into the world, we have specific duties at each stage of our lives. Ideally, in our youth we study and learn, as adults we work and build a family, as we approach middle age, we begin to hand over the reins to the next generation, focusing on social service, and sharing our knowledge and wisdom, and as elders, we withdraw into a life of reflection and meditation. None of this comes under desire according to the Gita, but under our obligation as human beings living in the world.

In our discussion this week, we decided to further refine what desire meant to us. This theoretical debate was all well and good but how were we to apply this in our daily lives? We decided that based on the Gita, desire is dangerous because it leads to disappointment, which leads to anger, which leads to sorrow, all of which lead us from a state of balance to one of misery.

I was trying to think of a time when I let desire get the better of me. In recent times, it has been all about the job. That elusive position at a dream university. I’ve applied, year after year, hoping. I’ve been rejected year after year. My desire kept me coming back for more. Until last year, though I submitted my application routinely, not really expecting a response, I got one. A phone interview. I aced it. An on campus interview. It went well. By this time, desire had wrapped its tentacles around my heart, gripped me tightly in its embrace, until all I could think, speak and dream of was that offer. The days went by and nothing mattered but for the phone to ring. It didn’t. A week, two weeks, I kept myself going by imagining the delays in the hiring process, the need to check references, the busy schedules of the search committee. As long as I didn’t get a regret, there was hope. I didn’t know the letter had been sent to the wrong address. Until I finally got the call. My heart pounding, sure that the only reason they would call was to make the offer, I was told it was a follow up to the regret letter. A fittingly cruel end to a miserable three weeks. Looking back, it seems  it is best to avoid desire all together, squelch it at the very outset when it raises its sly head. Easier said than done.

Coming back to the question of whether it was wrong to want to buy things for our children or get a bigger house or enjoy our new cars, our little group decided that as long as we were able to keep our balance if any of those wishes were unfulfilled, then we were safe. It was only if we thought we simply couldn’t live without any of those things, that the world would stop if we couldn’t buy that house or drive that car, that we were entering dangerous territory. Of course this is a slippery slope. While most desires seem innocent enough at first, and easily relinquished, what the Gita is warning us about is how quickly what was once a whim can become a burning necessity and the cause of much agony.

Still, as householders living in a highly materialistic status conscious society, we have to start somewhere. Precarious as it may be, this is our current position, to entertain desires without being consumed by them. We’ll have to see how successful we are.

Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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