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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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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