Aha’s: Part Three–Separate Unity

I first heard of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda in my late thirties. She migrated between several ashrams, one in India, one in New York and one in Oakland, California. An acquaintance told me about the ashram in Oakland, bordering Berkeley. In search of a spirituality that my Catholic upbringing didn’t offer, one spring day I visited the ashram.

When I think back on this time, I remember myself as a questing young woman. I was married and with children. I was in search of deeper meaning, spiritual solace and a community. There were things that stood out about the ashram. There was the indoor garden, like an arboretum, with fragrant Jasmine climbing trellises. The Chanting Cave was a sequestered room that was pitch dark. Being in a totally dark space, sensory stimulation was lessened. The constant was the recitation of the mantra “Om Namah Shivaya” as chanted by Gurumayi. This mantra played repeatedly over 24-hours. Anyone could go there at any time and find comfort and serenity. It felt like a womb to me, protected and cushioned.

Seva, meaning selfless service, was a participation in making meals and cleaning up afterwards. It could mean cleaning the bathrooms or whatever else is on the list to keep an ashram running efficiently. The meals were vegetarian and they were nutritious and delicious.

Although it was communal, it felt like a private experience to me–quiet, respectful, and non-intrusive–as we walked through the halls or prayed or chanted together.

I did spend one overnight there. I had a little room to myself until a woman walked in late in the evening to share the space. She emphasized that her given name was Barbara but she had taken a spiritual name which I can’t remember. She methodically took her stones–they traveled everywhere with her–from a pouch and placed them on the little shelf behind her bed. They were her companions and support. She told me that she snored. All I needed to do if it got loud was to call her by her given name and she would stop snoring.

That evening, settling down for a night’s rest, the sounds rose up from the street below. There was a bus stop and voices congregated and they seemed to be aggressive. Finally, they moved on. Barbara also settled in for the night. Within minutes, she was snoring. Not a soft, easy snore…but a loud and grating one that couldn’t be ignored! After several minutes, I called her name softly. And then again, softly. “Barbara, you’re snoring.” She woke and thanked me, turned on her side and continued to snore loudly throughout the night. In the morning, she thanked me for being “so gentle” in waking her. She got up refreshed and went downstairs for the morning service. I declined and stayed behind in the little twin bed for a few hours more.

The thing about the ashram was that it felt like a safe place to be. Your personal needs were met–food and shelter, if I wanted it…but the spiritual talks, the music, the atmosphere was permeated with a deep feeling of peace.

One very auspicious day, Gurumayi was coming to visit this ashram. When a holy person comes to visit, it is called darshan. I parked the car blocks away and walked to the ashram. The line to get into the hall wrapped around the building and down several blocks. I couldn’t even count the number of people in line and wondered if we would all fit inside the hall. Food was being served. I remember standing in another line to get a tray of delicious food. I walked into the hall. On the floor, there were little mats to kneel or sit upon. I sat with my tray of food. I looked around the room at this sea of humanity. A sudden insight of our separate unity washed over me. We were all unique individuals and here we were, bound together by a common purpose, need, desire or just a shared meal. Whatever it was, it felt profound–that we could sit there together, peacefully, respectfully and connected in a deep way as we anticipated the blessing of Gurumayi.

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What did this separate unity mean to me? We live in isolation in so many ways. There are those of us who live alone and perhaps far from family. We think that no one else feels or thinks as we do. We protect our isolation because we don’t want to be too vulnerable. Yet, that day, sitting among strangers, I felt that deep thread of connection to all of humanity, to all of life. Each one of us is unique and we bring our gifts to the life we are living. And yet, it is so supportive to realize that I am united with others as I walk this pilgrim’s path.

People are Talking…

These days of distancing, mask-wearing, not hugging and isolating, people are talking about loneliness. Not the existential sort of loneliness, but missing the actual physical connections with one another. When you live alone, this is magnified. I used to be able to go out and connect with people in cafes, at musical events and other social occasions. This has been less available. Whenever I met a friend or acquaintance in public, we hugged. No more.

In the film, Shall We Dance with Susan Sarandon, her character is sitting at a bar and talking to a male acquaintance. She is experiencing some challenges in her long-term marriage. She says to him that the thing she found to be invaluable in her relationship was that the two are witnesses to one another’s lives. This really struck me as something important. Perhaps crucial to one’s well-being.

If you aren’t married or in a relationship, then you have to construct friendships that support this need. Extended family and therapists can also be witnesses–it’s not necessarily that we want to be fixed, rather we want to be truly seen and heard. A few years ago, a well-meaning friend trying to console me around the loss of an older gentleman friend, quoted a yoga sutra–something like, “We are going to lose everything–our bodies, our lives, our friends and family.” I thought, if this is meant to comfort me, it’s falling way short! Don’t I already realize this at some level? I took it as her saying, so don’t take it too seriously. Maybe she wasn’t comfortable with my feeling sad and wanted to dismiss it with a wise but inept saying. I responded by saying, “We are here now and we each face challenges and we learn how to be with them or take action around them. Grief is part of the human experience and it’s immediate for me.” Reminder to self my need is not to be fixed or judged. Rather, can she/he be a witness to my experience, to my life in a compassionate way? Can I be that for him/her?

I realized this morning that my feelings of isolation have more to do with not feeling so witnessed. That, at the end of the day, my occasional cynicism is about not voicing what goes on in my daily life to someone. When I meet a friend, I notice how I fast forward talking about my particular life circumstances because I don’t want to sound ungrateful or like a complainer. The message to myself then is that I need to minimize my life stuff in order to accommodate someone else’s potential discomfort. I might conclude that this friend doesn’t want to hear about what’s really going on with me which may or may not be true.

When someone else has a seemingly larger problem, that doesn’t diminish my or your need to be seen or heard. We’re not supposed to be so smart and so wise as to not face challenges over the course of life. I think that we’re meant to learn, grow and come to a place of self-understanding and self-acceptance/compassion. At what age can a person finally say “I’m completely together.” Age doesn’t necessarily equal wisdom. We’re still humans with needs. This is alright. Some things we handle alone, with other things there is benefit in sharing.

My friend asked “Are you feeling better?” “No, not really,” I say. She offers “It will pass,” which disallows what is here and now. Sounding to me like a dismissal again–as if she’s saying, “I don’t want to hear more of your pain. Can we move on to something else.”

I might be judging her responses too harshly. It’s likely that few of us were trained to feel comfortable with another’s grief or know how to best offer support. And, we’ve lost the ability, it seems, to just listen.

Something Else–Where does your mind go?

Reviewing an earlier journal can provide the inspiration to
get you writing…

I’ll tell you this…

1)A body likes comfort
lingering in bed this morning
it’s time to put on the flannel sheets
These shores of comfort’s complacency
the call to action
the planet’s doom
Where is my friend
for the end of the world?

2)Errand completed
I drove to a favorite Thai restaurant
Only two other women are sharing lunch
so I get immediate service.
This sinus condition
spicy Thai food is often the cure.
I sip my medium hot red curry
as the restaurant suddenly bulges
with the late lunch crowd.
Two older men
looking somewhat beaten by life,
sit at the table in front of me.
Urgh.  It’s not the view I want
while eating lunch.
I avert my eyes
though they inadvertently rivet
to…
I rearrange the water carafe, teapot
and a bottle of soy sauce,
strategic guardians,
to occlude this less than desirable view
of pants that sit well-below a man’s hefty waist
exposing the infamous butt crack.
I’d change my seat however the
restaurant is suddenly full–
a migration of citizens
hungry for Thai food.
I frown and raise the book I  brought to read —
Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest, and try to read
about the ideology of isms…
how an ism creates a movement
with its own set of dogma
and gathers followers like a dog attracts fleas
and then, believing it is the ultimate truth,
how it proceeds to force
its belief system onto others.
And those who are prone to manipulation
who fear thinking for themselves
get on the tram
and point fingers at the others
who are left behind on the ground
isolated in their own set of beliefs.

3) is activism only
another ism
but if we don’t act
how does the planet
know I care?
and has it conjured up you
and me to be its advocates
called us forth
to “dance our clumsy dance”
fracturing the siren’s song
of looking the other way
when there are cries for help
everywhere?

Wardrobes

Moving to the mountains of northern California twenty years ago, a re-wilding has occurred.  There has been subtle permission to become more of who I am.  One obvious change has been to my wardrobe.  When I first moved here, my closet was filled with the clothing I wore while working in downtown San Francisco.  It soon became obvious that these clothes were not practical for life in the mountains. I had a fondness for some of these tailored clothes–the neatly pleated fuschia skirt.  The black belt with the gold and silver cranes intertwined on the wide buckle.  The knee-high boots with a slight heel–a bit of cool esteem.  The black and white checked tailored suit paired with the raw silk blouse.  The fitted, stylish dresses in my favorite colors–turquoise, deep red, navy blue with polka dots, a few soft pastels–each one fit a mood of the day.  Some were concealing, others modestly revealing.

These clothes didn’t come out of the closet once I moved to Mount Shasta!  Each year, I shed more of them.   They were traded for practical and comfortable jeans and tee-shirts.  I searched for the best hiking boots or running shoes–comfort and hardiness are everything.  In the winter, it becomes about layering.  I ordered silk leggings and tops.  Long-sleeved cotton shirts, wool sweaters and vests.  Waterproof outerwear, down jackets.   I didn’t miss trading nylon stockings for the sturdy cotton, and wool sock blends.  I knitted myself a few hats that I could tug down over my ears, and scarves wrapped up under my chin.  Mittens, a variety as, like socks, there was often one missing.    Of course, come summer, all of this was shed for the comfort of light cotton and less is more as the temperature rises into the 90’s or 100’s.  A serviceable swimsuit for dunking in one of the many lakes.

I wonder, Do clothes make the woman?  Or, am I being tailored by my environment?

Living in the mountains brings out an inherent spirit of adventure that had been dormant.  Where does this trail lead?  And that one?  What hidden lake is waiting for me to discover it?  The falling in love with where I live.  The beauty that lures me.  The trail that winds and I wonder what’s around the next curve, up that hill, over that ridge…I must follow.

bear1.jpg

I encountered this bear on a river trail a few days ago.  We were a comfortable distance apart as he posed for a few photos.