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.

Is the Whole Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts?

I wonder. The whole is made up of the incorporated parts…if some parts are less than, broken or in some way incapacitated, doesn’t the whole suffer?

This quote has been attributed to Aristotle. However, I read recently that the author is unknown. I don’t know in which language this quote was first spoken. Perhaps Ancient Greek. Was it correctly or incorrectly translated? Where did the original author place emphasis…what did he actually intend by what he said? We perceive things with our own knowledge lens.

If I’m baking something and I have an inferior product or an ingredient that has gone sour, it’s going to affect the outcome…the cake, the bread, whatever. I depend upon wholesome ingredients. That’s the metaphor for us humans–each one of us gets to do our individual work. In that way, we combine to making the whole a better one.

When looking for change in the world, we must first look within. Recently, I said something to my sister-in-law like “We have got to step up and be active about climate change.” She turned it around and said “They need to do things differently.” She took herself out of the equation. She wasn’t seeing how her voice could make a difference or how her choices were also complicit if she didn’t do something differently. As long as we take ourselves out of the equation as a component or a change-maker, then there won’t be anything new. The parts either weaken or strengthen the whole.

There are many ways to interpret this quote to fit one’s particular needs. Another perspective is that the whole is better than could be expected from the individual parts. That a communal solution to a problem is going to be better than one person’s problem-solving ability. A community, the more heads are better than one, is superior to the individual. That, combining the educated solutions, a distillation of wisdom can be produced by the whole.

Yet, I return to this…the whole is the sum of its parts. If a part is inferior, the whole is affected. My ex-husband was a fire-fighter. He entered the fire department in San Francisco at a time when women were fighting for their right to be firefighters as well as other jobs that had been in the exclusive domain of men. I interviewed a woman firefighter for a class that I was taking at the local community college. She was nearly six feet tall and buff. She worked out regularly. A question that many of the wives of firefighters asked was “Could you pull my 200-pound husband out of a burning building?” This strong young woman was capable. Yet, this field of work requires teamwork. If there was a 5’4″ female (or male) who couldn’t do their part, the whole team is weakened.

These are some of my early morning musings. I’ve heard this quote for a good part of my life. Sometimes, we hear something often enough, we think that it must be true. Ah, not necessarily so. There is always room to question what we assume is so.

What are your early morning musings?

Six More Weeks of Winter?

So the groundhog predicted on February 2nd…that gives us three weeks down and three weeks to go approximately in the northern hemisphere. It’s all so unpredictable these days. Like everything else in front of us, we’re going to know how much longer we have of winter when it happens. Forecasting is a strange sport.

We’ve had a long inward time…much longer than we anticipated. Another writer, K. DuMont, said

“Time introduces a new character to our lives each season,
one with a temperature and a temperament that affects our own.”

So, what has your temperament been like lately? People here are talking about covid fatigue. Someone asked me today how that expresses itself for me. I thought about it and found myself talking about the things that I miss…like the ease of movement, sitting in a café leisurely sharing time and tea with a friend, hugs. The incentive to clean my house used to be strong if I knew I was going to have company coming over. Now, who cares. A pile here, a pile there. Visits to my family five hours away have been curtailed. Another friend asked if I take fewer showers than I typically would. And, the last time I had a professional haircut was over one year ago. I’m weary of the limitations. And, with that, I have a lot to be grateful for although sometimes it’s hard to remember. Humans are social beings.

Each of us has our own particular tale to tell around this unprecedented time as I hear it being referred to. I inquire within…if these are the rules of the game, can I safely bend them or come up with a creative solution to alleviate the loneliness (I live alone)? Without knowing how much longer that we have to do this cautious dance in the world, is there something I can offer to myself to make it a little lighter? Is there some sort of community (yes, we are grateful for ZOOM–but then there is ZOOM Fatigue?) Is there some other way that we can create community for ourselves? I’m open for suggestions. Even if you’re an introvert, you miss the company of people. Don’t you?

I was invited to do a collaborative painting with another artist. I received a panel through the mail. The first artist had etched the design–there was an original from which she created her own unique expression. As the second artist in the collaboration, my part was to embellish it. Which I did, adding color, collage and using various techniques to try to render something compatible yet unique to me. I then mailed the panel to a local art council. They gather the panels from several other participating artists to create a mural. That’s one way to connect with others. Interesting, but not totally satisfying.

I am, by nature, introspective. However, prolonged introspection–urgh. Regardless, winter is considered the season for the inward journey. According to author, Jamie Sams, in the Native American tradition, the bear is the guardian of the west and winter, the season for introspection. She says that “…bear seeks honey or the sweetness of truth in the hollow of an old oak tree.”

Over the course of this long time with your own company and thoughts, is there a sweetness of truth that you have gleaned. One thing? More than one thing? Share it under comments here if you like or at least share it with one other person.

What are you feeling?

Things are scrambled.  There is disorientation.  My brother in San Francisco doesn’t drive.  He relies on buses.  The buses are running but it’s always a risk.  Who else is going to be on the bus?  What are their personal habits of cleanliness and responsibility towards others?  He can’t get to his usual places to shop for the food he usually eats.  He is eating more canned food.  His health is suffering.  He isn’t getting the exercise he normally gets.  He lives alone, is a social being and feels cut off from his connections.  His lifestyle has been severely curtailed.  He lives minimally with a small carbon footprint.  Even with that, this is rough.

After a recent conversation with him, I felt sad.  I told him that he needed to eat healthy.  That much he could do for himself.  The stores where he usually shops are over-crowded making him less likely to shop there.  I told him he could have fresh produce delivered.  Regardless, he is down-hearted by everything that is going on right now.  Living in San Francisco, he feels the impact more than I do where I live.  Less freedom of motion.  His is one story among many…one good reason for kindness towards one another.

Expressive.1

This face came about from what I was feeling in the moment.  The words that I wrote  were:

There is so much that is going on that is challenging for many at this time.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.  An ongoing sadness and simultaneously, an awareness of the extreme beauty that surrounds us.  Concern for self and family and community, the world–the earth.  Humans haven’t lived softly on this planet.  Why have we distanced from the earth who sustains us?  There are so many questions hovering in the air.  I like to think that where there’s a question, nearby is an answer.  We have to pay attention–become conscious of the feedback that we are receiving from the earth and her other creatures.  We aren’t alone in this.  Why do we forget?

Then, yesterday, sitting in my tiny garden in the backyard, leaning into the uncertainty, a little hummingbird settled nearby, framed in a wire rectangle of the fenced enclosure.  It visited for an indeterminate time and we studied one another.  The rarity of such an experience always feels like an honoring.

This painting is a reminder to not run away from your feelings.  As they arise, do acknowledge them, embrace them, sit with them, be patient with yourself through them.  It is in this state of acceptance and bringing comfort to them that they are recognized and eased.  Have you noticed that?

In the midst of uncertainty, some things feel right with the world.  We look for those things.

Take good care.