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.

Writers, Rabbit Holes and Curiouser and Curiouser

My watercolor version of Sir John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland (in the attic)

Alice of Wonderland fame had a curious nature.  Falling down a rabbit hole probably wasn’t brilliant.  However, it lead her into a fictitious world, one that Lewis Carroll fabricated brilliantly.  Was it a political parody?  A not so subtle way to expose and mock the then current political climate in England?  Was it only a fantasy, a child’s tale?  To be taken at face value?

Regardless, writers are curious beings.  They pursue various white rabbits in their quest for a story.  They research and sniff things out.  They discover, uncover, unearth, expose and bring things to light to share with their readers.  Ha!  Curiosity, it has been said, keeps one young.  The exploration can lead you into all sorts of encounters.  However, if it’s a white rabbit that you meet, you might be careful about who you tell.

In my childhood, the oft repeated phrase was “Children are meant to be seen and not heard.”  What clever person invented that one?  Asking questions and having a questing nature is how we discover and learn about the world that we’re born into.  The autocratic family system in which I grew up disallowed individual thinking and discouraged asking questions.  You were served what you were served and it was for your own good–you best swallow it in its entirety.  Some of my siblings chafed under this rule and were given the strap.  Others went into denial… ‘everything is fine’.  And then, the belief that everyone lived like this seemed true.  There wasn’t a lot of connection with the outside world.  Isolation is important in this type of system.  

It takes awhile, after one leaves such a home, to feel safe enough to express yourself freely.  It takes awhile to even realize what your own thoughts are.  But when you begin to come out from under the veils of fear and trauma, you start to notice things around you that just aren’t right.  And  your questions rise to the surface.  If you feel safe enough, you pursue those questions with an avidness, a rising hunger, a quest for your own truth in the midst of a world in chaos.  So, your early childhood, in a sense has trained you to recognize the non-sense that much of the world is buying into.  You have insight into the fragmentation, the separation, the isolation, the not seeing what is really going on (i.e. the elephant in the living room).  When your experiences take you into situations where questions aren’t encouraged, you have a nose for something isn’t right here.  

What I’m noticing is that there are many people across the planet who don’t question the status quo.  I witness how we continue allowing atrocities, warmongering, class differences, economic stratification, ageism, sexism, racism–all those ism’s.  And then there are those who do question, thankfully.  Climate change is real…do we stick our heads in the sand and pretend otherwise or do we roll up our sleeves and head into the fray and see if we can learn from the wiser elders, the indigenous ones, those who love the earth?  

No one person can address all the inequities by themselves.  I wonder what might happen if you or I or anyone chooses one thing to be curious about, to study and learn about?  At some point, you might feel the desire to share what you’ve learned.  At times, you could feel inspired to speak with newfound authority on  your topic of choice.  You might be inclined to educate others from that place of passionate awareness

One thing!  One thing only to be curious about and to explore.  What would you choose?

The Babushkas of Chernobyl

A few days ago, in a local cafe, a friend posed a question about the environment and morality.  Do we have a moral responsibility to protect the environment, not only for humans but for the other species with whom we share the planet?

He also asked “How did we arrive at this place of direness on the planet?”  “What is the source of our disconnect from the earth?”  And, “Is it too late?”  Good questions.

I have no answers.  I also sit with these questions and wonder what we can do to alter a course that seems bent on its way facilitated by humans who don’t seem to realize that
earth is our host planet, home.  And, that we have a responsibility to live in a reciprocal relationship to the earth.  Sustainability.  Why aren’t we awake to the facts that we are doing irreparable damage by the way we live?

Within his questions, was a sense of helplessness.  However, he was proposing that we discuss these things and other topics relevant to survival on planet earth.  Not to depress everyone but to wake ourselves up to the facts.  We can’t know what might arise from such discussions.  Growing awareness, brainstorming and potential answers.  No one really lives in isolation.  Everything is affected by everything.

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I watched this documentary film, The Babushkas of Chernobyl, at another friend’s recommendation.  Afterwards, my initial feeling was that everyone should see this film.  I watched it through Amazon Prime.  It impacted me deeply for many reasons.

Soup Night

Navigating winter in the mountains, for those who don’t fly south, is an art form.  Of course, there are those who love winter sports and they are in their element.  I am not a skier, snowboarder or snowshoer–although I’ve experienced two out of the three.  For me, the challenge with winter is getting through it–overcoming the isolation which heavy snow imposes.  Travel north or south is inhibited as the highway may have restrictions.  Or, driving in a “white out” with poor visibility can be daunting.

A few winters back, when the first heavy snow hit, a depressed feeling settled over me.  Looking out my window as the large flakes whirled abundantly, I could see that soon my world would be covered in white.  While pretty on a postcard, there are the practical challenges.  I need to contact the men who shovel my driveway and walkways.  Be sure that I have enough fuel.  Is the cupboard fully stocked if we are going to have several days of snow?  Do I need to wrap the water pipes if the temperature drops too low?  Living close enough to the stores, I layer clothing,  don my hiking boots and trek through the snow and slush to get to the post office and grocery store if necessary.

This particular day, I was dicing onions and carrots for a pot of soup.  It occurred to me that I could invite friends over to share the soup.  I called about six friends.  They couldn’t promise, but they’d see how bad this storm was going to be.  One friend blatantly said, “Christine, no one’s going to come!”  However, just the thought that someone might show up spurred me on.

The invitation was “If you dare to come out tonight, I’ve got a hearty pot of soup on the back burner…bring your favorite soup bowl!”

That night, in a heavy winter storm, four people came.  The next week, there were eight of us.  By the end of the winter season, soup night had become an institution which rotated among several homes averaging ten to twelve people.  This meant we needed two pots of soup, bread, salad and occasionally dessert.  The warm feeling of sharing and communing while the world outside was enveloped in cold and white brought new meaning to winter in the mountains.