Thursday, December 25, 2014

Silence and Noise

Silence and noise.

It feels like the entirety of this journey can be placed into one of those two categories.

Silence. Moments of pure stillness, communing with nature Herself or deep into inner space, where something in me speaks without making a sound. Sometimes I come to them on purpose, others by surprise. Climbing up a rocky mountain path in the pre-dawn hours is the perfect chance to get quiet, inside and out, a moving meditation. You know what you’re in for. Reaching the top to be greeted by a slip of a man whose strength is astounding as he lives out his days in a state of pure humility and devotion is enough to silence anyone. How many among us would choose life in a cave on a mountaintop, meditating on the Divine while the wind whips by above and society whips by below?
Noise. Moments of chaotic motion, thrust into the blaring horns, exhaust fumes and bumpy roads of the towns and cities of India. Thoughts race, judgments too, and sometimes I ask myself what I’m doing here. Even in the supposed sanctuary of your guesthouse room there are almost always neighbors talking, doors slamming and other ambient sounds to keep the peace just far enough at bay. Earplugs are a godsend. Headphones too. At least if it’s going to be noisy, let me choose sounds that soothe.

Then there are moments where it is proverbial silence and noise. Take today, Christmas in Mamallapuram. There are enough westerners who visit this beachside town complete with stunning displays of architecture and carvings that the gypsy street children and adults know well how to engage us for a few rupees whether we want to or not. This proposition always challenges me- the desire to give coming into conflict with the desire to not enable, because unfortunately "successful" begging could be what keeps these very same souls from seeking more substantial support and opportunity.
I end up giving far more than I end up saying no, yet even when I offer my silent prayer to each one, I am often left feeling a twinge of guilt.

It’s noisy in my head, trying to make sense of all this, so noisy that I apparently need to be stunned into silence when I make it to my hotel in the evening. I try to offer the man who carried my bags a tip. He refused, and I immediately thought I’d insulted him somehow. When he returned with a fresh towel and basket of fruit for me, I’d fished out a bigger bill and handed it to him, hoping to right the perceived wrong. Again he tried to refuse, but I insisted and asked him to explain. He gestured to the red kumkum powder smudged across my third eye and said “You’re a Hindu,” as he then pointed to his own identical marking, a sign of solidarity and respect.
I was literally stunned silent. First at having been seen for what I often feel I am by a man I took as a representative of a people who generally thinks I’m anything but, and second at how I’d so easily mistaken an act of kindness for something aggressive thanks to my conditioning. How sweet that silence was, even as the noise out in the hotel halls continued on.

It’s pretty much impossible for me to not stand out here. I’m white-skinned and green-eyed in a land of brown and more brown. The more Indian I dress, the more that garners its own attention as local people seem to find the sight of a western woman in a saree something to behold, whether in amusement or appreciation I can’t totally be sure.  That often causes me to go outwardly silent, feeling set apart from those around me, and not wanting to draw even more attention to myself than my physical presence already does. But inwardly the noise continues on, as I try to make sense of things I often don’t understand, dispel a negative thought or repeat a mantra.

This is never truer than in temples. For me being in India is a journey of devotion. I don’t come here to simply be a tourist. I come here to be immersed in my spiritual motherland and deepen my connection to my faith. Some temples are extremely accommodating to westerners; some outright fleece you, and others won’t even let you inside. You can’t always be sure which of these you’re in for, and I have definitely experienced them all.
A new experience for me this trip was Girivalam, the circumambulation of Mt. Arunachala, surely a temple in its own right. This nearly nine-mile walk around the mountain is held as holy of holies among Shaivists (that would be Shiva-worshipping Hindus) since it is considered to be Shiva, the Supreme Yogi and Cosmic Destroyer’s, fire incarnation. For me it was potent to partake in this ancient and sacred ritual, and equally potent to have such a unique experience in this silence and noise experiment that is my time in India.

I felt free to chant mantras, strut in my saree and channel Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, as I happily handed rupee notes to the many sadhus and others in need whose paths crossed mine as I went. I felt like I could be out in public and make noise, as a matter of speaking, and that if I was drawing attention to myself, so be it because the silence stemming from the intention and devotion in my heart was felt and heard by those I encountered as well. They understood what I was doing there without question, and I felt welcome among them. The noise was as joyous, peaceful and purposeful as the inner silence that such a meditative act brings.
Through it all, all the noise and all the silence, I come back to a practice that is of India, if not expressly of Hinduism. I come back to equanimity, that balance point taught by the Buddha. Recognizing the ephemeral nature of all as well as the inherent oneness of all, I eventually find the merging of the silence into the noise and the noise into the silence. I eventually find my peace.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Arunachala Shiva

Winter is blowing in on the wind as the darkest night of the year descends. Even with the south Indian heat in the air, I feel a chill. It’s going to be a long night.

So I’m settling in, the loving gaze of Lakshmi Ma looking down on me from the walls of my guesthouse room, the silhouette of the mountain visible against the night sky, the resident cat, Cookie, curled up next to me purring contentedly. I’m glad one of us feels contented.
For no reason I can name, I feel off.  It’s been a nagging feeling, one I’ve easily and genuinely pushed aside in moments throughout my travels so far, but one I’ve not been able to overcome or fully understand. If I’m honest, it’s not actually bothering me all that much. The melancholy, the loneliness, the sense of being a bit lost. I’m no stranger to the way transformation works. There’s a reason we use the phrase “dark night of the soul”.  Things very often get very dark before the blaze of enlightenment shines upon you.

And so I barely slept last night despite being totally spent from twelve hours of travel.  Somehow I found enough energy today to ground into my newest destination, Thiruvanamalai. The city itself seems pretty unremarkable at first glance, save for the presence of Ramana Maharishi’s ashram, but I didn’t come for the city. I came for Arunachala, both the mountain and the temple, which honor Shiva in the form of fire.  No coincidence that I should be moving through some darkness just as I prepare to stand before the light.

I ventured out by bicycle, weaving my way among the motorbikes, auto rickshaws, pedestrians, cars and cows. My heart hurt at the sight of forlorn animals amidst piles of garbage, even more so than it did at the sight of humans suffering through their plights of poverty, disability, ignorance and disease, and yet the tenderness was fleeting. It was almost as if I’d momentarily lost touch with my depth of feeling, a very strange and unsettling sensation for one who usually feels so deeply.

Then it came back.
 As evening arrived and the solstice began, I visited the Arunachala Temple for the first time. It is an truly impressive sight to behold, even if it leans toward being a spectacle with the lines of pilgrims – women clad in red and gold saris, men in black dhotis – everywhere as priests covered in ashes scramble about attending to their business. Thankfully the business of one such priest was to lead me and a few others along the fast track into the inner sanctums where we’d sit for a brief puja (offering) in the holy and hallowed chambers of Shakti and Shiva.

My mind delighted at the sight of Shakti even if my body didn’t feel the usual sensation that arises when communing with the Goddess in this way. But when I was brought in to see Shiva, whatever switch that had be in the off position in me definitely turned on.

The heat from the oil lamps seemed to bounce against the dark, stone walls and penetrate straight to my core. I was sweating immediately, though not the dripping, I-just-did-a-great-workout sweat, but the radiant warmth that emanates from a heart set on fire. Tears came to my eyes that gazed transfixed at the magnetic beauty of the Shiva Lingam before me. My whole body came alive at the intensity of the experience, my name being entered into the string of mantras chanted, offerings exchanged, light taken into the upper chakras, ash smeared on foreheads and garlands placed around necks.

Then it was over.
 I emerged buzzing with this energy that now had a name: Shiva. My feeling off still doesn’t have a name, but the resonance of the Divine in me at this moment surely does: Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer, the Destroyer, dancing in a ring of fire, beating the drum of creation, stamping out ignorance, symbol of liberation.

Fitting for the welcoming of the new season. Fitting for this new chapter I am writing in the book of my life.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Back with my Beloved

I am here, again, back in India, experiencing the madness and the magic that is her trademark. She is a land of extremes, a land of oxymorons and sometimes-strange juxtapositions, of opulence alongside filth, aloneness felt among a throng of people, a sense of going slowly amidst constant chaos. She is a land I love, and like all love, it changes over time.

Returning to her for my third visit, we meet with the awkward familiarity of lovers who’ve been apart for a while. She knows how to receive me now, and I her, yet there’s an adjustment period, feeling each other out slowly even as we embrace fervently. I dive into her, hungry for the taste of her signature sweetness, then pull back, quickly intoxicated and unsteady from the drunkenness. In sleep it takes me time to adjust to her, crashing from the sheer exhaustion of all it took to reach her and the daylight hours spent taking her in voraciously only to awaken frequently in the night as if I were newly sharing my bed again.

So it was this time around, different than the times before. It took me pretty much all of my first five days in Mumbai to begin to feel like myself with her. It actually took me leaving Mumbai to head for higher elevations, cleaner air and clearer skies, a true Indian hill station retreat, for me to wake up feeling properly grounded and truly present for my beloved.

Like all women who know their worth, she demands I be fully present for her. Only then will she open to me and really let me in.

And she has. She opened to me and bid me welcome into a realm that feels quite like heaven on earth.

I write this from Govardhan Ecovillage, a most inspiring and precious sanctuary of devotion to Mother Bhumi, Mother Earth. After hearing of the incredible work being done here thanks to the wise and loving vision of Radhanath Swami, a much-adored leader of the ISKCON community, I knew I had to come and see it myself. This year has been largely marked by my initiation into permaculture, living in community and a profound deepening of my spiritual path. While I am not a devotee of this lineage, I have been fortunate to spend many a memorable moment in the sweet company of members of the Hare Krishna community, so being among them here is easy and comfortable for me. Being with my beloved Bhumi is effortless ecstasy. It is here that I can finally be fully present to India. It is here that I feel I can simply be.
I realized while in Mumbai that despite genuinely appreciating and enjoying the sights I visited, the temples I prayed in and the encounters I had, I wasn’t fully there. I’ve gotten very easily adjusted living in close proximity to nature in my new home in the redwoods and hilly terrain of northern California. Being in such a metropolitan environment, even one surrounded by the sea like Mumbai, forces me to close off parts of myself without my even realizing it. That partial shutdown doesn’t allow me to be totally available to anything or anyone. I need nature, Bhumi, my true love, to feel whole. That’s quite a revelation for a girl who has lived her entire life in a city.

Driving to GEV, even as I fought back carsickness bouncing along roads in desperate need of repair that are typical of rural India, I felt a sense of calm coming over my body and mind. The embrace of the Sahyadri Mountains surrounding me, the lush green from so many trees, the brilliance of blue in the midday sky and the sounds of birds singing sweetly were all balm to my soul. I’d glimpsed that feeling in moments in the days prior – exploring the stunning caves and carvings of Shiva on Elephanta Island and meditating in solitude in the breathtaking Vipassanna Global Pagoda – but they were fleeting, and the knowledge that I would settle here for a few days put me at ease.
There’s a sensitivity to my system that I didn’t feel during my prior encounters with this great love of mine. She’s been working on me even while I was away, furthering my initiation to her wondrous ways, casting her spell. She’s making me more discerning and challenging me to uphold her highest standards in situations that are at times tricky to navigate. Again, it is her demand of my full presence, and she is testing me to ensure my worthiness.

Yet I clearly understand that I am not proving my worth to her. No.  She already knows me better than I know myself. And so these tests are for me. All of this is so I come to know my own worth, my own truth and to understand not only what I’m made of but also what I’m made for. This whole love affair is an elaborate teaching, and I, the eager student, bow humbly at my guru’s feet.

I feel full of adoration and awe, full of excitement to be back with her, my teacher, my lover, my mother, my India. This leg of the journey has only just begun, and yet I know it will be the most powerful and potent one yet. I am in deeper communion with her than ever before, intent on opening fully as a channel for Her grace to flow through- that is why I came. So the “why” is clear. The “what” is the mystery set to unfold as I travel on.