Thursday, August 30, 2007

1st Annual Devi Festival in Boulder/Denver!


It's been forever since I've posted anything new to my blog -- though I had the good intention of writing something at least once a week! Well, we all know where good intentions lead...

Last week we had the good fortune of hosting the first annual Devi Festival in Boulder and Denver with the help of some wonderful local Yoga center directors -- Hansa Knox of Prana Yoga and Anna Freedom of Samadhi Yoga, both in Denver. Sri Karunamaya Baba and his lovely wife, Usha Amma, (the leaders of Devi Puram in India) blessed us with abundant knowledge, pujas, food, and love during the time they were here.

And we were doubly blessed to experience the presence of Swami Amitananda, a very sweet and holy saint who was Ammachi's first devotee and is responsible for bringing her to the world. Every night he sang bhajans with such devotion that I thought we might blast off into another realm entirely -- especially when he sang, "Maaaaaa!"

Jeff and I were also fortunate to host some very special and sacred fire ceremonies at our house and even got re-married in the Vedic way! I received the sacred thread, the mangala sutra, that now permits me to study the Vedas...Of course I've been studying the Vedas for 20 years now, but at least it's official.

I've posted some photos of the highlights of our little festival. I'm hoping we can continue the trend next year and many more years to come -- and make a home for the Divine Mother here in the American Himalyas.

(Amma Applying Kum Kum Powder as a Blessing)

(Offering Puja to Shri Ganesha, to Remove All Obstacles)

(Invoking the Remover of Obstacles in the Fire with the Help of Sri Karunamaya Baba)

(Offering the Fullness of Life to the Fire)

(Making Offerings to the Goddess Gauri for Love and Abundance in Married Life)

(Sri Karunamaya Baba, Pontiff of Devi Puram -- A Sacred Center for Goddess Worship in India)

(Jeff Tying the Sacred Thread -- Mangala Sutra)

(Offering Sacred Betel Leaves On Each Others Head)

(Throwing Rice!)

(The Happy Married Couple)

(Taking the 7 Sacred Steps. My Favorite One -- Supporting Each Other's Awakening)

(Receiving the Blessings of Swami Amitananda)

(Swami Amitananda Offering Kirtan at Prana Yoga in Denver)

(Special Out of Town Devotee of Divine Mother from Minneapolis -- John Baby!)

(Puja to Divine Mother at Samadhi Center for Yoga in Denver)

(A Group of Devotees After the Puja at Samadhi Yoga in Denver)

(Another Photo From the Samadhi Yoga Puja -- The Tallest Lady is Anna, the Director!)

(The Three Devis After the Puja at Samadhi)

(Double Rainbow in the Sky after the Puja at Samadhi)

(Baba and Amma in the American Himalayas!)

(Baba and Amma by the Yoni Rock, a Natural Symbol of Divine Mother)

(John Baby with his Adopted Parents -- Baba and Amma!)

(Shyama Homa at our Home)

(Vidyavani Helping Baba Keep Count of the Mantras)

(Joining Together for Final Blessings at the Shyama Homa)

(Offering Our Fullness to the Fire)

(The Divine Mother Giving Blessings in the Form of Fire)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Finding a Real Guru

(Photo of me with Mother Meera during her visit here.)

I recently met with a Yogi friend who told me that he trusts in the practice of Yoga to give him everything he needs to grow spiritually.

On the same day, I went to see a visiting swami who was in town for a day. It was the usual scene as whenever an Indian saint comes to town. The rented church. The smell of the wood pews. The collection box. And the bad bhajans.

(This time, a guy dressed in white with a blissy smile danced in the aisles. It was good to see him in this mode. The last time I'd seen him was at another saint event when he'd apportioned off part of the hall with his meditation gear, making a big drama of being silent and bolt upright in his asana.)

And as I myself sat in the painfully straight pew, I wondered whether it's best to put your faith in your practice or in a very beautiful and handsome sweet-voiced swami in a robe.

On the one hand, practice has to be self-authentic to gain any result -- and this is noble. You eventually realize that there are certain states you'll never achieve by yourself until you surrender. (Like you'll never sit in full lotus until you relax your hips.)

On the other hand, it's really easy to get stuck in yourself. You need the contrast of another person who practices the same things you do, but in a different way. In this regard, a Guru is helpful. She should be everything you want, but haven't realized yet in yourself.

But how to find a real Guru?

Believe me, I've searched. (And not just in a superficial way by any means!) I'm still searching -- and that longing for perfection in another human being causes me to contantly invoke those qualities in myself.

The Guru should be honest -- so I should be honest.
The Guru should not cheat others -- so I don't cheat others.
The Guru should embody true knowledge -- so I embody true knowledge.

When I go to see these visiting saints, I look to see those qualities. I think when finding a real Guru, you have to possess discrimination. You should test the Guru and hold him to standards.

After a half century of swamis, yogis, and gurus coming to the West, I think now we can ask the real questions. Are you gay or straight and not just pretending to be celibate to avoid being who you really are? Are you clean with money? Why do you want disciples/devotees? What daily discipline do you follow? What is your education and experience? What is your tradition and where do you see yourself in it?

I never used to ask these questions, thinking they weren't respectful. I should after all, be able to "feel" who can teach me something and who can't.

The feeling of someone -- something you can't know through the intellect -- is vital in cultivating the guru/disciple bond. For me, I look for how much silence the saint radiates. The deeper the silence, the more profound the connection.

I've found silence to be the fuel that motors my practice. I'm a silence junkie. So I look for someone who is more silent than me to inspire me toward my chosen ideal.

But then if the Guru is to be silent -- I have to be silent myself. Which puts me back to practice and my own self-discovery.

So I've concluded that it really is true that the Guru is inside of you. But a lot of people will just say this as an excuse to not really investigate if this is true. They are scared to surrender to a Guru and lose their power. So they say this.

And because it's true, you really can't argue with it. But in my opinion, truth can only be validated by experience.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Forms of Sanskrit Technology: Shruti

Usually when someone describes the sacred scriptures of India, they begin with the Vedas. But instead, backwardly, I've wound down -- like the inside of a conch shell -- to the holy core of India's spirituality.

Only now after having mused on the first line of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras...the sweet Lord's Song (Bhagavad Gita), Upanishads and the Forest Wisdom (Aranyakas) they're based on...only now do I feel like shifting my thoughts to Shruti.

Because Shruti is the primordial, first, and initial impulse of knowledge, people like to discuss it at the outset. But I've gone in a reverse direction. I've shown how everything is based on something that came before. (In Sanskrit, this is described as parampara, "one after another" and it is the word for "lineage.")

The forest wisdom inspired the Upanishads and its methods....which inspired the dialog between Krishna and Arjuna (the penultimate Guru and Disciple)...which described a method (a Yoga) compiled into potent sound bytes of truth (sutras) by Patanjali.

At the origin of all this unfolding knowledge is the Shruti, the primordial sounds of truth.

Shruti means "that which is heard."

Logically, we hear with our ears. But really ears are only the instrument through which we hear, but they don't determine what we hear. Sounds travel through the space element until they are close enough to enter our ears. The sound stimulates a nervous system reaction -- an automatic sequence of pre-wired events that transport sound to the brain, which "hears" it.

Of course there are many sounds bombarding our ear instruments every moment, so the brain chooses what it wants to "hear."

The rsis (whose title interestingly translates as "seers," though they were first "hearers") wanted to hear the sounds that animate all life. But first they had to become very quiet themselves. If there is too much noise in your mind, you can't hear properly. It's so noisy in there that the brain, over-saturated with sound, literally pushes out any new input.

(I think this is why a lot of old people don't listen. It's not that they can't hear, they won't hear. Packed with a lifetime of noise, their heads simply can't hold any more sound.)

The rsis knew that silence was the precondition that allowed for deep listening. To be really silent they had to shut down the part of the mind that analyzes. (The intellectual part of the mind that dismisses the innocence of pure listening with identifications such as, "Oh, that's a red-wing black bird's song....That's the song they sing in the Spring during mating season...I like red-wing black birds...They live near water," and so on.)

Just listening to the bird's song with no preconceived idea to distort the experience is shruti.

All knowledge arises out of truly hearing something at its essence -- not from all the categories we heap on the things we choose to hear.

This kind of hearing cannot be described with words, but it can be replicated in song. This is why the Shruti or the Vedas are arranged as "hymns." Whatever the rsi heard, he recorded it in a song. If, for example, he heard the sounds of the sky getting ready to burst into the Dawn, he sang them to himself.

In this way, the rsi identified the sounds of creation with his own body. When he sang Creation's hymns in its own perfect melody and rhythm, he became united with the whole.

The outside world and his inner heart became one, complete, song.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Forms of Sanskrit Technology: Aranyaka

The Upanishads are polished Sanskrit scriptures based on the wisdom that flowed out of the mouths of forest-dwelling sages. Aranya means "forest" and Aranya + ka means "created out of the forest condition."

Aranya is a word derived from the Sanskrit verb root meaning "to pause, stop, leave off, delight in, enjoy one's self, take pleasure in." With its lush trees, delicious roots, soft light, and mossy earth true pleasure is found within the protection of a forest. Everything vital to life is found in balance in the forest.

There is peace in the forest because when the lion is fed, he's fed. When the snake has eaten, he's eaten. Nothing is killed or destroyed to an extreme like it is in our world outside the forest. Animals are not farmed. Children are not made victims of adults' wars. And there's no religion formalized in books and creeds.

Religion is simply following the rhythm of the forest. In fact, the original Sanskrit word for "religion," is rta (from which we get the English word -- rhythm). Later the word became dharma, which means "to hold together" or "maintain."

When you are in rhythm -- when your blood and breath move together in synchrony, for example -- you become deeply observant. You see things that we miss totally in the world outside of aranya -- or that simply don't exist in our concrete jungle at all. You become aware of your inherent connection to nature -- how your movements (even the movement of thought) affects everything else.

In the forest of our simplified existence, we uncover our innate wisdom. That sense of knowing how a bud turns into a leaf or why fish swim in groups. That sense of living within the palm of a beautifully upturned hand.

It's wrong to think of the Aranyakas as philosophy. Wisdom that flows from this context is instead a song.

That's why the Aranyakas are described as shruti, "that which is heard."

Of course nowadays a real forest is rare to find. We find ourselves instead creating indoor sanctuaries -- Yoga studios, ashramas, and homes -- where we can sustain enough silence to be able to listen properly. The act of practicing Yoga itself is to create a forest out of your own body. In the span of an hour, you can be a tree, a frog, a lotus, a cobra, and a lion.

And by chanting the sweet Vedic hymns you instill the presence of the forest within your very cells.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Upanishad: The Role of the Guru

Many Yogis in the West often pose the perennial question, "Do I need a Guru?" while in India, almost every child remembers being asked at least once, "If you find yourself before both God and Guru who to bow down to first?"

The answer they give is always the same. To the Guru, of course, because s/he is the one who brought you to God.

But how does the Guru bring one to God?

It's actually not a very pleasant method, which is why the Western Yogis are perhaps wise to question whether they need to deal with a Guru at all.

First, he lures you in with sweetness. He makes you feel like you are the most special seeker who ever lived. You are invited to witness many private moments that reveal wonderful things you never imagined existed spiritually. You cannot believe your fortune and spend much of your time basking in what you describe to your skeptical friends as "grace."

Next thing you've decided is that you don't ever want to be away from your Guru. You put all your belongings in storage, get on a plane, head to India in the hot season, and start wearing white. Nothing seems as important or worthwhile as what you are about to commit your life to.

As you arrive at the ashram gates, you hand over your passport, your money, and your plane ticket to the front office. You are shown your bunk in a room full of people with diarrhea. Your first act of service is to bring these people fresh sheets. Clean water. Plain rice. And strange, earthy Ayurvedic medicines your Guru's father (who you fear may be a bit of a quack, but you don't want to question. He's the Guru's father, after all!) gives you to distribute to all the sick Westerners. Your bunkmates hate you because they taste so bad and they groan in pain every time they see you.

Next you find yourself doing manual labor in the worst heat you've ever imagined. And the Guru decides to cancel breakfast indefinitely. "Just one glass of milk and a banana is enough!" you hear him declare. In one day, you spot a viper, a baby cobra, and three scorpions -- and then you remember, "I paid to be here."

And what's worse is that the Guru doesn't seem to think you're all that special anymore. He starts telling you things to do without any explanation or instruction like "Katy will feed all the people tomorrow -- and the next day, and the next day." (Of course he surely meant some other Katy! Because this Katy had never even buttered bread -- forget about cooking for 450 people who'd be visiting the ashram for a week.)

But of course he did mean this Katy.

You spend the entire night awake fretting about the impending disaster that you will be held responsible for. Yet the next day, an intelligence not your own takes over and you find things happening you never thought you could do before. Suddenly mountains of rice, perfect vegetables, golden dahl, and even lovely milk desserts emerge from your own hands.

Now when the Guru asks you to do ridiculous things like complex masonry projects and digging wells and greeting diplomats, you have faith in your untapped potential. You start to feel "puffed up" and proud of yourself.

But it doesn't last long because you realize that whenever you do something, the Guru or the other devotees criticize you. Soon you realize that even though it looks like you're doing everything right, you are being attacked for doing everything wrong. You start to feel angry that you aren't appreciated.

And it continues like this for a long, long time. The only thing that sustains you are your memories of being special and the hope that you may be restored to your special status soon -- and the moments you spend in deep meditation that get deeper and deeper as the months drag on.

A beautiful feeling of sweet detachment begins to grow inside. You find that you don't really care what anyone -- including the Guru -- has to say about the kind of job you are doing. You don't mind the food. You don't mind the cold bucket baths at 4 am. If someone is snoring, you hear it as a mantra repeating in your brain. You look upon everything with a tranquil and equal mind. You feel like you could live at this ashram, in this unbearable heat, forever.

Just when you decide that you are never going back to the West again, the Guru delivers the final blow of his method -- either move, be moved, or if necessary be re-moved. Either you decide on your own to leave. (This takes a great deal of courage because you aren't sure you could ever feel so peaceful "out in the world." And the other devotees criticize you mercilessly for "leaving the Master." Obviously you don't have any real faith and you were just a big mood-maker fake like they always believed.)

Or he asks you to leave. (Since he knows you won't believe him if he asks nicely, usually he doesn't ask -- he commands.)

Or a scandal erupts around you that you get blamed for and you're thrown out in disgrace. (Someone spreads a rumor that you were seen drinking shots of whisky with the villagers...or some such stuff.)

In that moment, you realize that there is only one thing left to turn to -- God.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Forms of Sanskrit Technology: Upanishad 3

More and more the art of listening is lost to us in the modern age. Everywhere, it seems, we are assaulted by noise and overwhelmed by information begging for our attention. Silence is the rarest of all commodities in the world today.

Without silence, it is impossible to listen properly. Because of all the noise, our brains run on automatic, sifting through all the cacophony and selectively hearing what we most want to hear. And usually, what we want to hear is negative. Gossip. Bad news about someone or someplace. Or bad things other people think about us.

Have you noticed that someone can tell you "I love you" 1000 times, but if they ever in a moment of anger say, "I hate you" you'll never forget that?

In order to hear the sweet truth, it requires more silence. All of the Upanishads were composed by sages who spent many, many years living in forests and basking in silent being. When you become more silent, your hearing becomes more and more refined. You no longer hear the surface-level words, but can perceive the feeling behind them. With more silence, your brain seeks to cling to the truth instead of negative words. It shuts everything out that isn't true, that doesn't spread waves of peace and happiness, and that doesn't elevate you to the highest.

Only with real listening can you perceive the truth. This is why the Vedas are called "that which is heard" or "shruti." The ancient rishis or "seers" in their deep state of silence heard the subtle rhythms and melodies of nature from within their own selves. When they sang those same songs, they noticed a profound upwelling of peace and happiness arising in their surroundings.

Later, forest-dwelling sages contemplated these same sounds in their silent, meditative state. When they had fully listened, they expressed their understandings of truth as the Upanishads. This is why another word for Upanishad is "Vedanta" or the "End of the Veda" or the "Culmination of True Listening."

Once knowledge has been truly heard, then one must integrate that into ordinary life. That's why the Guru tells the disciple to return to the world once he's fully listened to everything that is essential to know to live a fully spiritual life.

And so, after so many years listening intently to my Guru, I could hear his words "Katy, go!" not as an insult or a rejection, but a blessing.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Forms of Sanskrit Technology: Upanisad 2

Like all the other forms of Sanskrit, Upanisad is not a text. Even though we can read translations in English or other languages in books that sit on our shelf, the Upanisads are not merely some wise words spoken in the past.

Rather, the Upanisads -- especially in the original Sanskrit -- are alive. When heard correctly, the Upanisads have the power to transform us by awakening the presence of higher consciousness in us.

"Upanisad" consists of three parts -- "sad" (which means "to sit") + upa ("very near," "close to the up-welling force") + ni ("intimately close," "in the 'windless' state as in nir-vana).

Conventionally, it translates to mean "the teachings given to devotees who sit close."

When I first met my Guru, I felt different when I sat close to his physical body. I listened intently to everything he said, and then thought over his words for a long time afterward. Mostly, I felt the tangible affect the silence between his words had on me. Sitting close to him felt like sipping on a long straw. I lost myself drinking in...

But then the crowds started to appear and I moved further and further to the back. The silence was no longer up close, but further behind.

Eventually, I stopped going to see him altogether. Just before I left for good, he told me directly -- "Katy, go!"

On one level, I felt deeply shattered. Go where? But on another level, I knew I could only go one place -- to myself. After so many years, I finally could just sit still in myself. I didn't look to another person who I felt had "it" -- that something spiritually special that I lacked. I stopped chasing external forms.

Upanisad means those words spoken by the teacher that make you sit close to yourself -- without any thoughts moving, like a sage sitting next to a flowing river.

The teacher's words are very direct and can be startling. "You are That," is an example of what is called a "great utterance" (mahavakya) in the Upanisads. But the effect that it has on the nervous system, depends on the readiness of the student. Otherwise, they are just flat words. You have to be prepared to fall off the cliff into yourself.

For me, "Katy, go!" was a catalyst for a revolution in my meditation practice that all the years of sitting physically close had not given me. "Go" is such a powerful mahavakya. It implies that you must arrive -- the true goal of the Sanskrit technology of Upanisad.