Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Shopping for Butter

There is a small grocery not far from my flat in Pune where I shop for daily needs – fruit, milk, bread and, sometimes, butter.  These small “kirana” stores are like old-time groceries in the USA where the shopkeeper sits behind the counter and retrieves the items you ask for.   Here’s a recent exchange.

"Hello sir.  How are you today?" I say. 
“It’s a good day. What do you need?” says Mr. Shopkeeper from behind his counter. 
“Do you have butter?”
“Yes, I’d like some butter.”
“You want butter?”
 “Yes, butter,” I say
 “Butter?”  he asks.  I nod. 

Mr. Shopkeeper calls out in Marathi to his “boy” to get him some butter and puts a packet of herb/garlic spread on the counter. 
“No. No. I want plain butter only.”
“Yes, this is butter.”
“No. It says Herbs and Garlic.” 
“Yes, it’s very good.”
“Maybe, but I just want simple butter.”
“You want butter?”
“Yes, butter”
“But this is butter.” 
"I want simple butter."
“Yes,” I say again, nodding. 

Mr. Shopkeeper calls out again to his “boy” who puts another packet on the counter, this time something called Nutrilite, a margarine “spread.”
“This is Nutrilite” I say, “It’s not butter.”
“This is butter.”
“No, it’s not.  See, it says ‘Nutrilite.’”
“Yes, it’s butter.”
“No, it’s not butter. It’s Nutrilite and not butter.  I want just plain butter.” 
“No cholesterol.”
“Yes, but it’s not butter.  It’s Nutrilite.” 
“No cholesterol is good.”
“Yes, but I want butter, not Nutrilite.”

By this time, the bread deliveryman, who's dropping off a few dozen loaves, can’t resist joining in.
“That’s butter,” he says, peering over my shoulder.
“No, it’s Nutrilite.  It’s not butter. They are different.”
“No sir.  It’s butter.” 
“No, they are different.”
“Yes, it’s butter.”

Mr. Shopkeeper smiles.  I take the package of Nutrilite outside into the sunshine where I can better read the ingredients and then return.
“Look here sir. See where it says ‘Fat Spread,’” pointing it out on the label.  “It’s not butter. It’s ‘Fat Spread.'”

Mr Shopkeeper and Mr. Deliveryman inspect the label closely.
“Same thing. Butter.”
“Maybe, but I want plain Amul (brand name) butter, not Fat Spread.  Do you have any?” 

Without a word, the “boy” reaches into the refrigerator and hands Mr. Shopkeeper a half-kilo block of Amul butter who wordlessly hands it to me.
“Yes, that’s fine.”  I pay for my purchases, put the butter into my sack, say “Thank you” and am on my way. 

Conclusion:  I think Mr. Shopkeeper was, in his own way, trying to be helpful.  Nutrilite is sometimes called “Nutrilite Butter” and some people actually like it.  I’m told the Herbs and Garlic spread is pretty good on toast and maybe he wanted me to give it a try.  Or, possibly,  Mr. Shopkeeper had an overstock of Nurtilite and was trying to unload it or he didn’t have a small packet of regular butter and didn't believe I’d be interested in buying a full half-kilo.  Whatever.  I found it amusing. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Carping Spirit

I was chatting recently with a gentleman about my regard for someone who seemed to be a good man and well intentioned.  My acquaintance remarked, “Yes, I agree, but …..” before proceeding to air his grievances about this person, pointing out one perceived fault after another.  I reflected on why my critic friend felt such a need to counter my innocuous, positive comment, with which he agreed, with his own list of negatives.  It’s a common habit. The mind, ever discontent, looks for, finds, and dwells upon imperfections.  “It’s a beautiful day, but….”  “That was a great meal, but……” “She’s a noble person, but…..”
“I’m just being trying to see all sides,” some offer as an excuse but is this really true? More importantly, is it helpful to habitually look for imperfections?   Why must praise or compliments be tempered by perceived faults?  When a friend proudly invites you to visit his new home, do you make an inspection of the closets to find flaws?  Of course not; you say, “Congratulations” and offer a compliment.   

Incessant disgruntlement or feeling a need to “balance” positive observations with negative ones is a mental disease that feeds discontent and subtly attracts to us the very things we dislike.  How could they not come if we are constantly on the lookout for them?  Far from “seeing all sides,” we find ourselves exploring problems to such an extent that intuitive perception of higher, more expansive solutions to those same problems becomes impossible.   

I knew a man in India who incessantly found fault with everything: co-workers, group decisions, world affairs, family, current circumstances.  Within short order, new acquaintances learned to give him a wide berth or risk falling into his whirlpool of negativity.  The result was a self-made world without friends along with a festering sense of victimhood as being “misunderstood.”  “If things weren’t so rotten, I’d be different,” was his assessment, failing to see his suffering was self-inflicted.

Those infected with the carping spirit close doors to spiritual counsel or guidance from others or from the world around them.  This was Krishna’s point when he said to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “To you, who have overcome the carping spirit, I now reveal the sublime mystery.”  Arjuna, perfected in discipleship and with intellect purified, was receptive to what Krishna offered.  By overcoming the impulse toward attitudes that block attunement, he actively drew guidance from his guru.  

Rābiʿa al-Baṣrī, an eighth century Sufi mystic, said, “Yes” when asked, “Do you love God?” but surprised her audience when she was asked next, “Do you hate Satan?”  “No,” Rabi’a replied.  “My love for God leaves no room for hating Satan. My love for God has so possesses me that no place remains for loving or hating anyone save Him.”

Swami Kriyananda restated Rabi’a’s answer in one of his songs, “What we need is Light!  You can’t drive out the darkness with a stick.” When Light fills us, where can darkness dwell? Swamiji’s focus upon the heights was more than “positive thinking.” It recognized we do more than color our view of “reality” by our state of mind.  We actively participate in its creation and influence it to our benefit or ill.   Give energy to the good if you wish to attract the better angels of happiness into your life.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Good Posture

I met Swami Kriyananda in late 1968 and began serving at the Ananda Meditation Retreat in California's Sierra Nevada foothills the following April.  At that time, Swamiji was still living in San Francisco but he would sometimes come to the retreat on weekends to lead public programs or to enjoy a few days of meditation before returning to his busy schedule in the city. 

One day, I was walking along a pathway when I heard quick footsteps from behind.  Without warning, an arm reached around my chest and a hand was placed firmly on my lower back.  It was Swami.  With a slight pull of his arm and a gentle push with his hand, he forced me to stand erect while saying forcefully.  “Stand up straight!  You’ll never get anywhere if you slouch.”  A moment later and without another word, he released his grip and proceeded on his way. 

Those were simple words of advice but perhaps the most practical ones ever given to me.  My posture was indeed poor, but more significantly, it reflected a “casual,” non-magnetic attitude toward life.  “Positive, energetic, enthusiastic” were what I wanted to become but Swami made me realize I wasn’t going to succeed if I met life with a lazy, eyes-to-the-ground shuffle.

How we hold our body is tied to our mental state and I find it sad to see someone young and vital hunched over for no good reason.   I’m tempted to rush up behind them as Swamiji did with me.  Age and infirmity sometimes take a toll but for those still able, it’s vitally important to maintain good posture and not allow casual habits to become ingrained.  Our approach to life, inward and outward, is reflected in how we hold our body.  Paramhansa Yogananda said, “A bent spine is the enemy of Self-realization” because it blocks our life force from freely flowing upward toward the brain.   

You can feel a difference when you sit up straight compared to when you slump.  Good posture affirms health and vitality, energizes your will, radiates magnetism and, mysteriously, draws favorable circumstances to you.  You mentally and physically greet the world.  A slouch does just the opposite.  If you are struggling, spiritually or materially, pay attention to how you sit, stand and walk.   Straightening up, both within and without, can be the most powerful tool at your disposal for changing your life for the better.

The next time you go for a walk, consciously lift your chest while gently pulling your shoulders back.  Notice your breath.  You’ll breathe more deeply and your spine will naturally straighten without effort.   In yogic symbolism, this straightening is known as “stringing your bow” before engaging in life’s battles.  There is no need to strain but rather, be relaxed and notice how your your mental outlook begins to change.  If when walking, you have a habit of looking downward, why not lift your gaze to the world around and mentally embrace life.  If you feel to do so, send blessings.   

After my experience with Swami on that pathway, I began to watch how he walked, how he sat and how he carried himself.  Posture isn't only physical but also an attitudinal approach to life. I noticed he moved deliberately as if conscious of an aura around him.  It was sometimes remarked that if he were to collide with a wall, it would be his chest that touched the wall first.  He led with his heart, both physically and figuratively.  Good posture, besides all the obvious health benefits, also helps us open and expand the heart’s natural feelings, the prerequisite for attracting to us what we need on the spiritual path.  With an open heart affirm, "I go forward in perfect faith to joyfully greet the world." 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Practice of Silence

Swami Kriyananda once told a story about the great South Indian saint Sadasiva Brahmendra, a brilliant and gifted student in his youth.  One day, after he bested older scholars in debate and perhaps displayed a bit of pride, his guru admonished him, “When will you learn to hold your tongue?”  “Instantly Master, with your grace.”  From that moment, he never spoke again. 

Within the first few years of being introduced to the teachings of yoga, circumstances allowed me an opportunity to take up the traditional practice of silence, once for two months and another time for one. I found the experience highly worthwhile and recommend it to anyone who wishes to give it a try. 

“Holding one’s tongue” gives us a surprisingly strong boost of physical and mental energy, and in the process, makes us reflect upon how much time and energy is wasted in idle conversation.  Beyond an increase in vitality came a deeper stilling of my mind. Restlessness was gradually replaced by a calm detachment from the daily trivia with which I was often occupied.  Soon, I began to perceive as chatter what I had previously thought of as vitally important.  Silence calmed the habitual impulse to “add my two cents” or “have the last word”.  My desire to interject opinions into others’ conversations relaxed and quickly I came to understand why some saints embraced silence so strongly. 

Over the years, I’ve learned an even deeper lesson about silence best expressed by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, “The practice of silence is not the restraining of speech but the overcoming of our need to be heard.” Look within and see if this isn’t so and ask yourself, “From where comes this ‘need’? Why is it so important that I be heard?” When we overcome this habit, we allow a soothing, detached contentment to descend upon us.  From contentment comes bliss. 

What is meditation if not the “art of listening,” the calming of mental “noise” blocking more subtle perceptions.  Meditation helps us overcome our tendency to reach outside of ourselves for fulfillment.  We find our “needs” completely satisfied when we dive into the silent awareness of God’s presence within. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pray In God

Paramhansa Yogananda once asked Yogacharya Oliver Black, a highly advanced disciple, if he prayed.  Mr. Black replied, “Yes Master.  I like to think I pray all the time.”  “You pray to God,” Yoganandaji said.  “Instead, you should pray in God.”  In other words, Master was saying, don’t place God at a distance when He is with you already, the nearest of the near, the dearest of the dear.    

“Self-realization” as Master defined it, “is the knowing in all parts of body, mind, and soul that you are now in possession of the kingdom of God; that you do not have to pray that it come to you; that God’s omnipresence is your omnipresence; and that all that you need to do is improve your knowing.”  God is our reality with only a thin veil of forgetfulness separating us from Him.

It’s common, when sitting for meditation, to have a desire for peace or joy but in that very desire is implied the thought, “I don’t have joy now.” “Meditate in joy, not for joy,” is what the gurus advise and you will find God’s presence coming to you more abundantly.    
In the Autobiography of a Yogi, we are told the story of Lahiri Mahasaya’s first meeting with the Mahavatar Babaji in the foothills near Ranikhet.  Lahiri didn’t, at first, recognize his guru.  “Lahiri, surely this cave seems familiar to you?” asked Babaji.  Receiving no reply, Babaji approached his disciple and struck him gently on the forehead.  “At his magnetic touch,” Lahiri recounted, “a wondrous current swept through my brain, releasing the sweet seed-memories of my previous life.  I remember! You are my guru Babaji, who has belonged to me always!”   That “thin veil” was removed by a gentle touch.

Let’s think of ourselves as Lahiri. We are yogis from past lives yet to be reawakened to our true state.  Make that thought your reality because within it is truth.  We have descended from God and to Him we must return. As said in the Bible, “No one knows the day or the hour.” God will never be closer to us than He is right now.  All we need do is to “improve our knowing.”