Monday, February 20, 2006

Where Ganges, woods, Himalayan caves and men dream God

I've heard it said that India is a land of spirituality where one might realize God more quickly. Certainly the spiritual quest is a living reality here, acknowledged and encouraged. As Master said in his poem My India, "Where Ganges, woods, Himalayan caves and men dream God." Even though often buried beneath a thick layer of debris and chaos, I do think this is true. If one is willing to look and feel closely, there is a subtle sense of uniqueness beneath the obvious disarray that I find highly intriguing but difficult to define. What is spirituality anyway? I don't mean to romanticize India because there is a lot here to dislike. It is obvious and hard to not notice, but there is also a special "something" about the place. Maybe it is because so many saints have walked this land, or perhaps it is because God is so interwoven into the cultural landscape. I haven't come close to understanding this but I think about it daily. Why is it that I meditate better here and feel more devotion even though the place drives me crazy every day? Negative feelings bubble up yet I sense these as byproducts of something stirring within. To locals I say when asked how I like it here, "India is a land of extremes." Perhaps its true that spiritual growth is accelerated in such environments simply because life's challenges force us to resolve them within.

With the passing months has come a growing compassion for the plight of the ordinary Indian people, most of whom I find very, very sweet. They work so hard to create a better life against great obstacles and are touchingly proud of their country. Last week I was in Mumbai and struck up a conversation with a waiter in the restaurant of my hotel. He had a rather dour demeanor and I wanted to break the ice. He asked, rather formally, how I liked India (a very common question) and I gave back many compliments. Immediately he smiled and said "thank you," swelling with pride as if I had complimented him personally. After that, I had a difficult time finishing my meal, he was so eager to talk and share his impressions. Like many of these casual conversations, he eventually began to lament the many failings of India compared to America and how India could improve. Locals too suffer from the very same frustrations of daily life as experienced by those of us from the West. Sometimes I think it bugs them even more than it does me that the streets are dirty, government is corrupt, and nothing seems to function properly because the Indian knows the great potential of this country and of the people who live here.

Indian society is centered around the extended family. It is common and expected for multiple generations to live together. With no social security, it becomes the responsibility of children to tend to the needs of elders and for siblings and cousins to pool resources in an extended network of family relationships. In marked contrast to this tight web of family connectedness is a low sense of civic responsibility for the public domain. What happens beyond one's doorstep is likely to be someone else's problem. Perhaps this is because people feel little ability to effectively influence their surroundings or maybe it's simply a manifestation of the "us four and no more" consciousness, or maybe it's just training. It is drummed into Americans from kindergarten through adulthood to "stand in line," "wait your turn," "don't push and grab," that "everyone gets his/her turn," that we must "be fair," "share", and cooperate. India, by contrast is a free-for-all.

Last week I went into the telephone office to straighten out a small problem. To expedite service, this office wisely has each person take a numbered ticket, serving each in turn. Without this feature, there would be chaos. On the wall, prominently displayed, is a video monitor of all the numbers yet to be called. Periodically, a computer generated voice would say, "Now serving number 35 (or whatever) at window A (or B, or C)." I was number 45 with many more above that. What is the common thing to do in such a situation? You take a seat and patiently wait your turn, but what were half of the waiting customers doing? They were jostling their way to the front of the crowd gathered around each window, waving their tickets in hope of being served next, even though their numbers didn't warrant it. This might be a logical thing to do if the service personnel actually responded to such pleas but the petitioners were being totally ignored again and again and again, as each new number was called. The crowd's behavior made no sense, as there was no hope for anyone to jump the queue. Yet they persisted, relentlessly. When my number was finally called after about 20 minutes, I elbowed my way through the crowd of 50's on the left and 60's on my right to reach the counter. I really, really wanted to say, "Relax! Calm down. Have a seat. Your turn will come," but of course I didn't.

I see variations of such scenes often. Why so much anxiety? Maybe it's the result of too many people scrambling for limited resources. Many of those in the office were villagers, perhaps unaccustomed to the ways of the city, so perhaps it is a matter of education. Whatever the cause, I've come to realize that most Indians live under conditions of very high stress-economics, family expectations, over-crowding, environmental obstacles, social constraints, taboos, peer pressure, and the daily hassle of a physical world that doesn't work very well-and it takes its toll on their health. In the face of such things, one can succumb to despair or rise to greater heights. Fortunately for India, the cultural legacy cultivates the latter course, encouraging aspiration to higher values. People become angry here as they do elsewhere, maybe even more so, but I sense that Indians are likely to recognize this as not a good thing and regret it. On some level, they know better because their Vedic heritage teaches that such expressions are not proper or in accordance with right dharma.

As I've come to know India better, I've taken a sharper notice of the diversity of its people: dozens of languages, multiple religions, uncounted numbers of sects, castes, tribes and ethnic groups. Not only do Westerners feel as if they are foreigners, Indians feel the same way. Leaving their villages for the bright lights of Delhi is an entry into another world. I had one educated man tell me that he felt totally "at sea" when he went into the countryside outside of the city because it was so strange for him there and so "foreign."

Some of you know that as a college student, I majored in anthropology. What I learned then was that "culture matters." It influences us more than we know, shaping our view of life and how we experience it. I've come to suspect that culture wires our malleable brains in ways that differ from one culture to the next. We are not all seeing the same "movie." We can be in related, but very separate, universes from the person with whom we are dealing. It's not just language. It is something more fundamental which I find fascinating. I think this goes to the heart of something that many of us notice here, and that Swami Kriyananda has commented upon too. Indians tend to more frequently have "phenomenal" and "other-worldly" spiritual experiences compared to people in the West.

As a "Kriyacharya," I hear many stories that cause me to simply shake my head in amazement. Kundalini, visions, spiraling currents, out-of-body experiences, and ecstatic states are regular fare. I don't mean to say that these are universal or even common, but I can almost guarantee that someone in every class will come afterward to ask for help with something like this. At first I suspected overactive imaginations but I was wrong. One lady was distressed after kriya initiation because she was experiencing a loss of body awareness while teaching her classroom of children. The bliss she was feeling was interfering with her duties. The top of her head was very warm to touch and actually emanated an inner vibration. There have been many such accounts, all sincere. A woman from South India spoke of a local goddess who regularly appeared while she practiced kriya. Another gentleman wanted to know how to control the chakra awakening he was experiencing, described it in great detail. It has made me wonder, "Why don't Westerners seem to have these experiences so frequently?" I think the answer is culture.

Westerners are trained to be skeptical by nature and to look for material, physical and tangible causes to phenomena, whereas in India the veil between the material and astral planes is thinner. I don't like to generalize like this but I am coming to agree with others who have said that the Indian psyche is primed for mysticism whereas the Western mind is primed for practical efficiency, due to the influence of culture and training. But interestingly, if you take an Indian and put him in America or a Westernized subculture within India, he becomes highly practical and efficient within a short order, often rising to the top of his field. I'm hoping the same can be said, in reverse, for us practical Westerners who now find ourselves in mystical India.

In my last letter I mentioned that the focus of my service here is "teaching/outreach" and that we would begin a series of tours in 2007. I'd like to let you know these are going. In January we did weekend workshops, free lectures and satsangs in Delhi, Gurgaon, Bangalore and Mumbai. We are now in a pause while we organize the Mahasamadhi and Kriyaban weekends planned for early March. Immediately after, we do programs to Hyderabad, Pune, Calcutta, Noida, and Delhi. After that, we begin the rotation again, returning to every location once each quarter, sometimes doing two cities on one weekend when staff is available.

I had hoped to attract the same numbers this year as last, while at the same time reducing our advertising costs in order to financially break even. You can guess the result-half the advertising equals half the attendance. This is our dilemma. How do we reach new people with our message and so that they will come? Newspapers seem to be the most reliable route but the cost is excessive. We are trying to attract other forms of publicity such as radio and TV interviews but have not yet succeeded as we might. Knowing that it takes so much to attract a new student, we are trying to do better this year in retaining those who do come. Our follow-up efforts last year were not organized and many who came melted away because of our failure to keep in contact but I think we are going to do much better this year. Sadhana Devi and I are putting together a 6-week series of supplemental "lessons" to email each week to everyone who takes our Meditation and Energization workshops. We are also doing a better job of advertising/promoting our return visits to offer the next level of workshops for those who came the first time. To save on costs, we are doing more multiple programs in distant cities and simultaneous classes (Example: Dhyana in one hall, Jaya in another.) on the same day. This allows us to advertise more programs with the same amount of advertising space in the newspapers, and overall, make us more efficient.

On a positive note, we now have good groups developing in some cities where we conducted programs last year. Local kriyabans are taking on a greater share of organizational responsibility for programs, making it possible for us to reduce our traveling staff. This is especially so in Mumbai and I would not be surprised to see a self-sustaining center develop there within the next year, and maybe also in Delhi where Haridas and Roma teach weekly. Up to now, our only teaching center away from Gurgaon has been in Noida, on the other side of Delhi. We have good support in Bangalore but the development of a group there is still a behind Mumbai. I continue to visit Calcutta on my own from time to time to give support to a small group of dedicated kriyabans but it will be awhile before a group coalesces there.

From what I've written, you might have the impression that most of the ashram is involved in these outreach efforts but that is not the case. In a way this is true because it takes everyone's effort to make these programs possible, but day to day, there are actually only a few of us whose primary duty is teaching. Dhyana, Dharmadas and I have assumed the majority of the teaching duties on the tours. Haridas and Roma teach in Delhi and Wayne and Elizabeth Palmer are responsible for Noida. Sadhana Devi and I teach most of the meditation/raja yoga/discipleship classes in Gurgaon but because I travel so often, Sadhana Devi has found herself, more and more, conducting these by herself.

What does everyone else do? Each does a little of everything, pitching in where needed. In very broad strokes, here is a summary:
" Swami's staff: Lakshman (secretary), Miriam (nurse and secretary), Lila (cooking and house management)
" Overall Directors: Dharmadas and Nirmala
" Ashram House Managers: Roma and Haridas
" Boutique at Metropolitan Mall: Wayne and Elizabeth, Shivani (India disciple), Bijay (Indian disciple)
" Clothing business: Cecilia
" Tours: Daya and Keshava
" Master's Flower Essences: Deborah and Claudio
" Maintenance and Projects: Tim Clark, Vivek, Sudesh
" Publications, design, Books: Devendra, Zack, RamMurti, Sita, Robi, Lisa, Stephen Phillips, Pat K.
" Sangha House Management: Sita, Sangeeta
" Promotion/Advertising: Daya
" Sangha Office: Jaya, Dhyana, Keshava, Sadhana Devi, volunteers, Sangeeta
" Web: Dharmaraj, Pat Kirby
" Teaching and satsangs: Dharmadas, Nirmala, Dhyana, Jaya, Haridas, Roma, Wayne, Deborah, Sadhana Devi
" Hatha yoga classes all over: Claudio
" Answer phones: Pat Kirby and volunteers
" Material Success Course: Vijay, Haridas, Dharmaraj, Dharmini, Sangeeta
" Harmony in the Workplace project: Elizabeth and Stuti
" Special Projects and Land Acquisition: Durga and Vidura
" Financial Management: Sadhana Devi, Nirmala, others
" Ananda Solar: Amol (wife is Arati + kids Tonya and Yash from the UK), Kent White, Dharana and Jemal
" Database: Steve Berry
" This, that and the other thing: Narayani

As you see there are lots of things to talk about and report. I'll try to touch on some of these in my next letter. Each has a story to tell.

Much joy to everyone.