I once heard a story about a monkey who decided to give up eating bananas. Even though the monkey was committed to his goal, when he saw a banana in a tree far away, he decided to sit closer to it. That way he could at least enjoy looking at it. Nothing wrong with that!
Soon, he decided to move even closer to the banana. And then closer. And then closer yet. Before long he was sitting right next to it. At that point, the monkey reached over and grabbed, peeled and ate the banana, telling himself that he would give up bananas “tomorrow.”
I often use that story when talking to my psychotherapy clients about breaking their addictive patterns. If you have the addictive substance, such as drugs, alcohol, a particular type of food, porn, etc., in close proximity to you, it is unlikely you will be able to keep your commitment to abstain.
That is the way I am about chocolate. Dark chocolate to be specific. A little dark chocolate can be healthy, but if I have some, I usually want more. If it is in the house, and it comes to my mind, it won’t be long before I go looking for it. Once it is in plain sight, forget about abstaining, I will do that “tomorrow.”
I don’t intend to ever give up dark chocolate completely, but when I am serious about stopping my over-indulgence, I know to not have it in the house and before I leave the house to recommit to myself not seek it out.
(Note: At the moment, I’m congratulating myself for choosing to use a photo of a monkey eating a banana for this post rather than a photo of a piece of dark chocolate. That way, every time I see this post in the future, I won’t be tempted to go buy some!)
Pain is a part of the human experience. Since we are imperfect beings, we all do things (intentionally and unintentionally) that cause pain for ourselves and others. As nothing is permanent, relationships come and go, ending either through separation or death. Each loss makes the way for a new beginning.
Pain creates discomfort that provides us with the opportunity and the motivation to learn and grow. As our resistance to pain decreases, our ability to experience joy increases. While pain is inevitable, the support we receive from others can make it more bearable.
I am very aware of the ongoing emotional support that I have received from Amma during painful life events. While I could give a multitude of examples, perhaps the most remarkable ones occurred in the time frames surrounding the deaths of my mother, brother and father.
In 1992, within days of returning from a visit to Amma’s ashram in southern India, I received a phone call from one of my brothers saying that my mother was in a coma and near death. Every time the coma lifted, however, she would call for me. This was a surprise as she had instructed me years before that when she reached the end of her life, I was not to come to the hospital, nor was I to attend her funeral. My father had disowned me in 1971 when I married a black man and had not spoken to me since. My mother gave me those instructions because she knew my presence would upset my father.
Now her death was imminent and she was calling for me. When I arrived at her bedside a day or two later, my mother wept with joy and relief. During the next week, I visited her daily at times when my father would not be present. I knew that if he found I had been there, he would refuse to visit her again.
I wondered what I could do to help my mother’s passing. I felt drawn to buy her a cassette player and two tapes, Alleluia and Om Namah Shivaya, both by Robert Gass and the Wings of Song. [There are many meanings for Om Namah Shivaya. The translation I like includes three of the meanings: “I bow to the God within me,” “I bow to the universal God,”and “I bow to the aspect of God that is Shiva.”] When I played Alleluia for my mother, she began to cry. When I played the Om Namah Shivaya tape her immediate response was, “I have heard that before.” I knew enough about my mother and her life to think it was highly unlikely that she had heard that song before. I sensed that Amma was nearby, helping prepare my mother for her journey Home.
I felt very grateful that these events were happening during a time I felt filled with Amma’s love. I also sensed that my recent vision to her Indian ashram allowed me to be more open to the direction of Spirit than I might be otherwise.
My mother died a month later, after I had returned to Seattle. When I attended her funeral, my brothers’ invitation having overpowered my father’s disapproval, I was told that my mother had listened to the Om Namah Shivaya tape constantly from the time I gave it to her until her death. The nurses would wheel her into the atrium of the hospice with the cassette player and headphones accompanying her. She and my brothers listed to the song together in her room. I was told that one of the nurses would sit with her, and together they would sing along with the tape. I was exceedingly grateful to have been able to participate in my mother’s dying process in that way.
My brother Bill had been diagnosed with cancer five years earlier. After my mother died, his health began a rapid decline. I expected that he would die prior to the time Amma arrived in the U.S. for her yearly tour. (She conducts programs in North America in June and July of each year.) As the time for the tour came closer, it became obvious to me that he would pass while Amma was in our country.
That year I traveled to Vancouver, BC to attend the first of Amma’s North American programs. Next came the Seattle retreat. (In those days the retreat occurred before the public programs.) On the last day of the retreat, as I was sitting out in an open field listening to a tape, my son approached me and said that my brother had died. He put his arm around me and I cried.
I was aware of how Amma/Spirit/God had taken care of me once again. My brother had passed when I was at a retreat where I could be in Amma’s arms receiving the massive love she bestows. Most of my friends were present and available for support as well.
Later, when I made plane reservations to attend my brothers funeral, I felt even more cared for. Unbelievable as it might seem, my plane would return to Seattle at the same time Amma would be in the airport waiting for the plane that she would take to continue her tour. I was able to walk off of my plane and moments later, once again be in her arms.
The third example happened in January 1999. I was in Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri, India when I received a phone call that my father had unexpectedly died. Once again, I was able to go directly to Amma after having received the news. When I had attended my mother and brother’s funerals, my father had been unwilling to speak to me. In both instances, he had left immediately after the services to avoid any possible contact. Clearly, he would not have wanted me at his funeral, so leaving India was unnecessary. I felt grateful to be in a place where I could have Amma’s support and the support of many friends as I grieved the loss of the fantasy that he would eventually be willing to engage with me. I was in awe that once again I had been with her when a member of my family died.
So frequently the painful life events I have experienced since I met Amma have occurred just before, during or immediately after I have spent time with her. Having her physical or spiritual presence during those times has increased my faith, allowing me to trust at ever deeper levels that she will be there for me when I need her. As my faith has increased, my ability to surrender to the will of guru and Spirit has grown.
I love this adventure called life. I so appreciate the love and support that is available within a guru-disciple relationship and I am exceedingly grateful that this is the spiritual path I have chosen.
Adapted from article written for The New Times: May 1999
In an earlier post, I shared pictures of the actors and scenes from this year’s Amritapuri Christmas play, “Blessed Art Thou.” In this one, I will focus more on the musicians and vocalists. Their work was magnificent.
In many, if not most, of the plays in Amritapuri, the musicians and vocalists are off stage. The actors are actually lip syncing when they appear to be speaking. They do such a good job of lip syncing many who watch the play don’t realize that they aren’t speaking, unless they know that this practice is traditional in Indian dramas.
Sreejit coordinates the group of musicians and vocalists. He and his musician friends start writing tunes as soon as one year’s play is over; long before they know what the next year’s play will be about. They write many tunes during the year but only a small fraction of them become part of the production.
Here are some of my favorite songs from this year’s play. Two of the tunes are original and two aren’t.
Part of this song is in Hebrew. It is traditionally sung in Jewish homes on the Sabbath. I think it is so beautiful.
My favorite song in this play is “Each and Every Night.” Mary, mother of Jesus, is singing about how hard it is for her, as a mother, to wait for Jesus to come home again.
The John the Baptist song was written and sung by Puneet Gabriel McCorrison. He is the person on the right side of the photo at the top of the post.
This music and song is about the 40 days and 40 nights that Satan tempted Jesus. If you listen closely you will hear both the voice of Satan and the voice of Jesus. Sreejit is the voice of Satan! He is also in the photo at the top of the post, sitting on the left side. During the play, Sreejit played the harmonium and was the voice for both Goliath and Satan.
While there were many other songs in the performance, I believe these four will give you a good sense of how much the musicians and vocalists contributed to the play’s success!
New Year’s Eve
I was super busy on December 31. I left my room at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t make it back there, except for a few minutes, until 8:30 p.m. By then, I was so sleepy I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I knew the New Year’s Eve events would last until around 1:30 a.m., so decided to get some rest.
I slept from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. When I woke up, I could tell that the entertainment portion of the evening program had already begun. I arrived at the auditorium in time to see a group led by Sashwat, an Amrita TV camera man. Two or three years ago he had surprised so many ashram residents by doing a rap performance on New Year’s Eve. This year, I sat on a table to the side of the hall and was able to see well. The singers and musicians were all sitting on the floor, as is typical in India. At one point a member of the group stood up and led several rap songs. He was the same man I mentioned in an earlier post, the one who practices Kung Fu moves on the beach! I was so surprised.
That group’s performance turned out to be the end of the entertainment program. Thursday was a darshan day and Amma continued to give hugs until just before midnight. She then led a meditation and a Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu (May all beings in the world be happy) chant. Next came her New Year’s message. Amma talked about a variety of topics. Among them were 1) welcoming the new year with joy and alertness, 2) compassion, 3) facing obstacles and 4) protecting nature’s harmony. You can read excerpts from her speech at: http://www.amritapuri.org/50825/16-newyear.aum.
Afterwards, Amma led several beautiful bhajans (devotional songs) and then did a Badaga dance. The crowd loved it all. The picture below was taken after one of the more rousing songs.
Following the bhajans, Amma served payasam (sweet pudding) to the thousands of people in the hall. She poured the pudding into cups and they were handed down from the stage on trays. Devotees then passed the cups of pudding to the people behind them until everyone had one. (Some of the brahmacharis also helped pour the payasam.)
After that, Amma left the hall and the devotees began to clean up. What a wonderful New Year’s Eve it had been.
New Year’s Day
Each year, about a week after the play, the cast get together to watch the newly created play video. It is always so much fun to watch it as a group. This year the viewing was on New Year’s Day and, as always, there was lots of laughter and applause.
That evening I went to the beach to meditate with Amma. On the way, I noticed one of the devotees who often represents the ashram was escorting a man and woman to the meditation. A young woman was walking nearby and when she saw the male visitor her jaw dropped in amazement. She came up to him and said she was a BIG fan of his. She turned around saying she couldn’t wait to tell her mother he was there.
I had no idea who he was but was definitely intrigued. Later I found out it was Russell Brand. I rarely see movies or watch other kinds of shows so I didn’t know anything about him. When I did an internet search, I discovered he is a British comedian, actor, and activist. I also learned he wrote an article about Amma last year so I looked that up as well. I was impressed with what he wrote. Many of his words were funny, but a lot of the things he wrote about Amma were profound. If you want to read his article you can find it at: https://web.facebook.com/RussellBrand/posts/10152650768708177
Time with Amma
In my last post, I had said I was going to make being with Amma a major priority for myself during the following week since she would be leaving on her North Kerala tour soon. While I did not always keep that commitment, I did make my decisions around use of time carefully. I think that was the life lesson, i.e. to make plans but be willing to let them go when it seems important to do so.
I received my last hug from Amma (for this trip) on December 30. I love it when Amma laughs while she hugs me. This time, it seemed like she held me for a long time while talking and laughing with the people who were nearby! What a great ending for that part of my trip
One of the two elevators in our building has been out of service for a week or so. On New Year’s day there were so many people waiting for the elevator, I decided to walk up the stairs. There are fifteen flights of stairs to climb in order to get to my room on the fifth floor.
As I trudged up the stairs, I remembered I was carrying something for a friend living on the NINETH floor! I would have waited for the next elevator if I had remembered that, but I decided to just keep going. The celebration is that when I reached the eighth floor my pulse was 103 beats per minute (per Fitbit). On the nineth floor it was 105. A few months ago my pulse was 150 when I leisurely walked around a flat track at a park near Seattle. As far as I was concerned, for it to stay that low after climbing up 27 flights of stairs was worthy of a big celebration! I am so much healthier than I was when I arrived in India five weeks ago.
There is more I could say, but I will save it for another post. I hope that you all had a wonderful holiday season and wish you a very happy new year.
I decided to make this post a random list of some of the things that have happened during the last few days!
As we were driving from the airport to the ashram on Saturday morning, I noticed at times there were huge puddles covering a good part of the street. There were also big potholes in the roads. The rainfall must have been tremendous. That monsoon type of rain is usually over by this time of year, so I was surprised.
After evening bhajans (devotional songs) on Sunday, it began to rain again. You could hear the rain pounding on the metal roof of the auditorium. It started raining harder, and harder. When the rain seemed like it couldn’t possibly get any heavier, it did; time and time again. The sound became so loud it was hard to hear what people were saying.
Tuesday night there was thunder and lightning and more rain. I love the array of dramatic sights and sounds that occur when that happens in India. (I later heard that Chennai is “under water.” That certainly puts a different slant on my story. All is not beautiful about torrential rains.)
It has been hotter and more humid in the last few days than I can remember in any past December.
On Monday, Amma gave darshan (hugs, which are her form of blessing) to all of the brahmacharis (male monks) and brahmacharinis (female monks) as well as to the ashram residents who stayed at the ashram during the months she had traveled in Europe and North America. I enjoyed watching them get their hugs. They are so devoted to Amma and love her so much.
On Tuesdays, Amma comes to meditate with the ashram residents and visitors. Afterwards, she either asks or answers questions and then leads a song before serving lunch to everyone. That may sound simple but keep in mind that 3,000-5,000 people are living in the ashram. She hands each person their plate of food. Over the years, that process has been refined so that it happens with amazing speed. After everyone has received their food, we sing the meal prayer together and then eat. Afterwards Amma gives darshan to the visitors who arrived that day.
Three friends and I have been eating together at least one meal a day. We all met Amma in 1988 or 1989. Three of us took our first trip to Amritapuri in January 1990. This is my twenty-sixth trip to Amritapuri and they have come here many times as well. Sometimes we reminisce about the “old days.” Very few of the “oldtimers” we know come to India anymore; many seem to be content with seeing Amma when she comes to the U.S. I can’t imagine being with her only once a year, and if I had to pick between the U.S. programs and India, my choice would be India!
I’ve been going to the beach each day for a Tai Chi class. (There will be more about that in future posts.) This morning I went to the beach early and watched the waves. I remembered a tragic incident that happened last year. A young village boy was swimming in the water and was pulled into the sea by the undertow. I will never forget the blood curdling scream his mother made when she was notified that her son was gone. So many villagers, ashramites and the local coast guard looked for him, to no avail. His body washed up on the beach the next day. Such a sad situation.
I get much more exercise when I am here than I do in Seattle. I wear a Fitbit that counts my steps. In the U.S. I average 3,000 – 4,000 steps in a day. On my first day in Amritapuri, I walked 13,000 steps. Most days are between 8,000 – 10,000. In addition to walking from building to building, I also walk down five large flights of stairs eight to ten times a day. I walk up them two or three times. One of the two elevators in our building hasn’t worked since I’ve been here. I don’t know if it is broken or if they are saving electricity. Regardless, I am thankful my room is on the 6th floor instead of the 15th. If I don’t want to wait in an elevator line I just climb the stairs.
Every year, on Christmas Eve the ashram residents put on a Broadway style musical. Chaitanya (my daughter) writes and directs the play. Sreejit (my son) and his friends compose many tunes for her to select from as she creates the songs and lyrics. While Chaitanya and the musicians work on the script and the music throughout the year, the bulk of the play preparation starts after Amma and the tour staff get back from the Europe and U.S. programs. That means there are only three weeks for the cast to be picked and the dances to be choreographed. The musicians have to work on the instrumentation and the actors and actresses have to learn the scripts, songs and dances. Simultaneously, props, costumes, backdrops, sound, lights, subtitles and much more have to be made. The play work goes on night and day. The cast also do their normal ashram jobs during that time. The energy in the ashram becomes electric as the big night gets closer!
I won’t give any hints about the content of this year’s play, but I will mention that last year’s was about the life of St. Francis, St. Sebastian, St. Claire. I will share a few of the pictures so you can get a sense of the intricacy of the work.
There is more that I plan to share in a future post, but as I was coming to a close on this one, I had an experience that is a perfect ending.
Several years back, Amma decided she wanted everyone who is staying at the ashram to have the opportunity to sit near her for 30 minutes every public program day. Sometimes I go for my shift and sometimes I don’t. When I do, I often slide in just as my shift begins. Today, I decided to go early. I ended up being the first person in line for that opportunity. I was led to a seat about six feet from Amma in a position where I had completely unblocked vision the whole time! What a gift that was for me. Thank you Amma.
Almost every year since January 1990, I have visited the Amritapuri ashram of Mata Amritanandamayi (who is more commonly referred to as Amma) in Kerala, India. Amma is an internationally known spiritual leader and humanitarian. My adult son (Sreejit) and daughter (Chaitanya) have lived in her ashram for many years so I am also blessed to be able to spend time with them when I come to India. I know from years of experience that my trip will be packed with learning and experiences. I look forward to sharing them with you.
Journey to India
I left Seattle on Thanksgiving Day this year. I was eager to be at my India “home” but dreaded the long trip. On Emirates flights, I am able to make the journey in 24 hours, but it is still grueling. The flight from Seattle to Dubai takes 14 hours; followed by a two hour layover in Dubai, a four hour flight to Trivandrum, an hour or more to get through immigration, customs and retrieving baggage, and then a two to three hour taxi ride to the ashram.
Last year, I was surprised and ecstatic when the airlines gave me an unexpected upgrade to business class for the 14 hour segment. That gift made my journey so much easier. That was the first time I had been upgraded in the 25 years I’ve been going to India, but for the last few months I found myself hoping it would happen again. I believe the best way to achieve a desire is to let go of it, but seemed unable to do that. I yearned to once again experience the luxury of lying down during an international flight. It was not to be however.
Something I really appreciated happened when I was waiting for my baggage in Trivandrum. My name was announced over the loud speaker and I was directed to come to the baggage counter. Once there, they handed me the Kindle I had left in the airplane. I had planned on reading during the flight but dosed off instead and had completely forgotten I had taken it out of my carry-on suitcase.
This scenario was even more remarkable when I compared it to something that had occurred this past summer in the United States. In that instance, I had also left an item on a plane. When I realized my error, I called the airline’s Lost and Found department and gave them my flight and seat number. I was told that the airlines only had three people to handle Lost and Found for the whole country and that I should keep calling back. They said it often took three months to know whether an item had been found. I called many times and finally gave up. And now, in India, the airport staff had tracked me down before I even left the airport. I left the airport feeling cared for and honored. It was such a good example of the kindness of the Emirates staff and the Indian people.
I’m home! I’m exhausted but content. Normally I get to the ashram before Amma returns from her fall European and U.S. tour, but this year the tour was over earlier than normal so she arrived in Amritapuri before me.
My taxi pulled into the ashram grounds at 7 a.m. After spending a short time visiting with my children, I generally start unpacking and washing the clothes and bedding that has been stored since I left the previous January. This time, when I unlocked my flat, I discovered Chaitanya had cleaned the room and even made the bed. Oh that bed looked so good after no solid sleep for 36 hours. I unpacked for a while and then decided I was too tired to be hand washing all of the laundry in buckets so I took a nap instead! That change in behavior was a first for me. I wonder how many other “firsts” there will be this year.
I always watch for changes that have occurred in the ashram since I was last here. On arrival, I noticed that the ground of the courtyard in front of the temple now is covered by large patio stones with grass separating them. It is quite beautiful and makes it much easier to transport luggage and other items from one place to another. I found the biggest change, however, in the huge auditorium. After a decade or more, there are now fans hanging from the ceiling, 35 of them! My eyes really opened in shock and delight when I saw them. Having the breeze during the evening bhajans (devotional singing) on my first night was wonderful.
One would think that Amma would take time to rest after returning from such a grueling tour, but of course that isn’t what happened. She came out in the afternoon and sang with us and then gave darshan (her form of blessing is a hug) to visitors who were staying only a short time. In the evening she came again for the bhajans. She sang so many of the old, beautiful Malayalam songs. I feel so blessed to be here!
All of our mistakes have made us into the people that we are today, and so this is not meant to be an exercise in regret, but rather a fun look back with the thought, “that was maybe not such a great idea.” Tell us about a past exploit of your younger, less wise self.
It only took seconds for me to know what I would be sharing!
I moved from Florida to Washington State in 1966 to go to a conservative Christian school named Seattle Pacific College. Months before I arrived, the administration had granted students the privilege of being able to go to movie theaters. The school still had rules against wearing pants on campus, except on Saturdays, and they didn’t allow students to play cards, dance, or drink alcohol.
I believe it was sometime early in 1968 when I decided to become a volunteer at the First Avenue Service Center. That was a place where the homeless men and women from “skid row” could wash their clothes, bathe and have a place to hang out during the day.
I have no memory of how I found the Center but I loved being there. I talked with the people who frequented it and tried to bring some light into their days. I played a lot of pinochle with them even though I knew my college would not approve; pinochle was a major past-time for those who gathered at the Center. At some point, I wrote a letter to my mother saying something along the line of “Oh mom, I am meeting so many interesting people. I am getting to know ex-cons, drug addicts, drag queens, and prostitutes!”
I was very surprised when my mother wasn’t as excited about my adventure as I was. In fact, she told me she would be sending me a plane ticket home! I had no intention of leaving Seattle or the Center. While I don’t remember what happened next, since I never received the plane ticket, she must not have followed through on her threat. And I didn’t leave the Center.
My involvement with those people was not confined to my volunteer time. I would hang out with some of them outside of the Center as well. At one point, I started dating a young man who was a heroin addict. I was madly in love with him and did everything I could to spend time with him. To his credit, and my luck, he never asked me to get high with him. I had no interest in using any kind of drugs even though it was the 60’s. I just loved hanging out with him. I was so co-dependent though. If he wanted me to drive him somewhere I did it. I remember being so eager to see him that I drove back to Seattle non-stop after I had finished a summer job in New Mexico. The first thing he did upon my arrival was ask me to drive him to Portland … then … and I did it.
I didn’t know anything about co-dependency in those days, I just knew I was meeting fascinating people and my life was full of adventure. He eventually lost interest in me and took off. Looking back, I believe that he never considered me to be his girlfriend. I think I was mainly a chauffeur and he let me tag along at other times.
In hindsight, was it wise for a naive 19 or 20 year old to be volunteering at a place like that? Was it appropriate for me to be hanging out with “ex-cons, drug addicts, drag queens and prostitutes” outside of the Center? Was my “dating” a heroin addict a mistake? I would answer “No” to all of those questions, although I have to admit as I am writing this blog post, I am wavering on those answers a bit.
Would I want my daughter to have the experiences I had? I’d answer “Yes” in regards to some of them, but definitely not to all of them. I put myself into some very dangerous places and painful situations. Did I make mistakes? Yes I did, but I learned from them. And as Sreejit said in the prompt directions, everything that happened during that period of my life contributed to making me the person I am today.
I still remember a few of the people I met in those days. And the lessons I learned then allow me to do a much better job of keeping myself safe now. I also have a lot more compassion for my mother than I did at that time. I can certainly understand why she would react to my letter by telling me she would be sending me a plane ticket home!
Later in my life, I met my spiritual teacher, Amma. When I asked her for a spiritual name she named me Karuna. Karuna means compassion. I think that my sense of compassion and my adventurous spirit really blossomed and came to fruition during the year or so I volunteered at the First Avenue Service Center. I don’t have any regrets.
Handful of petals Offering to the Mother From my heart to hers
The Haiku was written about a Bhagavati Puja I attended last night. The photographs were taken after the puja had ended.
The Bhagavati Seva Puja, is an ancient Vedic puja ceremony done to restore balance in the environment and bring peace within us and the world. It is a very beneficial puja performed to keep us in harmony with cosmic forces, thereby removing and overcoming the sorrows of life and bringing spiritual upliftment.
This morning, I walked while chanting the Sri Lalita Sahasranama. This is a sacred text that I ideally would be chanting daily. As I walked, I was pulled by the desire to be focusing on the beauty around me rather than reciting the chant. I have felt that pull many times before, but it was particularly strong today.
Then the question “Isn’t focusing on the beauty of Mother Nature a spiritual practice too?” came into my mind. Of course it is; about that I had no doubt. I realized what wanted to be doing was to immerse myself in nature, taking photographs to share on my blog and in the GreenFriends newsletter I organize monthly.
For the rest of my walk, I continued my chant, but if I felt called to stop and look at something and/or take a picture, I did. Sometimes I felt literally “called” in that it seemed like a song bird or crow was calling out to me.
I felt “rewarded” for being flexible in my definition of spiritual practice by capturing several beautiful photographs.
I suspect that tomorrow morning I will be going on a nature walk!