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Larkin and Kyrie are starting to get their spiritual game on. They are asking amazing questions. They are getting more and more confident in the asking. They are making connections across religious traditions. And – the best indication in my book of true comprehension – they are cracking some really good jokes about big things.
When I was driving Larkin to Buddha knows where recently, I asked her to fish a crumpled piece of paper out of my purse and read out a really cool 11th century Buddhist commentary from a sage named Atisha that I’d recently stumbled upon online.
The greatest achievement is selflessness.
The greatest worth is self-mastery.
The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.
The greatest precept is continual awareness.
The greatest action is not conforming with the world’s ways.
The greatest magic is transmuting the passions.
The greatest generosity is non-attachment.
The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.
The greatest patience is humility.
The greatest effort is not concerned with results.
The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go.
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.
A Cheshire-ish grin slowed poured across Larkin’s face as she finished, and then she quipped, “Hey, the Buddha was the ultimate hipster!”
I laughed, did my didactic due diligence and pointed out that the Buddha hadn’t actually written it but close enough, and then asked her what she meant.
“That ‘not conforming to the world’s ways’ thing. It’s just such a hipster vibe.”
She then asked what was meant by, “The greatest generosity is non-attachment.” I reminded her that attachment was how the Buddha described our fundamentally flawed way of understanding the world, which leads to our own suffering. That when we cling to things, people, ideas, whatever, it’s out of fear, because we think we are separate from all of these things rather than ultimately interconnected.
“That’s really just a mindset of Mine versus Yours, and by implication I want Mine to be Better than Yours, instead of Us, Ours, the whole We Are All One thing. So, that’s why it’s a sort of selfishness to “attach” to things, and I guess that’s why Atisha’s saying the most generous thing we can do is just let all things be, embrace everything without clinging to anything, without any need to control or judge.”
We talked a bit more about the meaning of generosity in general and quickly ended up talking about how in Buddhism the Eightfold Path is kind of the ‘how-to” list for how to become generous, which didn’t seem a far off description of enlightenment at that point. Then, we talked about why I was now a Buddhist, which basically is because I feel it best calls me to – and explains to me how to – open my heart more and more and become more and more loving.
Larkin got quiet then and stared out the windshield for a while. Then, out of the blue, she observed, “So, in Christianity something -someone else, God, Jesus – saves you, and in Buddhism, you save yourself.”
I was so impressed and readily agreed. I also asked her if she was aware how shocking some Christians would find this, the “presumption” of saving ourselves. She did. Then, she got quiet again. She continued staring out at bright hot day, and we didn’t say anything more. But, I could literally feel brightness emanating from her, a growing capaciousness in her heart. She wasn’t judging. Just… perceiving. Considering. Understanding.
“No chi, no fee!”
You gotta love a martial arts instructor who provides a money-back guarantee for simply experiencing the universe’s energetic life force, what in Taoism is referred to as chi. I certainly love him, even though I’ve never met him.
Back in April, my Taoist boyfriend Joaquin Avellan – who my girls love as much as I do – was our primary introduction to the heart and the practices of this very unreligion-y religion. And, it was an Italian-American from the Bronx, Jim Borrelli, who had introduced Joaquin to Nei Kung, a physical practice generally considered foundational to the Taoist martial art of Tai Chi Chuan years before in Los Angeles.
Joaquin hardly exercises in the traditional sense at all, and yet he is in shockingly good shape for a nearly 50-year-old. Actually, for an any-year-old. When he practices Nei Kung, he basically just holds any or all of 10 otherwise unremarkable positions for anywhere from 3 to 8 or 9 minutes each, and then he is drenched in sweat and utterly energized. He says that he literally hums with bodily electricity, a force channeled into him from the world around him through very careful alignment in and orderly execution of these poses. The results are very real, physically and energetically. From the very first day, Joaquin always paid his fee, with gratitude. Jim always delivered.
As does the Tao, according to Taoists. Basically, philosophical Taoists don’t find the idea of The Way, the fundamental energy of all of life flowing throughout our world, to be inscrutable or abstruse or difficult to align with. It’s us and the way we live that is so often inscrutable, abstruse and difficult to align with. It’s the aligning – accepting the flow of the universe and allowing ourselves to move with it, rather than against it or irrespective of it – that is so often so hard for us. And, since changing ourselves mentally or emotionally is also so hard for so many, Taoism, being such a practical spiritual practice, developed so many direct physical paths and processes to encourage this fundamental alignment.
When Joaquin demonstrated the first pose to my girls, Kyrie jumped up alongside him, but in a silly way. “Sort of just cocky,” she confessed later. She mimicked his position but kept a little giggly smile on her face. Quietly, Joaquin made little adjustments to her hand positions, the width of her arms, the depth of the bend in her knees. And, not two minutes later, her face took on a more serious look. Her eyes locked onto the focus point Joaquin suggested. She began to shake slightly. Once, she glanced at me. At first I thought she looked scared, but then I realized that it was more an expression of shock. As in, electrical shock.
“That was so real!” she whispered to me later.
We were at Pease Park, observing other Tai Chi practitioners nearby. Just before we departed, we saw what looked like an average middle-aged woman walking onto the concrete basketball court behind us. A little overweight, a little underbrushed of hair. From a large black duffel, she withdrew a long wooden sword. Not two minutes later, she was flowing in powerful circles and executing complex spins and intimidating thrusts as she revealed her powerful command of sword dancing. A woman in mom-jeans had morphed into a real superhero right before our eyes.
And who says Taoism isn’t a real religion? I’ll lay money down on that one.
So much for promising to write on Sunday. You know, I am realizing that one of the reasons this journey with my daughters is going so well is because we aren’t being terribly goal-, much less deadline-, oriented. Gotta remember that as I get this blog back on track.
What a great reason we had to get off track, too! Our journey to the Galapagos late last March was, according to all, the best and most amazing trip of our lives. Where spirituality is the abstraction of wonder, glorious nature is its celebration. Spirituality, being interior, may be more portable and more communicable, but Nature is a cathedral that never leaves you once you make any proper pilgrimage to Her.
I still tried to be Little Miss Didactic Mom on our trip, of course. I had a biography of Charles Darwin with me along with the famous play “Inherit The Wind.” I had fantasies of the kids all discussing the religious ramifications of evolution and putting on famous scenes from the court room of the historic Scopes Trial. However, I was no match for swimming with a penguin. On our last night, the kids staged a talent show packed with pop songs and impressive dancing instead. Books were just so second string.
Nevertheless, I attempted to read out snippets and bits over breakfast, and two otherwise minor details seemed to touch everyone. First was how generally poor and drifting a student Charles Darwin was his entire youth. After years of running away from boarding school and then basically failing out of medical school in a year, he crammed his way through several entrance exams and headed off to Cambridge to prepare for, yes, the ministry. Still, he struggled generally, at one point even writing to a friend at home, “I stick fast in the mud at the bottom [of my math class] and there I shall remain.”
It was just being in mud, being out in the world and observing it wondrously, that lit young Darwin up. He started skipping his classes again, instead exploring nearby creeks every day with the famous botanist John Stevens Henslow. Darwin simply and passionately loved the world around him and wanted nothing more than to honor it by studying it carefully and, ultimately, understanding it. As we all talked about this, the kids clearly were touched to hear that following one’s own inspired path, even if it wasn’t the prescribed path, could lead to such monumental contributions.
Later, I got a big laugh as I repeated my favorite quote from “Inherit the Wind.” When the girlfriend of the young teacher who had dared to teach evolution is put on the stand and forced to testify against him, the famous prosecutor insinuates that the accused had declared that God didn’t create Man, but rather that Man had created God.
“Bert didn’t say that! He was just joking. What he said was: ‘God created Man in His own image – and Man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.'”
This definitely loosened all of the kids up. We had a brief but powerful discussion about how much spirituality is our recognition of, and attempt to honor, all that is beyond us and how much it can be a projection of our own needs and presumptions. Then, we all headed out for a day of splashing with smiling sea lions, floating alongside giant sea turtles and seeing nothing but blue horizons all around. All of us were utterly filled up by beauty and complexity just beyond our complete understanding, but completely within our native sense of what is, and should be, sacred. No book, however influential, can ever be any match for such a direct experience of wonder.
No wonder nature was the first thing humans worshipped.
As our fourth column for the Statesman goes to press this morning, four months after my last post here, you’d think I’d feel guilty. My daughters and I have been feeling many things as we press on in this year of exploring spirituality and religion together, but blessedly, guilt has not been one of them. However, it is beyond high time to explain what we have been feeling and learning, why I took such a long blog break and catch us up now.
Doing something like this together has been opening my daughters and I up in ways we didn’t predict. I get almost teary with gratitude as I write that the experience has been, and continues to be, happy and loving and the foundation of so much new depth to our bond. What we are bonding about, however, is not always specifically related to religion or spiritual insight. This journey is also opening our eyes and allowing for fresh words and ideas about our own lives, our own family dynamics, and in particular my daughters’ own blossoming autonomy and self-determination.
As a writer, the question is always how much to share. As a mother, the question is always how much to protect. We wouldn’t have made a commitment as a family to write about such an open-hearted exploration if we didn’t believe in the inherent value of families and individuals coming together in a community and sharing their experiences. Still, this past spring a few beautiful things happened that nevertheless stopped me in my tracks both as a mother and a writer, so that I have spent the past four months closely considering the balance of what of my daughters’ experiences to share and what to hold more closely.
I hope this makes sense. It sure feels sensible. It also feels right to start up again. We’ve had lots of fun, sometimes funny, and often very touching things happen since we took a big huge trip at Spring Break… to the Galapagos Islands! I think my next post (tomorrow, I swear!) will be about Charles Darwin, actually. Then, we can all come back together. Just, not in such a linear fashion on this part of the journey. That feels right, too, though. A path like this, like anyone’s spiritual path, simply can’t be – nor I believe should be – from point A to point B to point Done. Like a labyrinth that changes as you walk it, our paths are growing and deepening as well. Luckily. Magically.
We are getting this sense of wonder thing down.
“There’s even a Jewgle!”
Sky Samuelson laughed loudly as he announced this. We were all laughing and having fun long after dessert was finished. Sky is a good friend of Larkin’s best friend. He’s also a good kid, and a spiritually impressive one. At twelve, after years of a Unitarian upbringing, he announced that he didn’t feel God around him and that he wanted to return to his paternal Jewish roots. An otherwise typical teenager gets himself into Hebrew School and studies and prepares and merits a Bar Mitzvah by his fourteenth birthday. Wow! We bought a cake with which to celebrate his achievement and couldn’t wait to have him, his family and our mutual friends over for dinner.
“I wanted to go in the direction of my family,” Sky explained. This actually explains a lot about Judaism, as it is an ethnicity as much as it is a religion. The two are intimately intertwined. The more we talked about what it means to be Jewish, it became apparent that Sky and his dad and Jews in general aren’t so caught up in parsing particular “meanings” or distinctions between the various movements within Judaism so much as they are invested so deeply in the tribal fact of being Jewish.
When we visited with Rabbi Blumofe of Congregation Agudas Achim, Kyrie asked him what percentage of Jews were Reform or Conservative or Orthodox. He replied, “I don’t know. I do know that we are all linked together – we share common prayers, common thoughts, and common ideas – and that the point is not the denomination so much as being out there, being engaged together and helping people out.” Kyrie exclaimed, “That’s a really good answer!”
Rabbi Blumofe is a Conservative Jew, and Sky’s family is Reform. Yet, over and over again, what we heard from both of them spoke much more of common ground than of any kind of conflict. And, again and again, we heard laughing. Sky’s family is a riot of warmth and good-natured jesting. Sky described the Talmud as a long historical record of a bunch of rabbis sitting around arguing. I mentioned the new term “Burger King spirituality” to Rabbi Blumofe, explaining that it referenced the modern – and, for many spiritual traditionalists, controversial – phenomenon of so many people picking and choosing different parts of different religions and creating a personal spiritual amalgamation, thus “having it their way.” I quickly asserted that I am really loving this. “Then you’re a McDonald’s spiritualist!”
Last night, I googled “Jewgle.” A charming Google-esque splash page opened up complete with a search bar along with two buttons, “Jewgle Search” and “I’m Feeling Holy,” so I typed in mitzvah in hopes of finding an interesting new link. Instead, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. Here are the links that appeared:
Did you mean: Oy, I need a nosh
Find a nice, Jewish person
You mother worries about you – she just wants you to be happy, and she really does know what’s best for you. You can search for mitzvah later…
http://www.jdate.com – 36k
Call you mother instead of searching the internet for mitzvah…
These newfangled VOIP services make it so cheap, and she really hasn’t heard from you in a while. Would it kill you to pick up the phone and give your mother a call?…
http://www.viatalk.com – 18k
He’Brew, The Chosen Beer
Way more fun than mitzvah – delicious beer and delicious schtick. L’Chaim!…
http://www.schamltz.com – 1818k
You’re too thin. Eat something.
Soups, smoked fish, bagels – all strictly kosher…
http://www.bloomsdeli.com – 54k until 120k
After I recovered from so much giggling, I clicked the Torah tab alongside the Web tab. All that popped up was:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The rest is commentary.
But still, if you want to read the whole thing, go forth and study!
That underlined link led to an Amazon page for the Torah. In and amongst all the laughing and celebration in Judaism is the constant exhortation to do good, mitzvah, and to be good to others. After a lot of research, this is the only really Jewish dogma I can find. I find this quite refreshing.
For a religion that my girls and I have relatively so much contact with, Judaism still had us a bit stumped as we began our study of it. I asked, “Just for starters, what do you already know about Judaism?”
“Uh…,” was their first chorus. Then, with the inflection more of questions than answers, they said, “Hannukah? Passover? Yom Kippur? Bar and Bat Mitzvahs?”
These responses soon revealed themselves to be more insightful than we would have thought, because we quickly learned that Judaism as a faith and a practice is much less concerned with doctrine or dogma than with practical and active spiritual engagement in life.
At a website called Judaism 101 (jewfaq.org), I clicked “Beliefs” under the “Ideas” tab and found this confounding opening:
“What Do Jews Believe?”
This is a far more difficult question than you might expect. Judaism has no dogma, no formal set of beliefs that one must hold to be a Jew. In Judaism, actions are far more important than beliefs, although there is certainly a place for belief within Judaism.
Jews seem much more interested in and committed to bringing God into daily life than transcending daily life in favor of “more” spiritual pursuits. In Judaism, every moment of life is spiritual. The fact that so many Jews are so dedicated to celebrating and honoring the many Jewish holidays each year is a very practical expression of this theology. So, when my girls were listing major Jewish celebrations, they actually had a good intuitive grasp of what it means to be Jewish.
Those many holidays also speak to the importance of Jewish history in Jewish beliefs. We visited with Jason Neulander, creator of the live-action graphic novel theatrical phenomenon that is The Intergalactic Nemesis and founder of Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theater. If ever there was a guy who understands the impact of stories, he is it, and he wanted us to understand how elemental the story of the Jewish people is to their religion. “The condition of being persecuted, of being without a home for millennia, defines the Jewish identity. Throughout the Jewish calendar, all of the holidays speak to this self-identification.”
Jason’s own surname certainly speaks to this common theme in Jewish history. Jason’s father has traced their roots as far back as the 15th century CE in the Iberian peninsula. After Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain ordered the expulsion of all Jews in 1492, Jason’s forbears moved to Austria and changed the family’s name to “Neulander,” meaning “A New Land.”
My girls were transfixed as Jason told more and more great stories. When we asked him what he believes as a Jew, however, he almost seemed stumped. The question seemed a bit delimiting to him, I think. As far as Jewish doctrine, he simply said, “It’s about empathy. That’s my spirituality. I believe that I am here to bring up my kids to be good people and to be a good person myself, to lead by example. Rather than believing so much in a Higher Being “out there,” I believe in a Higher Purpose. I believe this Higher Purpose is about how we make our world.”
As we got in the car after our coffee with Jason, my girls were more quiet than usual. They were beginning to feel the weight, the real heft of history in the story of Judaism in particular and in the history of religion in general. I’m feeling it, too. I just learned that “Mazel Tov” actually means “good luck” instead of the more commonly assumed “congratulations.” Not in the sense of wishing it, but in celebration of its occurrence. Jason was our first mazel tov. I’m wishing for more now.
I’ve gotten my feet more reverently on the ground, but alas, not the rice flour. My kolam was a disaster. Rice flour in the air, in clumps, all over my hands… everywhere but in one flowing line on the tile of our front porch. My effort at a ritual mark at our threshold was inscrutable, but I haven’t given up yet. I have decorative colored sand and I’m not afraid to use it!
Remembering to offer a moment of gratitude before I put my feet on the floor when I wake up has been going better. Making my first conscious thought each day be one simple thought of appreciation makes my days flow better, and the benefit is far out of proportion to the effort expended. Still, new habits are as hard to make as old ones are to break, so I had to create a prosaic way of reminding myself. I set my alarm for 6:11 (or 7:11 or even later on the weekends) instead of a more usual time and when I see those two 1’s, I think “straight legs” and straighten my legs out, then swing them out over the side of the bed and just before standing up I quietly offer, “Thank you, Earth, for all of the support you have given me and continue to give!”
As my girls and I were wrapping up our exploration of Hinduism, I passed on one last question to Anu. Larkin and Kyrie had really enjoyed religious historian Huston Smith’s summary of the four primary paths to God that Hinduism espouses for the four basic personality types that Hinduism recognizes. “Some people are primarily reflective,” Smith wrote in his famous The World’s Religions. “Others are basically emotional. Still others are essentially active. Finally, some are experimentally inclined. For each of these personality types Hinduism prescribes a distinct yoga.” Jnana yoga is “the path to oneness with the Godhead through knowledge[,] an intuitive discernment.” Bhakti yoga, the path of emotional connection, aims “to direct toward God the love that lies at the base of every heart.” The third path is Karma Yoga, “the path to God through work.” The fourth path is Raja Yoga, “Designed for people who are of scientific bent, it is the way to God through psychophysical experiments[,]” like meditation and practicing physical yoga asanas or postures.
“My girls wonder if you consider your practice of dance to be more a form of bhakti yoga or of karma yoga?” I related.
“Oh, I think that is a great question!! Out of the two, I would consider it bhakti yoga because it is a devotional practice. Dance, being a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, incorporates several aspects into one! Karma yoga is more service—like volunteering where you help others in need or do some work that needs to get done to help someone out. The word that is often used to describe any such pursuit is sadhana, or a spiritual practice in order to attain a higher plane of consciousness.”
I then asked about this new word, sadhana. “Sadhana is a general term that just means any kind of spiritual pursuit whether it be meditation (dhyana yoga), devotion (bhakti yoga), service (karma yoga), or whatever. In India when people find some kind of passionate pursuit that fulfills their spiritual quest, they explain it in these terms. “This is my sadhana—helping the young girls in the slum or attending kirtan every Thursday or meditating every morning or….” In my case, my sadhana is my personal practice of dance and public performance of it as well. I know that what I do in my personal practice feeds and strengthens my spiritual being and the performance of it is what I know I am here to do—share this depth and lift others through this art form.”
A passionate pursuit that fulfills a spiritual quest. What a beautiful way to describe that sense of “knowing why we are here” that so many souls seek and hope for! I hope this process of studying religions this year encourages my daughters to take a few new steps and to get a little more curious about the particular and unfolding contours of their own paths. I hope they begin to see that each and every step, no matter how small or simple and no matter along what path, is critical to paths blossoming into pursuits and ultimately into passions. Yes, just like the old journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step. And, begins and begins and begins, again and again. Just like my first two steps each morning of the past week. Fourteen steps closer to a sense of reverence for the Divinity in each day, and in each and every step. Like I said, way out of proportion to the effort expended. Practice makes perfect sense.
“Every Hindu home has an altar.” Anu wanted to conclude with the importance of rituals in Hindu practice. Both place rituals and time rituals, and how the two are often intertwined. Home altars in Hinduism are as various as the families who tend to them, but the tending is paramount. Even if brief and uncomplicated, offering gratitude in this one place every day is a form of puja, or reverent devotion. Dedication to puja isn’t so much because the gods need it but because we humans need it. Centering oneself with and within a conscious sense of the Divine through ritual makes people feel connected to more than just the prosaic each day. And this feels good, and right. This makes the everyday things we do and touch and experience feel more meaningful. She referenced again her ritual of touching the altar in her dance studio. She also described the most simple and beautiful way that her grandparents touch the world each day. When they wake up, they give thanks to Mother Earth for her support and blessings in the coming day at the moment their feet touch the ground!
Anu then summarized the religious historian Mircea Eliade’s distinction between Sacred and Profane Time and Space. In Sacred Time and Space, life is cyclical. It returns and repeats and regenerates in so doing. Having a cycle of rituals and a dedication to the repetition of these rituals marks our time as special, connected to the Sacred. “For those who live in “profane” time, time is linear. There is nothing to mark it, nothing to come back to, no touchstones. So, nothing feels special. It’s very sad really. People feel lost in this way.”
A week later, as we sat in a darkened theater awaiting Anu’s dance recital, I noticed that in front of Anu’s altar, something called a kolam had been poured out in an intricate filigree pattern. She danced magically, as ornately and precisely as that moment of art on the floor. I later asked her about the kolam. “It is made of rice flour and is more than a decoration. It is made at altars as well as the threshold of the home everyday, traditionally. It brings prosperity–the energy of Goddess Lakshmi–into the home by providing food for ants and attracting birds and creatures that represent prosperity and abundance of life. The design is made free hand and in a continuous stream without lifting the hand and stopping the flow.”
Something that beautiful, made simply to be both generous and auspicious. So generous that you even want to include ants! And, the requirements to not lift the hand nor stop the flow, to just keep doing it. Flowing, cyclically. Yet another practice and another metaphor for making time sacred. I hope to surprise my girls with an effort at a kolam as we conclude our consideration of Hinduism. And, I hope that this year encourages us to find more ways to dedicate time to the Sacred in our lives. Please wish me luck… on both counts!
Yum Yum. Technically, the definition of the Hindu word rasa is “liquid,” but our friend Anu was encouraging us to think of this word – which in Hinduism describes the ultimate, and ultimately spiritual, pleasure in any aesthetic experience – more as “juice” or “nectar,” the most delicious experience we can savor.
“You know, when you ride a roller coaster or watch a good scary movie, and even if you feel shocked or frightened or any intense feeling, but as it ends you say, ‘Wow, that was great!’? Or when you feel so happy after a really funny movie, or really touched by a dance or a painting? That savoring of your own feelings, that intense and still balanced connection with all of our feelings, is rasa. That is when your heart is in a higher place. And that is the purpose of art!” Anu also indicated that this richness of connection is what the artist feels as well. She said that in the Hindu tradition, the pursuit of the artist is a doubly blessed one, because artists not only elevate themselves but also elevate their audience. In this way, art is equated with a spiritual pursuit and a spiritual practice, a ritual.
She told us about one of her rituals. She maintains an altar in her dance studio. She explained her need to touch it, again and again, each time she enters. In this way, she marks that time and that place as special. And sacred. She also told us of a moment, eight years ago, when onstage she had a sort of out-of-body experience, that after so many years of practice and discipline her awareness danced right out of her and turned and saw herself. At that moment she knew, just had complete faith that her purpose on this earth was to dance, that she was doing exactly what she was meant to do. I exclaimed, “That must have been such a peaceful moment!” She lit up and chirped, “Completely!”
Last Sunday, she was completely peaceful and graceful, powerful and beautiful, kinetic and grounded, inspired and inspiring as she danced a recital at the Long Center. A glowing altar, overflowing with flowers and candles, graced one corner of the stage. She had told my daughters of the belief that an energy flows from performer to audience and back, like a circuit. It lights everyone up. Larkin, the actor of our family, had lit up at this description. “That’s just what I feel when I act! That’s why I love to do it so much!”
And, that is why both of my girls loved watching an exotic and elegant dance on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in a dark theater. We were glowing along with her. We were witnessing how beautifully the spirit can inspire the body and how very yummy it is to be inspired as well. Kyrie said, “I love how she incarnates her dancing into her spirituality.” Cheers to that! With big cups of rasa overflowing.
“I had no idea there were so many religions!” Kyrie said this with sincere excitement more than with any confusion. Just a basic, Wow. Larkin agreed. Simply listing the world’s religions in preparation for this year was already opening our eyes and minds. But, as this past weekend approached, and it was time for us to begin our exploration of Hinduism, my knees started knocking a little bit. What have I gotten us into again? How am I going to do this well? Help!
Help arrived, unsolicited and not unmagically, via a book on Hinduism mailed to me last week from a kind reader of this blog. These words caught my eye. “In the spiritual world, say Vaishnava poets, ‘every word is a song, every step a dance.'” Such a beautiful description of spiritual mindfulness, and such a pretty photo of a dancer across from it. A dancer! I recalled my good fortune several years ago in working with an incredible Austinite named Anuradha Naimpally – a preeminent Indian dancer, a fellow activist for the arts in our community, and as lovely a soul as you could ever hope to meet. Larkin loves to dance. Just LOVES it. Kyrie also has found a blossoming confidence in dancing this past year. I asked, “Would you be willing to visit with my girls about your faith?”
Anu could not have been more gracious. She wrote, “I love to talk about what is at the root of my passion!!!” We met with her this past Sunday, and it will definitely take more than one post to do justice to all of her wise words. She began by explaining that there is never a divide between the physical and the spiritual in Hinduism, that Hindus celebrate the body and life. They see our physical lives as a gift and an opportunity to be appreciated and honored, not transcended or denied. They see “daily” life not as a distraction from the spiritual but, when lived with spiritual intention, as a direct path to and with the spiritual.
She also explained that while Hinduism obviously has lots of gods, these are generally not understood to be literal and separate deities but reflective of the illimitable aspects of Brahman, the “Absolute” energy of the universe, so that Hinduism is basically monotheistic. Her description of Hindu temples sublimely summarized all of this. She described a temple as a mini-cosmos. On the outside, the many carvings and voluminous images are all about the “transactions of daily life,” everything from family to work to sex, you name it. Entering the temple, the images become more “inward,” more about our interior lives and more about our ultimate aspiration to God, whose image, in whatever form, is at the center of the temple. The further you go inside, the darker it gets. You begin to physically squint, trying to see, and this is a metaphor for how it is hard to see God. She said that at the end of a ceremony, the priest waves a light around and around the image of the god, symbolizing that with spiritual effort you “see” God more fully. But! By that point in a ceremony, most of the worshippers’ eyes are closed, each aspirant deeply into their own prayer or meditation, and this is also symbolic because this is how you really see God… not with any eyes, but with the heart inside.
My girls sat, rapt, their sandwiches uneaten and their hands dancing in the air as they asked questions and made connections. I sat, relieved and full of gratitude. I sit here now, with four more pages of notes and two new books to consider, thanks to Anu. Namaste!