Wednesday, October 3, 2012

India # 13: Hindu Hoedown

Welcome to the Hindu Hoedown!


I suspect those words have never been used together before but that’s what I tell my son Michael is going on when he calls last Saturday night.  The session at the Art of Living Ashram outside Bangalore is going strong and 500 or so are chanting and singing away while only the paleface is humming, not knowing the words.  “Ashram” means the place where effort falls away and indeed it has.  I let Michael listen and tell him I’m reminded of all kinds of swaying, repetitive, mesmerizing music around the world--including the night we spent at a Dublin pub.

I’m spending the weekend at the world headquarters for Art of Living, a spiritual entity with a presence in more than 100 countries.  On the pillars of the hall we are in are symbols from eight religions, calling for religious unity.  But the dieties in the Pepto-Bismo colored ceiling above me are those fierce, multi-limbed Hindu characters so strange to westerners.  On stage is Ganesha, the elephant god and remover of obstacles India has been honoring most of the month. 

This is quite a place and I want to write a bit about its guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.  But first some background about the role meditation or contemplative prayer has played in my life, without which I would not be here.

The Shalem Days

In the l970’s I went through what has to be called a mid-life crisis and threw everything at it: therapy, running, yoga and meditation.  It has been the last of these, meditation, which has stuck and meant the most over the longest time.  (If you say, what good did it do, I say, think of how worse I could have turned out!)

By some grace I got into a class on meditation at the National Cathedral  taught with Dr. Gerald May, a psychiatrist who eventually became a leading writer at the intersection of psychiatry and spirituality.  He was one of the principals in a group of Christians and Jews who were exploring Tibetan Buddhism through the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.

Shalem became my spiritual home for the next ten years, l974-84, joined by Rickie in the second half.  It was an inquisitive bunch and we studied Buddhism and Buddhist practices from Japan and well as Tibet, stared at icons and crystals and lots of other stuff.  It brought me a dear and gifted spiritual counselor, Marlene Maier, with whom I remain close today.  She took it as her mission to convince me I am loved by God unconditionally. “We are loved and we are safe in that love,” is a Marlene motto.

One of the harder aspects of returning to Idaho in l984 was leaving the richness of Shalem and reentering what was a spiritual as well as a physical desert.  (Shalem did come out to Idaho for a week at my uncle Robb’s ranch in the Sawtooth Mountains and that was a most special exception.)

A brief time with a charismatic group at church didn’t work out and only many years later did I discovered a small Episcopal retreat center just over the state line in Wyoming which taught Centering Prayer.

Centered Prayer was reclaimed from the Middle Ages by Trappists monks, most notably Fr. Thomas Keating.   Outwardly simple, it consists of sitting for 20 minutes twice a day, in silence, gently repeating a sacred word with the intention of allowing the transformative action of God within us.  “Let go and let God” would be one summary.  Keating has written and recorded dozens of videos about the deeper healing and transformation that can follow.  Through intuition and imagination we can experience the Divine Presence, he tells us.

Having posted this in the morning I was amazed to learn that Keating will be at MIT on October 18 with the Dali Lama and Brother David Stendl-Rast.  I thought Keating had been near death a year ago.  What wonderful news.  As for Stendl-Rast, I receive a one sentence message every day from Grateful Living. com, about gratitude in its many forms, in many cultures and religions.  It's free and a good way to start the day.

While I was largely on my own in Idaho Falls, moving to Boise brought the first of two Centering Prayer groups I have valued.  However the first one broke up one Sunday two years ago when our leader moved out of town. I would be losing another spiritual community. 

As it happened, I had a free afternoon that day and found myself in the Boise convention center where a crowd was gathering.  Someone I knew said I was just in time to meet a guru from India who was giving a talk.  Soon a cohort of Indians and Indian-Americans and others were welcoming a dark man with blazing black hair and beard who swept in with an entourage.  Who was he?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Shankar is a 52 year old religious leader and modern guru with a vast following.  The year before coming to Boise, 2.5 million assembled to hear and sit with him in Bangalore.  Art of Living has several centers in North America, the newest in Boone, North Carolina and he’s in constant demand around the world.

I was not in thrall to him as were many that day in Boise but I got a kick out of him.  He is funny and there’s a bit of the trickster in his eye.  He transmits the immense wisdom of the oldest spirituality on earth, but seems to specialize in pithy summations that cut to the chase for modern ears. 

Looking for a new community, I took two courses and faithfully practiced the Art of Living breathing and meditation practices for about four months.  The second course was led by a John Osborne who had just finished videotaping—of all people!--Thomas Keating and that was a happy time.  But a sense of belonging failed to take hold for me; a new vocabulary got in the way and I returned to Centering Prayer. 

When in Bangalore….

Nonetheless being just 15 miles away, I wanted to experience the practice first hand in India, which is why I’m humming away when Michael calls.  The first impression of this place is it’s just too much.  There are four “Divine Stores” selling Sri Sri products:  clothing, furniture, idols, dozens of Sri Sri books, scores of videos and CD’s and a new line of 18 Sri Sri personal care items such as shampoo, face cream and skin treatments--a little Melaleuca in South Asia. 

Art of Living has its own tablet priced at $350 but that includes $400 worth of wisdom from Sri Sri.  Sri Sri is available on every communication platform known to man, including a thought for every day from your phone. In 10 days a residential Sri Sri aruvedic clinic will clean out the toxins in my body and get my joints back in order at a cost of $1,400.  Or I can just buy his health products.  Sri Sri University has a large campus in the state of Orissa offering, among other things, advanced degrees in agricultural management, modern communications and entrepreneurship.

The last two make particular sense: Sri Sri and his staff have mastered modern communications  and spiritual entrepreneurship like few others.

Yet Ravi Shankar seems to be without taint, rooted in the deepest of traditions and doing good work in the world.  To renounce divisions and stand for religious unity is no small virtue in today’s India, apropos of yesterday’s post on Gandhi.  Art of Living supports dozens of rural schools and prisoner rehabilitation and addresses conflicts in the region.   He knows who he is and presents himself without qualm.  He is only a guru if you choose to make him a guru.

I take a tour of the place and am particularly impressed by its sustainable farm.  Sri Sri is planting 20 million of a particular type of tree all over India and, most charming of all, has a herd of tradition Gir cows whose blood lines he is preserving.   They deserve a blog post of their own.   If I ever get my pictures up you will fall for them too, even without the puppy-like licks from raspy tongues that got to me.

You gotta love a guru for his Gir.

And then there’s this:  recent weeks have witnessed a livid controversy in India over how much river water each of two states deserves, upstream Karnataka and downstream Tamil Nadu.  When Karnataka complied with a Supreme Court ruling and released water last week, farmers in that state shut down highways and railways and promised violence.  It’s a hot, hot controversy yet yesterday Shankar offered to mediate it.

That’s more than you ever wanted to know on this topic so I let it go with this Sri Sri nugget:  “The very thought of ‘I’ should move us to serve others.  Dissolve the ‘I’ into service and worries dissolve as well.”  If you like that he has several thousand more--or you can buy the tablet.



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