Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pune, Bangalore, and Thiruvannamalai

Dear Friends:

My last letter ended when I had to dash off for the first of three classes of a weekend retreat at the Pune Community: Finding Happiness. Aptly titled to ride on the wave of the movie, which we had recently screened in nearby Mumbai, as well as a number of other Indian cities.

All those screenings, by the way, have gone splendidly, with stellar reviews from a wide variety of people -- business, filmmaking, education, social work, politics, law. Everyone seems to like the movie.

Theater release has been arranged for mid-April in 12 cities.

As you know, Elisabeth Rohm is enjoying a great boon in her career because of her part in the award-winning movie American Hustle. Many opportunities are coming to her and as a result it is not good timing for her to come to India for a “premier,” which was an option Shivani had been exploring.

In India, a premier is primarily a media event, with lots of opportunities for interviews and publicity. Since the movie star in our film is unable to come to India, we’ve hit upon a spectacular life-imitates-art solution, and are bringing two Indian journalists to America to visit Ananda Village, to recreate -- to a certain extent -- the plot of the movie itself. Elisabeth wasn’t able to come all the way to India, but is able to take the weekend at the Village. The resulting publicity for the movie opening in India, and perhaps even in the U.S., we hope will be notable.

The journalists will also be passing through Palo Alto (for about 24 hours) to get an impression of an urban center as well. Great fun.

The weekend at the Pune community went extremely well. We had about 30 visitors, including quite a few from Mumbai, including our Public Relations agent and two representatives of the media, all working to line up publicity to break in early April in time for the theater opening. As you can imagine, a great deal of energy is going into that event, and it looks extremely promising. The movie will play in theaters for at least a week, more if attendance warrants it.

Our Pune community is still “coming up” as they say in India, but even with some of the buildings still under construction, and the construction barely begun for the temple, there is a profound and beautiful spiritual atmosphere that all our visitors felt immediately. Especially when you contrast that rural setting with the hectic life in the cities where most of the visitors come from!

There were about the same number of residents and long-term guests (who have become members of the family) as there were weekend visitors. The spirit of Ananda shines through the eyes and hearts of Master’s children and touches all who come into that magic aura.

The temple we are using until the final one is constructed has net walls, a tin roof, and a strong tree branch holding up the center point of the ceiling. In these simple surroundings, the altar shines as always, with big pictures of the masters, and beautiful garlands. It is heaven on earth.

The Pune community at its present stage of development is so like the early years of Ananda Village it is a special joy for me to stay there.

I had been a little concerned about coming to the place where I last saw Swamiji in the body. When I went to Assisi after his passing, I was relatively calm until I went to his house. As some of you may remember, I wrote at the time that his house is where I always saw Swamiji in Assisi and I think some part of me expected to see him there. When I finally did go and found only a shrine in his bedroom, marking the place where he breathed his last, it was the moment when my emotions overtook my philosophical calm and for a time nothing could stop my tears.

I saw Swamiji as he was driving out of the Pune community last March (I believe it was the 11th) and my last personal interaction was taking leave of him in the living room of his house. He always sat in one particular chair and I can see him smiling his good-bye as I walked out the door, not knowing what was soon to come.

So it was with some small trepidation that I returned to this community.

Fortunately, my concern was unfounded. His presence is so strong there was no sense of loss.

Swamiji gave the house to Narayani and Shurjo. His dining table is in one corner of the large living room, and she keeps his place set. Most days he would have coffee after lunch in one of a brightly colored set of espresso cups that he particularly liked. Narayani says each day he would select from the several choices the color he wanted to drink from. Now she has one of those cups at his place and every day or two tunes into what color he would prefer.

In the chair where he always sat, some of his things are laid out. Devotees coming to visit Pune can come to the living room, sit at the dining table, meditate and feel his presence. Often on his chair one finds flowers or cards placed there by visitors.

Off the living room, is the bedroom, and after the bedroom, a small office. That room has an outside entrance, which opens onto a patio where Swamiji usually had tea. Compared to the other rooms, the office is rather small. Just a desk, chair, and armchair where Swamiji could sit and read over what he had just written.

I felt Swamiji’s spirit everywhere in the house, but most particularly in that office. In fact, it was so strong it startled me every time I came in or out. So much brilliant, divinely inspired creative work happened there. The vibrations remain.

Whenever I was with Swamiji, his presence would entirely dominate my consciousness. Those of you who live in Palo Alto may remember my asking all of you to bear with me during his visits because I would be unable to respond even to the simplest requests. It wasn’t just a matter of looking after him and his staff. I found myself unable to put my mind on anything else. I was always grateful for your understanding and support.

When we would visit Swamiji in other communities it was the same. I had no responsibilities for his care, but still my thoughts were absorbed in him. Even if I had hours free every day, it was difficult to give my energy to anything or anyone else.

I remember when we flew to Rome immediately after Swamiji’s passing. People were coming from America on many different flights and converging on that city over a period of 3-4 hours.

Our custom when going to Assisi was to leave the airport as quickly as possible to reach Swamiji with a minimum of delay. It was poignant last April to realize there was no need to rush. As I wrote at the time, we sat for several hours at a coffee shop in the airport as flights landed and our table expanded to include the new arrivals.

In Pune community this time, I suddenly found myself free to relate to the people there. I ended up giving quite a few satsangs. The weekend, of course, several programs for the community, two at our Pune city center, and two workshops at a company in town where one of our devotees works.

When I wasn’t sharing with a group, I was spending time with individuals. All my time, in fact, was with people. By the end of the 10 days we spent there, I was so much a part of the community it was hard to leave. Such is the power of our divine connection with one another.

From the Pune community we flew to Bangalore. Shivani’s husband Arjuna has been in India for the last month, bringing a pilgrimage group from Europe and then staying on to spend time with Shivani.

The four of us -- Shivani, Arjuna, Asha, and Bryan -- shared a 3-bedroom apartment a guest unit in the complex of apartments where one of our devotees lives.

The showing of Finding Happiness on Saturday night had been long-planned. At the last minute, another showing was arranged for Sunday morning at a University some distance from the city. This is a “yoga university,” based on the teachings of Vivekananda. It turned out to be the largest showing yet -- some 300 students and faculty. This is an innovative university, with a huge medical facility, teaching and offering treatments in many natural methods of health care, all based on the principles of yoga.

I wasn’t able to go since our Finding Happiness workshop was scheduled already at the center for the same time. Shivani, Haridas, and one of the local devotees went and had a stellar time. The equipment at the university includes machinery with the ability to measure subtle energy in the body and they greatly enjoyed testing some of it.

Shivani is hoping to set up with them some scientific way of measuring the effect of the Energization Exercises. Haridas and Roma -- the Bangalore Center leaders -- are going to follow through and be the guinea pigs. Shivani said she has been hoping for the last 20 years that equipment would become available subtle enough to measure this energy. Seems like the time is now.

The Bangalore Ananda Center is the living room of a two bedroom flat where Haridas and Roma live. The altar is particularly beautiful. Whenever there is an event in any of our India centers, fresh flower garlands are lovingly placed on every picture of every Master. In India, the providing of garlands for home and temple decoration is a huge, daily business.

For the Finding Happiness seminar, the garlands were of red roses and red carnations. I’ve seen many beautiful altars, but there was something uniquely entrancing about those red flowers. Certainly set the mood for a most enjoyable program.

Because people work long hours, and traffic in all Indian cities can be horrendous, weekday programs are uncertain at best. So my efforts are mostly concentrated on the weekends.

Since the next stop is Calcutta (Kolkata as it is now called, but I have trouble remembering that!), we found ourselves with a few days free.

Bryan went down to Puri, to the Mahasamadhi Mandir of Sri Yukteswar. In all his time in India he had never visited that particular shrine. Since it is my favorite, I was delighted that he would have the chance to experience it. The ocean there is considered holy. It washes away our karma. Always a good idea!

Shivani had arranged for the three of us to come to Thiruvannamalai. This is a place between Bangalore and Chennai. The reason to come is because of a holy mountain, said to be the physical manifestation of Lord Shiva. It is called Arunachala. You find temples here where the murti -- the image of God -- is the three hillocks of Arunachala.

The mountain itself has been especially blessed in recent times by the presence of a great yogi, Ramana Maharshi. From the late 1800s, until the mid-50s (I am not certain of the exact dates) he made this mountain his home.

He was a very austere yogi, who spent much of his time in silent meditation. Before I met Swamiji, I read a great deal about him and felt deeply inspired by his one-pointed devotion. Up until the age of 16, he lived as an ordinary person. Then he had a revelation that there was no purpose to life except to realize the Infinite within. He walked away from his home and never returned, although later, his mother came and lived with him and became very spiritually advanced.

He went first to a temple at the base of the mountain where he meditated for some years in a small underground room. Then he moved up the mountain, found a cave under a huge rock, and for some 16 years lived there. People in the area, even when he was in the temple, discovered him, felt his spiritual greatness, and began to come for darshan and provide the little he needed to live there. Eventually they built for him around another cave higher on the mountain, a small ashram where he stayed for another 7 years.

Then one day he came down the mountain, and an ashram was constructed at the base of Arunachala, where he lived until the end of his life.

Early this morning, we went to the ashram and to the caves, meditating in each for some time.

Since we stopped leading pilgrimages, almost 10 years ago now, the holy spot I have visited in India has been wherever Swamiji was staying. So it has been many years since I have had a morning like today. It was blissful. Pilgrimage is a great spiritual boon.

I visited this ashram once before. I think it was 15 years ago after one of our India pilgrimage. Durga, Vidura, Lila and David Hoogendyke, David and I came here for three days. Our thought was perhaps to add it on to the itinerary we usually followed. We stayed in the ashram that time. We were inspired, but felt it wasn’t right for our tour.

Accommodations at the ashram were simple, and I think we were a little spoiled by the 5-star hotels we were used to, and also a little tired from our long pilgrimage. For whatever reasons, I didn’t tune into the place as I did today.

This ashram is more notably dedicated to silent meditation that many we have visited -- quite appropriate given the nature of Ramana Maharshi himself. There are large shrines to him and also to his mother, where daily ceremonies are carried out, but even the ceremonies are more melodious than in some places we have visited.

And the most important shrines -- the caves where he lived and the room where he gave darshan -- are silence only, reserved for meditation. Even when the sounds of ceremony and song drift in from the nearby halls, they add, rather than take away from the meditative experience.

Many people come here, including quite a lot of devotees from Europe. The Europeans seem to enter easily into the spirit of India. There were lots of dreadlocks and shaved heads among the light-skinned devotees. And many rock still, silent meditators. A joy.

During the meditation, especially in the caves, I tried to tune in to what it would be like to feel, as Ramana Maharshi did, that the only duty in life is to meditate. He served through his meditation, and the darshan he gave freely to all who came, but in no other way. No classes, lectures, writing, or building of communities. A very different mission from ours.

I wondered what his years of meditation were like. When he was living under the temple it is said he was plagued by mosquitoes and other animal pests, but remained completely oblivious. What would it be like to be so absorbed in the Infinite?

I remembered a passage in Swamiji’s commentary on the Gita in which he instructed highly advanced yogis how to work out their remaining karma through meditation and visions. Was that what Ramana Maharshi was doing?

Somewhat jokingly, when I read that passage in the Gita commentary, I said to Swamiji, “This part doesn’t apply to very many people.”

With complete seriousness Swamiji replied, “But for those to whom it does apply, it will be very useful.”

Thinking about Ramana Maharshi walking out of his home at the age of sixteen, finding an underground room in the temple and sitting there to meditate without a thought about how he would eat, shelter himself, or survive in the years ahead, I am awestruck by his indifference to the human condition, and his complete faith in God.

Then I thought of the life I have led. In my early 20s I came to live at Ananda. In the course of this tour, I spoke of that choice. Someone asked me, “Weren’t you afraid? Weren’t you worried about what might happen to you?”

“It never crossed my mind,” I said. “I never gave it a single thought.” All my “batchmates” at Ananda did the same thing with the same faith.

My moving to Ananda hardly compares to Ramana Maharshi leaving home at 16 and settling into a room under the temple where he did nothing but meditate. Or perhaps it does. Not in realization, but in the direction of development that each represents.

I walked away from a university education. Ramana Maharshi walked away from the whole world. My “renunciation” doesn’t compare to his. I am an infant; he is a King. But both of us were motivated by the same impulse: What is day to the worldly man is night to the yogi. What is night to the worldly man is day to the yogi.

Whatever stage of realization we have, we have faith to match it, and take action in accordance with that faith. I easily left behind my university life (brief and unsatisfactory) and any thought of money or career. Far below the faith of Ramana Maharshi certainly, but still, more faith than some would have -- the woman who asked me about it, for example. Especially in India, education is everything. The idea of doing what I did made her about as nervous as I feel contemplating the life of Ramana Maharshi. What we haven’t experienced we don’t understand.

There was a yogi living in Badrinath -- a holy place in India -- that we met on one of our pilgrimages. Later Swamiji asked me my impressions of him. The yogi had told us that during the winter season he leaves his physical body and goes in his astral body to be with Babaji high in the Himalayas.

I said to Swamiji, “He spoke about it in such a matter of fact way. I didn’t know what to think. I would have expected a more reverential tone.”

“Well,” Swamiji replied, “at a certain point, it is matter of fact to do such a thing.”

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Master explains the “law” of miracles. In other words, miracles are as matter of fact for those who perform them as they are, well, miraculous to us who don’t have the power to operate the law.

It is very important for all of us to embrace the naturalness of spiritual advancement. Yes, we should have reverence for those who have attained states high above our own, but at the same time, appreciate that they have merely advanced farther down the same road we ourselves are walking.

Remember when Swamiji played the part of Jesus in a pageant for a local group? He had a beard, which was rare at that time, and the group had asked him if he would play the part. When Master asked about it afterwards, Swamiji said, “I would rather be like Jesus instead of merely looking like him.”

Master replied in a matter of fact way, “That will come. That will come.”

So it is for all of us.

When Master came to India in 1935 he came to this ashram to visit Ramana Maharshi. There is a brief film clip of Master’s visit here, at least one moment of it when a group gathered around Ramana Maharshi to have their pictures taken. It was a movie but, notably, the yogi was not moving. Master moves and gestures around him, but Ramana Maharshi remains utterly still in the middle, seemingly absorbed, as he often was, in the Infinite.

We are not staying in the ashram. We are not quite 5-star, either, but are resident for a few days in a beautiful little resort. Simple, peaceful, harmonious. Stone buildings with tile floors in a garden setting. Couldn’t be nicer.

I have been healthy and energetic through this entire tour, grateful to be sharing almost every day with groups and individuals. Especially now that he has gone into the Infinite, I feel a deep joy in passing on to others as much as I can of the grace, love, and wisdom Swamiji showered on us.

I haven’t felt the need for a break from that service, but, nonetheless, I am basking in the silence and inspiration of being here.

Day after tomorrow we drive to Chennai, Arjuna goes back to Italy, and Shivani and I go on to Calcutta to meet up with Bryan, Shurjo, Narayani, and Jemal, for a long weekend of programs, and one more showing of Finding Happiness.

Blessings and joy,

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Gurgaon, Mumbai, Pune

Dear Friends:

Last time I wrote I was beginning my series of classes in Gurgaon. Bryan and I had moved into the spacious ashram we now have there, settling in for a longish stay. I am a little fuzzy on the details, but I think it was about 10 days, with occasional forays back into Delhi or to other of our branch centers. Think going to Berkeley or Scotts Valley from Palo Alto.

Years ago, a friend from another ashram spent all her time traveling. She had no fixed residence but went from city to city sharing her guru’s teachings. I asked her, “How do you do it?”

“Where ever I am,” she said, “that is where I live. Even if it is only a taxicab for 30 minutes, I consider that cab my home.”

So, for the duration, Gurgaon was home. I deliberately blurred the concept of a starting and ending point. Much more enjoyable that way.

Whenever someone asked Swamiji, “How have you been able to accomplish so much?” he replied, “By concentrating completely on whatever I am doing.”

With so many dear and beloved friends far away, it would be easy to live divided. The sadhana of travel is surrender to the moment.

All the programs are already posted on-line. Suffice to say it has all been interesting. Since I always speak extemporaneously, new country and culture bring new inspiration.

I had thought to use our “spare time” (of which there is precious little!) and Bryan’s high-quality equipment, to make an audio book of Loved and Protected: Stories of Miracles and Answered Prayers.

It turns out that a few minutes from the Gurgaon ashram, there is a recording studio that belongs to the family of one of our members. She is a beautiful singer; her parents are filmmakers. They built into their home a world-class studio.

It was available, so arrangements were made, and 3 days in a row, I went to their home/studio and read the book out loud.

What beautiful stories! Reading it brought back all the inspiration I felt gathering and writing them. I was sorry when the project was done!

The circumstances for recording couldn’t have been better. Pleasant surroundings, skilled engineer, good friends to entertain and cheer me on during the breaks. And more than the comforts of home.

All I had to say was, “A little hot lemon and water, please.” “Masala chai would be nice.” “Anyone else hungry for lunch?” and soon the needful would appear on a tray.

The engineer, Mani, is now editing the file and perhaps it will arrive in Palo Alto before I do, or at least not long after.

I had a few uncommitted days at the end of the tour, so have decided to go back to Gurgaon and do an audio of the next book, which is questions and answers. Many of you received over the last few years, answers to questions that people sent in to me. I thought I could just staple them together and have a book. Turned out to require a huge amount of editing.

It was then organized by Crystal Clarity and designed by Tejindra (in Italy, who did the other book, too) in time to be sent to India and printed before I arrived. The final title is Ask Asha: Heartfelt Answers to Common Dilemmas on the Spiritual Path.

People here seem to like it. It will be published in America in a few months.

From Gurgaon, we flew to Mumbai for two days. First night was a satsang at the home of a devotee for the core members of the Ananda group. About 25 people for informal questions and answers. I felt so blessed to be in their company. All of Master’s children shine with his sweetness and love.

The next evening, I spoke in the same lecture hall I was in a few weeks earlier. The day after was a “Level One” class -- which is first step to Kriya yoga.

My subject was “Kriya Yoga: Pathway to Self-Realization.” It was the freebie to entice them to sign up for Level One.

When I have a talk to give, I meditate on the subject and see what inspiration comes. Sometimes what I feel in advance matches what the audience needs to hear. But if I am too committed to a particular series of ideas that can interfere with what the people in the room at the moment need to hear.

Although I was rarely at a loss for words, it was not an easy talk to give. Of the 60 or so people there, the majority were new to Ananda. There were so many different thoughts and questions in the room that I felt myself scrambling from point to point to provide the understanding they wanted.

There was no unifying thread on which to hang the talk, as there is when more in the room are already devotees. There was a good turnout for the class next day, so I guess Master managed to touch a few hearts.

Even though I have been giving classes for many years, every situation is unique. Whatever gathering of souls, in whatever location, has never happened before and will never happen again. It is a unique divine convergence for which I am asked to be the mouthpiece, an expansive opportunity to learn on ever-deeper levels how to be a channel. When I am in places I have never been, speaking to people I have never met, I understand why Swamiji asked me to serve in this way.

Last time in Mumbai we stayed at a delightful hotel right on the beach. This time we stayed at the guesthouse connected to the ISKCON temple in Mumbai. ISKCON -- International Society for Krishna Consciousness -- runs what amounts to a hotel on the same grounds as their large and very popular temple. Many of the people who stay there come to enjoy the temple. Others, like us, find it a pleasant, sattwic way to be in noisy, crowded Mumbai.

Not that the hotel itself is quiet! First ceremonies begin at 4am and ISKCON devotees are known for their exuberant expression of devotion. I passed on 4am and went for the second round at 7:00am the two mornings we were there.

The temple is lovely, a large open patio, next to a roofed area with shrines for the deities. All is beautifully carved and painted. There are three sets of deities -- two of Radha and Krishna, one of Rama, Sita, Lakshman, and Hanuman.

The shrines and the statues are exquisitely and elaborately dressed and decorated -- different every day. Plus flowers galore, garlands and bouquets and other offerings. I have deep samskars with the culture of India and even though I am not drawn to this kind of worship now, it touches my heart to see it.

While the priests were doing their ceremonies, and the devotees passed near the shrines to receive the light, prashad, and darshan from the deities, groups of men on one side and women on the other were dancing to the chanting and drumming which went on continuously.

The men were almost athletic; the women more delicate, holding hands, moving in a circle.

One woman stood out from the group. Her movements seem to come from a source deep within herself. Watching her, I remembered the story in the Autobiography of a Yogi when Master was silently criticizing a too-outward expression of devotion by a group of chanting devotees. Suddenly Master Mahasaya appeared by his side and said about those devotees, how blissful to hear God’s name chanted whether loud or tenderly.

On the path of Self-realization, we have to start where we are and move forward from there. Every step in the right direction is cause for celebration. Those who have achieved the goal define the practice. Everyone else does his or her best as realization gradually dawns. That one dancer so inwardly inspired shows where all of them are heading.

After the chanting and ceremonies were over, ladies settled around the patio with large bunches of fresh flowers quickly carried in by flower merchants. The women went right to work making the garlands for the next round of worship.

Past life memories merged with the present and I saw myself embroidering garments for the deities and making the daily garlands. Happy incarnations serving God in that way.

At the same time, how grateful I am that those days are past! On to the next stage in the soul’s long journey home to God.

Narayani and Shurjo came to Mumbai, and on Saturday we drove together to Pune City for a satsang with our group there. They have rented a small house in a lovely neighborhood where they hold most of their meetings.

This group is nourished both by devotees in the city, and by those living on the land, 1.5 hours away. It is a joyous and focused family, a blessing to be with them.

There are several unifying factors of Ananda groups worldwide. Kriya, of course, devotion to the Gurus, the music. Then there is the food! Cuisine may vary but quality, quantity, and enthusiasm are shared by all.

Every Pune City event is followed by refreshments that amount to a multi-course meal. Swamiji once said to Master, “Help me overcome my attachment to good food.” Master assured him that it was nothing to be concerned about, “When ecstasy comes, everything goes.” Meaning all attachments dissolve. Nice to have permission to enjoy ourselves in the meantime!

Then on to the community, where I am now, and will be for another 6 days.

Right now I am starting a weekend retreat called Finding Happiness.

So I have to end this letter and get ready for the first class.

Blessings and love to all,