Pradakshina II

6am departure. Barefoot. Quick breakfast of chai and biscuits. As you leave town, you peer over at the mountain, Arunachala, bathed in the dawn light, and wonder what the walk will teach you this time.

Sadhus are lined up with their metal buckets to receive the breakfast, brought by some unknown person in a delivery truck–an ashram? a wealthy Brahman family? the government. They sit on the ground and spoon rice into their mouths, glancing at you; some hold their right hand to their chest, say “Om nama shivaya.” They respect you more now that you are barefoot.

You are doing pradakshina because you have questions unanswered, persistent desires, troublesome thought patterns; perhaps you are doing pradakshina because when you are lost, the easiest path is around the mountain, and at the end you hope to find yourself.

Shortly, you encounter a family and begin walking with them; they adopt you into their troupe–two women, one husband, three boys and one girl named Shruti, and grandma and grandpa–and call you “Aunty.” One of the little boys attempts to call you “Madam,” but his mother reprimands and corrects him–you are not to be placed on any societal pedestal during this walk.

With the family, you forget your mind problems a bit, and smile at the girl, her energetic stride, and the boys who alter between devotion during pujas and boredom (“Aunty, how many kilometers?” they ask you repeatedly).

At every temple, you stop for a puja. The family shows you what to do–wave your hands over this flame, put this on your forehead, kneel here, walk around this deity. You follow, learn, let it all wash over you; the mountain controls this walk, not you. After one temple visit, you and the family rest in the shade and you are handed a bag of rice cooked in a spiced tomato sauce, and all eat together, with one hand, and it is a very satisfying meal.

Finally, after almost five hours, you arrive to the main temple, a famed behemoth in a square shape, where Ramana Maharshi lived when he first arrived to Tiruvannamalai, and where many other Indian saints have expressed their devotion to Shiva. Your feet hurt and you feel dehydrated. The family lines up to enter the main shrine, but you gesture to the space behind it, say you’ll sit there and wait. You want to rest and it is not necessary, for you, to pay respects to a shrine in order to feel connected to anything. Facing the temple, you sit behind it, listen to the sounds–people chanting, cars honking, peacocks wailing in the trees around the temple. Time passes, you are not sure how much.

Then you rise and walk directly out of the temple, hoping the family will understand, that they will be at peace with your non-attachment to them, even though they were part of the journey and you will never forget them and their kindness. It is nevertheless a walk you started on your own, and you will finish it on your own; you have found what you set out looking for, and that’s all you need.

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Self-Inquiry and the Householder

imagesThe sprawling campus of Sri Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai is home to hoards of red-faced and black-faced monkeys, dozens of brooding and feather-preening peacocks whose loud cries punctuate the heavy pre-monsoon air, which is otherwise silent but for the whispering trees, and hundreds of devotees from all over India and the world. Ramana was a 16-year-old boy, living an unremarkable and unprivileged life in turn-of-the-century Southern India when he “woke up”: he was stricken by, and overcame abinavesa (fear of death) and through this experience, in which his Ego perished, her came to know the eternal, undying, true Self and the impermanence of the mind/body, and this plane of existence.

Following his awakening, Ramana journeyed to the mountain Arunachala, which is not only Shiva’s home but said to be the deity himself. There, Ramana sat in a cave, wearing only a short white cloth over his lower body, and did nothing, for years. Gradually locals became aware of his existence and brought him food; over time, disciples began appearing to care for him and within years there were scores of devotees flocking to Ramana in his cave, ensuring that his needs were met and hoping that the enlightened one’s presence would assist them in their own spiritual quests and worldly affairs. Eventually Ramana switched to another cave, and finally he came down the mountain to live in the ashram that his devotees had begun building in order to better serve their Bhagavan.

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Chai time at Ramana’s ashram

Today this ashram offers free lodging and communal meals to devotees from all over the world who come to meditate, pray, and make offerings in Ramana’s presence. In the evenings, Brahmans chant from the Vedas and douse the receptacle for the Bhagavan’s ashen remains, as well as those of his mother who also achieved enlightenment, with several bovines’-worth of milk, curd, and ghee, as well as rose water and honey, and finally the shrines are garnished with flowers and metal adornments. Meanwhile, devotees chant, meditate, bow deeply, or walk meditatively in circles around the shrines.

It is an astonishing display of worship, and humbling. I am but a mere curious Westerner, a yoga teacher, a lover of human culture and experience; the prospect of true enlightenment seems to me beyond my Ego-laden purview and beyond my desires as a householder–literally, as I have an apartment in New York awaiting my return, as well as loved ones and unfinished artistic ventures–and even beyond my karma. (FYI, “householder” in religious terminology refers to one who maintains a job/home life while pursuing spiritual aims, as opposed to a renunciate who gives up these things.) What can I, given these self-assessed limitations, hope to learn from Ramana?

SAM_2559Perhaps I am not destined to become enlightened in this lifetime, but I do have my sadhana, a practice that includes yoga, writing, and an aspiration toward unconditional love and self-acceptance, which matters to me very much. In the published conversations between Ramana and his disciples that took place at the ashram in the 1940s, when the Bhagavan lived in a small room furnished only with a bed where he sat or reclined while receiving visitors at all hours, many people press the question of balancing secular life–worldly concerns like work, family, love, material needs, and so on–and the quest for enlightenment. Ramana was not challenged by this ostensible paradox; he advised that if one surrendered to God (isvara), to the present moment, to the highest Self, then all else would follow. The difficult thing for his disciples, and me and perhaps you, dear reader, to understand is that this is not an intellectual truth–it’s not something Malcolm Gladwell can confidently quantify and explain and package in a best-selling book–but rather it is known through intuition, through the heart and deep meditation. All Ramana advocated was for people to practice self-inquiry: Who am I? And to be still, so as to let that inquiry finds its true answer.

And yet, I sit to meditate and find myself wrestling furiously with the ugly, childish, whining Ego, rather than meeting the glorious and effervescent Self. Still, I persist, hoping that the practice will prove worth in one lesson: that if I cannot simply become enlightened and reside in the divine Self, then at least I can perhaps learn to always have in my purview that Self, and never stray from it too far.

Monsoon Meditations

a puja (offering) to Shiva
a puja (offering) to Shiva

The river Ganga churns, rolls along before me, sending the tide high around the rock where I sit, meditating, in the rain. Fat droplets fall on my skin, so starved for hydration after weeks of burning sun, and the corners of my lip curl up as I inhale the wet, late afternoon air.

But shortly, I am wrangled from my peaceful state of calm white light by the “HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” erupting from the middle of the river. I know what, if I open my eyes, I will see: a group of about ten men, in their late twenties or early thirties, wearing orange vests, floating on a bright orange raft, and screaming their heads off. This is not an esoteric religious rite. This is the New India, floating down the holy river, past temples and pilgrims and little old me meditating on a rock; this is middle-class Delhi, on vacation (or “holiday,” as they say).

India is full of moments like these; we foreigners complain: can’t they stop honking incessantly in my ear? why do these city people disrespect the sacred atmosphere? why do Indians pour their trash into the Ganga, or burn it in the forest? It is confusing, for outsiders, to experience at once such tranquility here, and such devotion to the sacred in the everyday through rituals and temple culture while simultaneously witnessing these seemingly incongruous acts. Like the vacationing Delhians. Don’t they know they’re interrupting my “spiritual journey”? I mean, how dare they?

This is India: confusing, chaotic, and yet enrapturing, powerful. You just have to take it all in, understand that while you’re having your “spiritual journey,” the secular world is mired in its own problems; either you renounce it all or you deal with it, negotiate its complexities, accept it for what it is.

Monsoon has arrived. The ashram is encased in a big white cloud that we watched drift down from the mountains this morning. Electricity is off for hours in the afternoon. A good time for retreating away from the honking cars, the noisy crowds, the river rafters.

Helter Skelter

The way to the former ashram of Maharesh Maharishi Yogi, teacher of Transcendental Meditation to the Beatles, is past the Ram Joola Bridge, lined first by throngs of vendors hawking coconuts, lime-water, beads, then becoming a dusty path populated by wandering cows, mangy dogs, a few ashrams, temples, and modest houses, and several packs of sadhus with orange and white wraps draped around their withered, hardened frames; their beards hang to their navels and they look at you with curious but weary eyes–you, bright and special and well-intentioned as you may be, bring little to these sadhus lives but noise, pollution, real estate development; furthermore you come nowhere close to the Fab Four’s charisma, authenticity, and magic.

Passing the sadhus, craning upward at the families of monkeys nestled in the verdant trees, ignoring the “No Entry” sign, you creep over a vine-covered stone wall to enter the Maharishi’s ashram. The forest, old and solemn, shades you as you proceed along past dome-shaped stone huts, about fifteen-feet-tall, suitable for meditation. You enter into one of these crumbling concrete caves, sit, holds hands meditate feel the energy vibrations from years ago when those bright young British boys came here searching for . . . what? Something new? Something to bring them back to their hearts, after perhaps losing the way while growing famous, rich? You chant, breathe. Sing: anything from the White Album, written in this very place, though in your head the citar of Magical Mystery Tour creeps in and visions of blue meanies dance in your head, and you wonder what the Beatles’ last decade of music-making would have been like without this now-quiet place, home only to monkeys and sadhus.

You inhale, exhale, stand, wander through the complex of meditation huts, the various monuments and murals dedicated to the musicians who stormed this place with their entourage and played their role in the ever-growing dialogue between the West and the East that tells seekers, over and over, that everything they need is already right there, within. But for some reason you had to go here, to Maharishi’s ashram, to Rishikesh, to India, to locate that everything.

Bathtub Theory

I’m writing this in the bathtub after a very long day. Why not write in the tub? Steam is rising around the sides of the laptop; it’s romantic. Maybe afterward my laptop and I will have a light supper with roses on the table, then we’ll read Walt Whitman in bed.

I’ve been thinking about this n+1 panel I attended last night at St. Mark’s Bookshop. The panel was on “theory” and its current role in intellectual culture, and the setting was quite appropriate, since St. Mark’s is the spot to shop for Derrida. But I didn’t realize what I wanted to ask until the panel was over. I wanted to ask whether theory’s changes through time aren’t directly related to the flows of capitalism? Capitalism moves one way or the other–it closes, it widens, it morphs completely–and it affects the way we value thinking. It should be of no surprise that we are, at the same time, intellectually and physically obsessed with science and technology, and in a “post-theory” moment in Academia. Base and superstructure, I think one wise man once called it.

Why couldn’t I ask my question during the panel? When I was in graduate school, it terrified me to ask questions at our intimate monthly departmental seminars with eminent guest speakers. A feeling of deep panic rose up in me, from my pelvis to my throat, with the formulation of a question in my head. Would my professors role their eyes at me (overtly or no)? Would my classmates stiffen, thinking, “How elementary/showy/old-fashioned/naive.” Would the presenter be stumped, annoyed, angered at my inquiry? My sense of privilege at being in a private graduate program, and my hyper-awareness of the vicious, competitive careerism of Academia made every question a bearer of guilt, of doubt, and an impediment to really learning anything.

I barely remember panels and talks from graduate school; I was too concerned about whether my question would reveal something unlikeable about me, or I’d say it the wrong way.

We called the anthropology M.A. at The New School for Social Research a “two-year interview.” Who would get into our small, mostly unfunded PhD program? It’s not theory that’s in jeopardy so much as the ability to do anything with it. We devoured theory in a buffet, Deleuze alongside Nietzsche alongside Haraway alongside Lacan. The only rule was you were not allowed to truly love it; you had to gulp it all down and then shit it out. It was the past. It was what made us the neoliberal Academy, bloated with overpaid administrators and debt-funded students, and unable to formulate a single proclamation about how to be and act politically at a time when wars were being waged, the environment was crumbling, our American Dream was fading like the end of a bad movie. The politics in Academic thinking today are buried so deeply in the minutia, in the interstices of meaning, that to acknowledge their existence at all is a sin, reveals you as naive, and likely ends your career.

If we are living in the end times of any epoch, it may be the end of the Enlightenment as we knew it. The privatization of universities in the Eighties under Reagan marked a shift toward an Academy that was inextricable from the whims of capitalism in a way it had never been before, and the impact on thinking has been tremendous. Anthropologists now are studying stock markets and the Fed; sociologists specialize in “expertise.” Theory has marked a spiral into this moment, a movement away from empiricism into abstraction, from the gold standard into derivatives, from dialectics to rhizomes. In this spiral our questions float helplessly like clouds, ungrounded and quick to evaporate, like steam rising from a hot bath.

Are “Millennials” Necessarily White & Middle-Class?

hipster2Hooray, there’s another article out about how Millennials are kinda poor and kinda don’t know what to do about it (besides, of course, making use of the “sharing economy”). I miss the “Hustlin” column in the late Good magazine, which highlighted ways that Millennials are pushing back against the trappings of the recession. At least that journalistic approach left room for Millennials to eventually come out on top–we will have 401Ks, goddammit! We will eventually marry and have kids! We might own a home someday if we ever settle down and get good jobs, which might happen if this Kickstarter campaign takes off . . .

But the more I read about “Millennialism,” the more I think that the media has brainwashed itself with this term. Is it just me, or does the notion of a “Millennial” culture implicitly exclude all but white, middle-class people?

Look at the rhetoric used in this recent Times Magazine story about how Millennials are suffering from permanent downward mobility (which is not news, so I have no idea why this article was even published–it uses old research by Neil Howe from 1991)Quoting Howe’s book directly, the journalist writes: “[Millennials] look at the house their parents live in and say, ‘I could work for 100 years and I couldn’t afford this place.'” That’s true if you grew up in the affluent suburbs. If you hail from a housing project in the Bronx, not so much. Read more

My essay: “Consider the Tweet”

twitter birdIt seemed that, in the literary world, 2012 was the “year of the tweet.” Check out my essay on the Guernica Daily for some thoughts on what that means for writers:

“It is understandable that a writer of literature might despair over technology’s ascent in the culture. Who knows how many of the hours spent by the average person on Twitter or Gawker might have been given to a nourishing novel? Nevertheless, there are writers who have, rather than disdain technology, welcomed it into their creative repertoire and written it into their imagined worlds.”