Focused on me at all times,
you will overcome all obstructions;
but if you persist in clinging
to the I-sense, then you are lost.
Bhagavad Gita, 18.58
My brain is exploding.
There’s a good reason why people only consider subjects like these once a week, a good reason why most religions have sabbaths only every seventh day: the brain can only process so much. At least, this brain. My head felt so crammed with new thoughts, ideas, and concepts it actually hurt. But it turned out to be the perfect week: both of my sons had different days off from school so I had an excuse to play and it came in the nick of time -- I needed mindless. I decided to take Matt bowling. It’s hard to be too serious in rented shoes.
Right before we left I sent an email to Professor Amir Hussain, hoping he might know either where Huston Smith was or anyone who might introduce me to him. Although I’d decided to use the chapter structure of his book, The World’s Religions, as the archtecture for this project, it hadn’t occurred to me to try and talk to him about it until Swami Sarvadevananda mentioned that Smith had spent a great deal of time in the Vedanta Society temple in St Louis. I mean, how weird is that? After wandering around from one branch of Hinduism to another, I end up choosing a swami in the same sect of Hinduism as Huston Smith? It seemed, somehow, not accidental or, at least it made me think I should try to talk to him about what I’m doing. If he’d see me, that is.
Once I sent the email, Matt and I went bowling.
Just how bad a bowler am I? Let’s just say that Matt and I played with the bumpers up. Let’s just say that Matt, using his unique two-handed hurling strategy in which the ball slammed to the wood some distance down the alley and then bounced – sometimes twice - off the bumpers, consistently beat me. Three games, some air hockey, pinball, a game of absurdly poor pool and I could feel the pressure ease. But Matt still had his regular afterschool activities so it meant I actually could go to Swami Sarvadevananda’s private study group that afternoon so I went.
The class was already underway when I walked in to what used to be the living room of the small home that also houses the bookstore and Swami Sarvadevananda’s office. About four people were in a semi-circle of chairs with Swami Sarvadevananda in the center, his back to a fireplace. Painted onto the mantelpiece over his head were the words: “All Kare Abandone, Ye Who Tarye Here,” a remnant of the home’s original owner.
A somewhat elderly white woman with short, graying hair finished reading an excerpt from a book on Vedanta Hinduism called For Seekers of God. The subject was aging and death. Swami Sarvadevananda said, “It’s very difficult for people to accept growing old. I mean we accept youth, we accept the prime of our lives but can we accept change? Everything changes. Even since we have been sitting here in class, we have been changing. How many cells have died since this class began? Why do we care so much what happens to this body? This is a temporary, rented home. It’s decay and loss is natural.”
Decay and loss might be natural but I hate it. I’m about to turn fifty and I care very much what happens to my body. And I’ve never been much good at accepting change. I cried at the end of high school, of college, of every year of summer of camp, of jobs, of relationships, at the end of kindergarten for Luke because he was the first and for Matt because he was the last. But then change is easy to like when bad things finally come to an end, right?
The swami’s slim hands were doing their sinuous dance, turning over and over as though offering us his words. “Everyone loves a new car. Youth is like that. But when it becomes old no one looks at it, at us anymore,” Laughing, he looked around the room through his large glasses to see if we understood. “And then, when the car stops working, we exchange it for another. We are still the same driver but the car is new. I mean, we can beautify ourselves, some people have plastic surgery but, really, how long can you do it? We must accept our bodies as they are and see whatever stage we’re in as beautiful.”
Okay, that’s not so easy. My current body is a little tougher to love than the twenty-five year-old one but, if I stop to really consider, I was laughably harsh about my body even then. I look at photographs and can remember what I was thinking about how I looked and it makes me sad at the disconnect. For that reason and others, this stage is actually better. So some lines have replaced the blemishes, a trade-up if you ask me. And I was pretty uncomfortable in my own skin then. I was afraid and that made me judgmental, harsh, and not very trustworthy, even to myself at times. Looking back at old photos, there’s not one that makes me want to switch places with that girl.
There was a warmth, an intimacy in the room as the swami spoke. He said that there were six stages of life: existence, birth, growth, the prime of life, the stage where you gradually lose everything, and death. “Here I am in the fifth stage of life, nothing left but death. Well, okay! What is lost by dying?" he said. “Nothing! Who doesn’t like replacing an old car with a new car? That is what we believe. But why, why do we believe this? Ask yourself: who was there in your body when you were born? You would say: ‘I was.’ But your body isn’t the same as it was then. Yet you would say ‘I’ was in there, the same ‘I’ that is in there now. So, if your body is constantly changing, but the ‘I’ isn’t, could that ‘I’ be the same thing as your body?“
There was one of those pauses, a silence like a delta of thought branching off in all directions. The graying woman then ventured a quiet question. “Why do I have so much fear of death?”
Swami Sarvadevanda looked only at her. “Because you haven’t analyzed this. ‘I’ is continuously there. ‘I’ was there when you were just a girl. Your ‘I’ was there when you were a young woman and ‘I’ is here now. ‘I’ is birthless, deathless so what will you be losing in death? The ‘I’ doesn’t die, just the body does. And here’s the Vedanta answer to that question…” The swami seemed almost disconnected from his arms. “You can’t accept that you are going to die because you aren’t. You are infinite and the concept of death feels wrong because it is. The body dies but the ‘I’ doesn’t.”
Swami Sarvadevananda pulled his pale orange tunic away from his body to indicate the spare frame inside. “What does it matter if this goes? If it’s proven that ‘I’ exists through the first five stages why not the last?”
I spent a lot of time worrying about death as a child. I hated going to bed. I was afraid of the dark. I checked for evildoers under my bed, in my closet, and even behind the pictures on my wall – after all, a secret compartment could have developed behind the wall during the day. But even once my room was investigated and secure, I was too full of adrenaline to sleep so I had a lot of time to think and death was the subject more often than not. It went kind of like this: Most people don’t really think they’re going to die. Do I know that? Do really know that I’m going to die? Or am I a “weak” person unable to handle the truth? My mother certainly was afraid I was going to be one. Along with asking too many questions and my interest in religion, I also wanted a light on in my room at night. Weak people needed religion and lights on in their room at night. I would worry this point until I was quite sure that I believed that I was, indeed, going to die.
My courage reservoir wasn’t very deep. The only tenable faith within my reach at the time was that, somehow, my parents could save me from the abject terror of facing death truthfully and alone. Going to their room was a poor substitute for faith, but it was a substitute. However, there are only so many nights parents of four children will put up with being shaken awake after midnight so, most nights, I had to settle for watching them breathe by the light of the television my mother can’t sleep without.
I’m not sure if I can completely abandon myself to it but the swami’s concept of death - the ‘I’ doesn’t die, just the body does” - is a lot easier to handle than the idea of humans as just a walking, talking set of complex chemical compounds on their way to breaking apart into their component parts. Surely we’re more than that, aren’t we? What about those moments of intense communion with another person? Or those perfect moments in plays or in stories where the veil is pierced and you feel you really know something, get that gut sense that you’ve seen It, felt It, even without having the slightest idea what It is? Randomly-assembled chemicals?
“Don’t be ridiculous. Eat your peas.”
And even now, like the gray-haired woman, I’m still stunned by the idea that one day I will cease to exist. That is, when I let myself think about it. The only moments of grace, of freedom from this paralyzing fear come when I can grasp some piece of the idea that there’s a difference between this physical form and what’s underlying it; that this specific, physical me might not be quite as important as I think.
The swami was getting ready to end the class. “Creation itself is nothing. It is a ripple on an ocean of God, it rises up and then collapses and, without the ocean, waves cannot dance. We come from God, we dance in God, we fight in God, we love in God, we dissolve in God -- only we don’t know that everything comes from God. That’s why birth, death is just a matter of course, it’s natural, like a wave returning to the ocean.
“Here is the key point: Everything that is accomplished, everything we achieve in our lives, these accomplishments are nothing. They will pass away just as our greatest failures will. They will die when our body dies. But the Self, the eternal Atman presence, remains as it is forever. We are all connected with that eternal presence – Atman. Okay, let’s stop here for now.”
And, with a short chant, we started to gather our things to leave. And then my fellow students – most of them American – each bent down to brush Swami’s feet. I was panicked. I couldn’t do it. It felt fake and false. And how do you put your palms together when holding a notebook, pen, and a cellphone? I thought of shaking hands but that appeared hopelessly out of the question, too. So, from a polite distance away, I tried to awkwardly beam my gratitude and he did the same.
When there were only three of us left, the swami asked, “Do you want to come see the Durga puja? It’s just ten minutes long, right here, in my office, on my computer.”
What I wanted to say was, ‘No, I can’t process anything more,’ but I didn’t. Instead, I followed him and two other women around the corner and into his miniscule office. The other two women were almost as excited as he was to see whatever this “Durga puja” was. Almost. I encouraged the excited ones to sit in the chairs so I could stand in the back, nearest the door, wanting to be sure to be able to get out when I wanted without having to disturb someone to do it. While I never did come to understand what a Durga puja was then, I did get that it was something happening in India, at the central office, the Rome, if you will, of Vedanta Hinduism in Belur Math, India and they were going to be able to watch it on the internet. I watched people eager to watch a ritual performed half a globe away on a tiny pop-up window on an old fourteen-inch monitor. Would I ever get to the point where I’d actually be excited to see a ritual performed? It was hard to imagine. When it was all strange and new, it fascinated. But that was different from finding meaning, peace, comfort, or transcendence in it.
One of the women leaned in to point out where the Swami should click to start the web streaming. Swami Sarvadevananda’s head was tilted up so he could find the small arrow to start the video through the reading portion of his large glasses. His hands looked odd cupped over a computer mouse. With a click, the ceremony began to play.
He was delighted. “Oh, we’re right there! This is wonderful! Can you see? Look! There are a group of monks meditating.”
The swami began pointing out monks he knew, old friends who were participating in the service. The camera started to sweep to one side to show the crowd and, when it got to some trees and water, the swami exclaimed, “Oh, that’s the Ganges! You know the river, the Ganges? There it is, right there! I mean, this was happening just today, and we can see it, we can be there, can you imagine?”
He was transported, a traveler a long way from home with little hope of returning soon who was feeling the air, smelling the smells, knowing the light of a familiar, intimate place.
Within minutes, the video was over and, as the women helped the swami save it and email it to others, I said goodbye and slipped out, grateful I didn’t have to find myself unable to bow again.
The small relief I’d gotten from bowling earlier in the day, from not thinking, was gone.
I felt like a computer that needed a hard-drive upgrade.
(28 September 2008)