30 January 2007

86 hours of silence

Can a man get pearls by floating or swimming on the surface? He must dive deep.

Sri Ramakrishna, The Gospel of Ramakrishna

Silence and withdrawing for a period of time are an important part of Hinduism but I am one of the loudest, least solitary people I know. Don't get me wrong: I actually like being alone, at least, I think I do, but most of my working life I've spent in television news and, aside from a couple of years in my twenties, I've never lived completely alone. And the house I grew up in was loud: had three querulous brothers and we lived in a neighborhood filled with guys who never seemed to stop yelling, laughing or teasing. Now I live in a house with two boys and a husband, none of whom could be described as quiet. But I have liked being alone. The very first few words I put together on this project came when a girlfriend backed out of a cross-country skiing trip we were supposed to take together and, instead of canceling, I went alone. So, I figured it was time to see what a few days in the Vedanta Society's retreat house might be like.

With a letter from Swami Sarvadevananda, I got permission to go to the retreat center in Olema at the very end of January for four nights. It seemed like a good time to go, given that Luke’s and Matt’s finals were over and Kevin had just finished a project making that week a light one for him. Four nights meant I was going to have to keep my mouth shut from Tuesday dinner through Saturday at dawn. But it wasn’t just no talking: the rules of the center said no cell phone or computers either.

The retreat center confirmation also said to bring towels, linen, and all of my own food, that the kitchen was well-stocked with utensils and plates but “retreatants” were on our own for just about everything, including cleaning. So, on Tuesday morning, I dropped Luke and Matt off at school and drove six hours north through farmland and alongside the state’s endless aqueducts to Olema.

To get to the Vedanta women’s retreat center, you have turn onto a dirt road just outside the intersection that is Olema and follow it past the farmhouse that serves as the men’s retreat center, then through uncertainly fenced fields with muscular black cattle chewing in them. At the very end of the rutted road was a fairly new building built expressly for its purpose.

The kitchen was, indeed, well-stocked and cleaner than almost any kitchen I had ever seen. The open dining and living room had polished wooden tables, couches and armchairs and opened onto a wooden deck with a view of pastures bordered by trees. There were eight bedrooms off two short corridors, each opening directly to outside and a carpeted meditation room, Just off the kitchen, there was a small room for the caretaker – it was Noelle while I was there - who gave me keys to front door and as well as a “silence bead” to let the other women know that, even in the few hours we were allowed to talk (around dinner time), that I would be silent.

Not talking for eight-six hours is a lot easier if you’re in a beautiful place without cell phone service or internet or anyone you know. I brought nothing in with me except the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna,

the puja kit Hemu had encouraged me to buy, the small handbook Swami Sarvadevananda had suggested – Worship of Sri Ramakrisha - and a journal, although I was determined not even to write in that. And I kept my meals simple: nuts, yogurt, some spinach salad, fruit, nothing that required major preparation.

Not talking wasn’t so bad; not doing was my problem. Watching the day flow by from a bench on a hill instead of being immersed in it was hard. I do so I don’t feel. I do to convince myself there is a point. I do to distract from the fact that doing isn’t the point but I have no idea what is. Days directed by sunlight, wrist stripped of its handcuff of time, were long, deliciously long when you stopped fighting them. When the to-do lists and the doubts came, I simply watched the storm clouds gather, the mental winds whip around and then pass. Thoreau and his sunlight kept coming to mind as I sat overlooking the valley, measuring time by the shadow’s spread from one tree trunk to another, by the layers of clothing needed to stay warm, by the herd of exotic deer’s slow climb from the valley into the hills just after dawn. The deer’s ancestors were left behind more than fifty years ago by men who planned to hunt them but now they overrun the place.

Comic relief: the first two mornings my wake up call was a gang of wild turkeys gobbling and complaining just outside my window as they scuttled across the grass at first light.

I tried to use the puja kit but its complexity, even with plenty of free time, even with the help of the step-by-step instructions in the Worship of Sri Ramakrishna, stumped me again although there was one revelation: in the directions for the daily ritual, devotees are directed to dip their fingers into purified water and then to draw a triangle inside a circle and then a square around both on the ground.

Sound familiar? It did to me. At home, I googled: “Alcoholics Anonymous symbol” and saw, on an AA-related website, the very same image (minus a square around the outside) and the following statement quoted from AA literature: “That we have chosen this particular symbol is perhaps no accident. The priests and seers of antiquity regarded the circle enclosing the triangle as a means of warding off spirits of evil, and A.A.'s circle and triangle of Recovery, Unity, and Service has certainly meant all of that to us and much more." I had forgotten, until seeing this image, Swami Sarvadevananda’s telling me that the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, had been a devotee of this particular form of Hinduism, at least for a while.

But most of the time, when I wasn’t wandering the grounds or trying to meditate, either inside the meditation room or outside on the bench on the hill, I read the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.

He sure was tough company. The Gospel is really more of a biography or journal written by one of Ramakrishna’s devotees under a single initial: “M.” What’s interesting about it is the degree to which “M” simply took notes rather than making a concerted effort to mythologize the man he came to believe was an actual incarnation of the Divine. It has a warts-and-all feel, a very human picture which, for me, made it all the more difficult to consider the idea that this man could be a “capital I” Incarnation. I mean, this was a man who shamelessly guilted some of his married followers into living away from their wives and children for months at a time; who was unschooled, perhaps close to illiterate, and who spent the first years of his adult life weeping at the feet of Kali, sometimes without clothes on, demanding that God actually appear before him, live and in person.

Who can measure up to that standard? Do I want to literally see God, if such a thing were possible? Sure, I’m driven to do whatever it is I am doing – I sometimes feel like a carcass and an intellect being dragged along by this drive of mine – but to weep for it? To stand naked in a temple and demand a Visit? To threaten to kill myself if God didn’t seem interested in complying? It isn’t just that my passion isn’t strong enough to follow Ramakrishna’s example, to disregard all inbred societal norms. If I’m very honest, I’m not so sure I would choose to see God even if I believed such a thing were possible.

In the Bhagavad Gita, the terrifying passage where God finally revealed just part of Itself to Arjuna, made me not so certain any of us really would choose to see the Divine if we could. That awe-filled description takes my breath away. I was clear on this point: at that moment I felt wholly incapable of even imagining myself ever having the courage required to have that kind of desire, that absolute and laser-beam faith. Alone, for days of silence with Ramakrishna, the mountain of faith felt too sheer, too high to climb, without better spiritual equipment than I had.

Perhaps it’s enough, in any given moment, to act on faith “indifferent to results, content with whatever happens.” Or take the actions of a faithful person just to find out something I might not learn otherwise.

When reading Ramakrishna got too much, I wandered around the woods, following overgrown paths wherever they led. At one point, so many branches had fallen, the path was impossible to follow. Clearing the ones I could move, I wondered if it was possible my purpose might be just that, to clear those branches on that particular day so that some modern day Ramakrishna might be able to find his or her way to their bodhi tree, to their epiphanous spot, and it was just my job to move those branches without ever knowing the effect. Could that be enough? Would it matter if it wasn’t?

By the time Saturday morning came, I was packed up in my ice-coated car, waiting for the caretaker down at the men’s retreat center to open the gate at seven in the morning, the moon still high in the early morning sky. I was going to meet Huston Smith. When I got to an area where my cell phone had reception, I was relieved to find no message canceling our visit.

22 January 2007

Huston Smith!

I found him at last!

Lands across the planet have become our neighbors, China across the street, the Middle East at our back door. We hear that East and West are meeting, but it is an understatement. They are being flung at one another. When historians look back on our century, they may remember it most as the time when the peoples of the world first came to take another seriously.

Huston Smith
The World’s Religions

Two days after I sent the letter to Huston Smith, I was driving on a freeway, wondering when it might be proper to follow up with a call when my cell phone rang. A blocked caller.


“This is Huston Smith calling for Marley.”

His voice was dignified, precise, his inner force rising to overcome the wear and tear of time.

“Professor Smith? I can’t believe it! Thank you so much for calling me so promptly. I cannot tell you how much this means to me.”

“Well, I read your letter and I’d be happy for you to stop by but I want you to know that, if you want me to read a manuscript, I must tell you I am just too busy and so my answer must be no. But if you want to stop by, the answer is yes.”

He was eighty-seven. He got a letter from a complete stranger asking to visit. He called back as soon as he got it. And, he said yes.

If there were other cars on the road, I no longer saw them. “Oh that’s terrific, Professor Smith. That would be just great.”

“Let me give you my fax number so we can finish up all the details that way. My hearing isn’t great this year - it will be much better next year - so I can’t do much over the phone but I’m much better in person. Please take this fax number and we’ll work out the details that way.”

While driving on the freeway, I’m sorry to say, I took the number down, afraid to risk losing him even in the small amount of time that pulling to the side of the road might have taken.

A couple of faxes and phone calls later and we were set. After the silent retreat, I was to stop by his house.

22 January 2007

07 January 2007

"I don't want to have to rescue you..."

It never crossed my mind that what I’m doing might affect my family…maybe even scare them a bit....

At the beginning the aspirant should go into solitude now and then. Spiritual discipline is necessary. You want to eat rice; suppose you sit down somewhere and say, ‘Wood contains fire and fire cooks rice.’ Can saying it cook the rice? You must get two pieces of wood and by rubbing them together bring out the fire.

Sri Ramakrishna
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

I'd decided to go to the Vedanta Society’s retreat center in Olema, California, near Point Reyes National Seashore. It required a letter from Swami Sarvadevananda and permission from the swami in charge of the retreat center – and I’d gotten both. The women’s center allowed no more than eight women at a time so, on a Sunday afternoon, I brought it up with Kevin. “The retreat center said it would be okay if I came up so I have to decide when to go.”

Kevin was at the sink, filling up the tea kettle. He’d gone straight from the gym to the farmer’s market without a shower. The late morning sun was coming through his wild, early silver hair. Sundays are sweet, sleepy; each of us usually puttering somewhere in the house in the comfort of communal solitude.

Kevin walked from the sink to the stove with the kettle and said, teasing, “I’m not going to have to come rescue you from a cult or anything, am I?”

A messy pile of newspapers was on the yellow-and-blue tablecloth in front of me along with the tops of a few strawberries on a small white plate. There was so much light coming from the windows near the table, Kevin hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on over the stove, the darkest part of the kitchen. We were both in our Sunday best: sweats and shorts, loose shirts, shoes meant to be worn, not looked at. Kevin put the kettle down on a burner.

“It’s just a silent retreat,” I said. “There aren’t any group events or talking or even eating together. You even have to bring your own food.”

His back was still to me as he bent down to make sure the gas was turned on under the correct burner even though he knew those burners by heart.

This wasn’t a joke. He was actually worried.

I got up because I couldn’t think what to say. I started to take some useless receipts and out-of-date school lunch forms off the refrigerator door when the kitchen door slammed open. Luke never could just open a door; his entrance was always an event. “Bertrand Russell’s a fucking idiot.” He paused, looking for a reaction, but then barreled on without one. “You think Mickey Morgan would mind if I called my essay: ‘Bertrand Russell’s a Fucking Idiot’?”

Luke was standing in his boxers and socks. There was no muscle, bone, organ or hair follicle in his body that wasn’t straining and stamping towards adulthood but not always at the same time or in the same direction. Still in front of the lichen of promotional magnets, yellowed receipts, a half-full grocery notepad and ancient school announcements, I was torn, between life and lists, between loving and organizing. I gave up on the fridge door. What were my options? Deal with the words or with the passion? Teacher Mom or Etiquette Mom? I hate Etiquette Mom. She ‘s a priss, and pretty ineffective, too. Of course, there was always Tired Mom or Distracted Mom or Keep-to-the-Schedule-Mom or I’m-Talking-to-Your-Father Mom.

Maybe it’s time to experiment with no official role at all.

I turned from the fridge door and said, “I think you have a perfectly grabby title without that one word.”

“Yeah, but he is, he’s a fucking idiot.”

I decided to concentrate on the fact Luke was, well, talking about homework, at least. “What’s this essay about?”



“God.” He swiped a glass from the cupboard and got between me and the refrigerator to pull the cranberry juice out of it.

I threw the papers I’d taken off the door into the trash and said, “How long is it supposed to be?”
“The usual. Two to three pages.”

That made sense. God, in two or three pages. By Wednesday. My insanity is spreading.

Or maybe he’s just fifteen.

When I was fifteen I took a stance that all music was bad, that it filled up space in brains like so much cotton, protecting people from the sharp edges of their thoughts. I took it mostly to see what would happen. It was thrilling standing out there alone on a plank, seeing what passion I could stir up just with words and stubbornness.

Kevin, who’s usually game for debates, was staying focused on his tea-making so I bit: “So why is Bertrand Russell an idiot?”

“He takes the position that Thomas AquinasPrime Mover theory – you know the one that says that of course God exists because nothing can start moving without something making it move?” He waited, glaring. He’d even stopped mid-pour. When I nodded, he continued pouring but not before roughly wiping his long hair off his face - with the hand with the cap to the cranberry juice bottle still in it. “Well, Russell says that’s bogus because nothing can exist without a cause. Just because he can’t imagine something that could create itself doesn’t mean it can’t exist. I mean, if God is omniscient and omnipotent and infinite, then why couldn’t God create itself?” He threw the bottle of cranberry juice back in the fridge door, turned back to me, and said, “Om – ni - scient. Om - ni - po - tent.” He snorted and then took a swig of his red juice.

This was the child who, at six, announced that he knew there was no God because he thought the Big Bang theory made the most sense as the origin of the universe. Now, he's God’s advocate. Of course, his younger brother, Matt, whose answer when he was four years old to Luke's Big Bang thesis was , simply, that God did exist and who has insisted on saying grace before every meal before anyone can eat since he was five, now thinks he's Wiccan.

I took hold of Luke’s forearm so I could stand on my toes to sort of kiss his scruffy cheek and said, “I know you’ll figure it out.”

“What-ever.” He wheeled around, long hair flying, pounding the living room floor as he left for his room. Just before his bedroom door slammed shut, Kevin and I heard, “Fucking Bertrand Russell.”

Kevin and I just looked at each other in the stillness Luke left behind, the question and answer didn’t need to be said out loud: did we just do the right thing? Not reacting, not going after the language? Probably not, but who knew? Kevin scooped some loose tea from one of his tins of Chinese tea into a small pot.

I said, “Don’t worry, Boy. I’ve stayed away from any temple where they looked way too happy.”

“I’m not sure what that means, but, okay. I just don’t want to have to rescue you.” Kevin was on the other side of the butcher block island slowly pouring the boiling water over the dry leaves.

“Boy, don’t worry. It’s still me.”