22 Hearts and 44 Eyes

This is the third year that Rimmi Singh, her sister Pammi, and I have taken a group of yogi travelers, yatri, to India.  Each time the trip is to somewhat different places, and this time 22 of us had an amazing tour of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  South India is quite different from north India in terms of the food, spices, language, and landscape.  Perhaps there is a slight difference in the people too, as a whole.  In the whole of the subcontinent, there is just a mind-boggling amount of variety in everyday life as the sacred sits right next to the mundane which sits right next to riches which sits right next to poverty.  It is all mixed up in a colorful stew.  Quite often when one thinks of India, I believe it is common to first think of the third world and poverty, but what we experienced was a great depth of culture and progressive ideas.

Pondicherry

This city has a heavily French influence as it was founded in 1674 by the French East India Company.  It is home to Auroville of Sri Aurobindo fame and the famous flower market.  All of India seems to be covered in flower petals; they seem to always be blossoming and are ever fragrant, and the flower market here begins early in the morning to avoid the midday heat.  It is more like a wholesale place, where people come to buy in bulk and then sew the flowers up into beautiful garlands to wear or offer at the many temples.  It stands in the midst of fish sellers and vegetable sellers and there is an amazing amount of activity even before 7am.

Sri Aurobindo is a famous guru at the turn of the 20th century who had a great influence on Indian and even American culture based on his teachings and the books that he wrote.  The Mother was also quite prevalent as she was his spiritual equal who helped found the Auroville ashram.  About Auroville:

Auroville (City of Dawn) is an ‘experimental’ township in Viluppuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India near Puducherry in South India. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Richard (since her definitive settling in India called ‘[The] Mother’) and designed by architect Roger Anger. Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.

Some words from the Mother:

Be courageous, enduring, and vigilant and above all, be sincere, with perfect honesty. Then you will be able to face all difficulties.

The Ganesha Temple in Pondi was our first elephant sighting, the first of several more.  Here I am receiving a blessing from Lakshmi.

Our hotel was right on the Bay of Bengal and I swear people were up all night long walking the promenade, feeding the cows and dogs, and chanting by the sea.

Chidambaram

I visited here with Douglas Brooks just a few weeks previous, and this is my third time to this temple.  It is the Nataraja Temple, Shiva in his form as Lord of the Dance.  Each time I arrive here, it feels like home.  Visitors are not allowed to take pictures in the temple, so memories will have to do, but I will say that this temple, like many in south India, is arranged in such a way so that when you step inside its walls, it is as though you are stepping into your own Self.  The concentric circles of walls lead you through the layers, koshas, of your own mind until you get to the inner sanctum, where Nataraja resides, and where your innermost Self resides.

At most temples, there is a “flagpole” outside of the main sanctum, sometimes it is brass or wood, sometimes it is covered in gold.  There is no flag on top, but the pole itself is often ornately carved.  It rises higher than the roof or if indoors, usually goes through the ceiling.  This post represents your spine and the spiritual energy, kundalini shakti, held within it.  To me, just gazing at the pole brings a sense of power.  It is taller than the ceiling to represent the fact that the kundalini energy or power rises up from the base of the spine to the crown of your head, which leads the yogi into a more expansive state of awareness.

We experienced a sacred abishekam ritual with the crystal lingam, “the formless form of Shiva,” in which the priests known as dikshitars would pour many substances like milk, yogurt, ghee, sandalwood paste, rice, honey, sometimes even flower petals, over the lingam, washing it clean after each substance.  It is a strange practice, but when you observe it, it is quite evocative, you cannot help but feel something inside.  This ritual is concluded with an aarti, the waving of light from a candle flame, around a ruby Nataraja statue.  This little statue I’m guessing is about a foot high, and it is pure ruby, so when they shine the light behind it, it glows a brilliant red and takes my breath away.

As my friend Bharati, who assisted us at the temple, said:  there are three main parts to Tamil culture, wearing a sari is sacred for women, also the bindi placed on the third eye, and jasmine flowers strung in one’s hair.  There is nothing like the smell of jasmine in your hair in south India.

Tanjore

We had a brief stay at Svatma Hotel.  This place is a must stay because it is a converted Brahmin home that is so elegant and completely welcoming.  The staff meets your every need, and one may experience yogic rituals like morning chanting and yoga, even dance performances in the evenings.  My good friends Michael and Karen Levin treated me to a sound immersion — in the spa, there is an entire room dedicated to creating different sounds and tones so that one might bathe in the vibrations of gongs, chimes, a thunder-making instrument, a table that has harp strings underneath the bed that one lies upon while someone plucks the strings and the vibrations move through your entire being.  It is a complete vibrational experience that left me feeling refreshed and cleansed.

We saw a fascinating and beautiful traditional Indian dancer perform too.

Madurai

In Madurai we visited the Meenakshi Temple.  This little lady’s claim to fame is that she was born with three breasts.  As a princess, her father the king was so very proud of her, and there was an oracle that said when she met her match, her mate for life, that the third breast would disappear.  As luck would have it, the only match for her was the great lord himself, Shiva.  This temple and the Chidambaram temple have some ethereal connection for this reason.  A god is never far from a goddess.

As with many south Indian temples, this one owns an elephant.  She greets pilgrims and offers blessings, and each morning, her keepers take her out for a walk around the town.  Tamil people love their elephants, and for six weeks out of the year she goes on “vacation” to an elephant preserve.  We all have to blow off a little stress once in a while.

At any temple, there is a daily schedule.  The priests wake the gods in the morning, they bathe them, they clothe and feed them, and in the evening, they get put to bed.  A few of us took part in this night ceremony.  First, only Hindus are allowed in the main inner sanctum, so Bela was the only one of our small group to enter there to receive darshan.  But when she emerged from the sight of Meenakshi, she was so radiant, we received her darshan by osmosis.  As she rejoined us then we walked over to the Shiva shrine where the night ceremony begins.  The priests take out a Shivalingam from this sanctum and carry it over to the opening of Meenakshi’s sanctum, where her shoes are brought out as a symbol of her whole self.  The lingam and the shoes mingle side by side for a few moments as the priests chant, and then the lingam and shoes are put to bed.  Again, such an odd thing to do, but at the same time there is a visceral sense that something deeper is happening.  Inner spiritual structure is reorganizing somehow.  As Douglas Brooks puts it, either grown men are playing with dolls here or something visceral and deep is going on.  In reality, it is both.

Thekkady, Periyar National Park

Spice Village is a progressive property that does not allow any plastic on the premises.  The hotel is a series of cottages spread out over many acres on a mountain in the Western Ghat range.  Did I mention most of this trip has been in the 90-100° range?  This was the coolest portion of our trip.

Naturalists provide nature and bird walks, they filter their own water and make paper here.  The bags to hold receipts or souvenirs from the store are made of newsprint being reused.  They compost in several different ways and have a beautiful garden from which they use the food in their restaurants.  It is so close to nature, there are guinea fowl that roam freely on the property and only occasionally get eaten by the monkeys.  And so many birds!  After the busy-ness of the cities in Tamil Nadu, this was a great time to unwind.

Upon leaving Spice Village, we stopped at a tea plantation school.  This may have been one of the most moving parts of our trip as the elementary age children were overjoyed to see us.  We brought pencils, notepads, erasers, pens, stickers, and candy to the kids and everyone wanted to get their pictures taken.  We sang songs together and treated the kids to ice cream dessert after lunch that day.  It was truly precious.  Being around the kids brought thoughts of my sister in North Carolina, who daily works with children facing great challenges regarding their ability to learn,  homelife, and poverty.  These children at least have homes, food, and schooling, but poverty is there, and they have unique challenges due to culture and climate too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Kumarakom, Vembanad Lake

Here we stayed at the largest lake in Kerala, known as Vembanad and famous for its houseboats.  Seeing these things on the water made me think of some creature from the 80s television program Fraggle Rock.  We had a whole day tour on a house boat which was really wonderful.  The crew fed us lunch and after lunch our guide, Raj, set up his playlist, which of course was American golden oldies type music and the main deck of the houseboat became a dance floor.  His comment to me was unforgettable, “this is the true yoga, when people are happy and laughing and dancing.”

Kay, tour guide Raj, and Liz setting off on a three hour tour

We stayed at Coconut Lagoon, which is another CGH Earth property like Spice Village, so no plastic anywhere.  I haven’t mentioned the food yet — I will never tire of dosa or idly and sambar.  Delicious.  You have to take a boat to get to the property, and there are canals throughout the property to help manage the landscape, which is filled with flowers and fruit trees and butterflies.  The canals gave me a strong memory of growing up with my grandparents in the summers in South Bethany Beach Delaware the way the canals were in the backyards of the beach houses and you could boat around and see people’s intimate backyard lives or head to the bay to enjoy nature.  And waterskiing.  These memories are some that seemed long gone and therefore gave me a greater sense of integration with my life, connecting past to present.

There is an Ayurvedic spa here with two doctors on hand to treat your every need based on your ayurvedic constitution and life habits.  And plenty of swings for relaxing and watching the sunset over the lake.  The meditation teacher here, Naveed, seemed to be trained in the Shivananda style, I never asked him but his practices leaned that way.  Morning yoga and evening meditation daily was a real treat.

 

Cochin

Finally, we landed at the Taj Malabar resort in Cochin or Kochi, two names for the same place.  We were right on the water across from a huge port.  Again, a memory of childhood and family, in particular my brother who I am so proud of as he is now Chief Engineer for the Virginia Port Authority and works at a location just like this one.  Seeing the whale of a huge ship entering the inland waterway and docking at the port and watching the cranes add to or remove cargo was like a connection across the planet to family.

Some of our group attended a Kathakali Dance performance.  This ancient technique involves only men, and lots of make-up.  One of the dancers demonstrated the different emotions used in Indian cultural dances; the subtle control of his facial muscles is like I’ve never seen.  Kathakali uses mudras, hand or even body gestures, to tell a story, in the same way Classical Indian Dance does, but it certainly has its unique south-Indian flavor.

Chinese fishing nets are an amazing sight at the waterside.  Made of wood and hand-tied ropes, this ancient fishing practice stands side-by-side to modern buildings and technology of the city.  Case in point: the Cochin airport is the first in the world to be 100% solar powered.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Twenty two intrepid yoga yatri, travelers.  Twenty two hearts and forty four eyes from which to experience this vast and rich culture and country.  And each moment leads me back to my new family of these travelers, my lifetime family at home, and my own Self.

Rimmi, Kathy, and me
Ganesh’s brother
At Taj Madurai
Love me some elephant
Working lady
Our tour guide Raj
Brihadeshwara Temple
Lady Police

Chidambaram musicians

Yes, we did do yoga

Absorption

Lifting the Veil 3

This morning my mantra was
like water to a thirsty soul.
There was no question
I needed my cushion.
Wanted it
Loved it
It was a compulsion as easy as
a mountain stream flows to the sea.
No effort, only lightness
Each breath elixir
Each moment a chance to awaken
Each repetition a soft calling
To the one, the many.

Ever since my return from India
I’ve been highly inspired to maintain
Her attitude,
Things will happen when they happen.
It is so easy to default to the opposite
To push things, force things, rush things
Why? Just because
But reality is in the moment
The precious moment the sun rises
and the light touches your face.
Ease is there for the receptive taking,
Things will happen when they happen.

I am absorbed in love.

Dealing with Distraction

Photo by Erik Dunham
Photo by Erik Dunham
I am currently teaching a Meditation For Stress Relief course at Willow Street Yoga Center in Silver Spring. We are cultivating a state of witness consciousness in which we can sit and accept whatever thought or feeling arises as it happens by observing without passing judgement. Recently a student asked me about how she can maintain better focus when she is sitting because she seems to always notice sounds — someone walking, a cough, a siren in the distance. Here is my response:

Sustaining focus is a big part of the practice! There will always be things that distract us, so first of all, just knowing that is the case can help relieve you of some of the burden of “should.” For example, “I should have better focus than I do,” or “I should be able to sit still and not be distracted for longer than 2 minutes!” When something distracts you, it is natural to notice it, but can you notice it without falling into the “should” trap or without having a physical reaction, like the adrenaline rush if it is a loud, scary noise for example. Simply notice it and return your attention to your point of focus for your practice. (Unless that loud scary noise is actually a warning of impending danger. Must beware of danger.) Continually returning your awareness to your point of focus is major.

So the question is not necessarily how can I sustain better focus? But the question becomes, how can I accept fully each moment as it arises? If that moment is one of silence and focus, all the better; if that moment is one of a distracting noise, or a phone call, or an appointment that you do not want to attend, can you allow yourself to be in that moment without getting too caught up in the drama, in the story of it.

Meditation practice helps smooth the edges. Over time, your awareness no longer has huge swings from happiness to sadness, pleasure to pain, anxiety to calm. Over time you learn to maintain a more even keel which actually brings about a state of “satchidananda.” The yogis call this state our true nature. And our birthright as human beings.

Sat = being or existence, the truth of our lives
Chid = conscious awareness, knowing that we exist
Ananda = joy or bliss

As they say, we are not human beings having spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings having human experiences. Like standing on your head, this shift of perspective can turn the world upside down. In a good way.

Go back to Durga Mahashakti.

Go forward to I Feel Good… But Not That Good.

Mantra Wisdom

Snelson Tensegrity sculptureLet’s diverge from Ayurveda for a bit. One of the things I like to do to entertain myself is, after my morning meditation practice, I’ll pick up a book, often a poetry book, and flip to any page and read what is there waiting for me. It’s entertaining because there is always something different to think about.

Today, Mary Oliver was first. When I Wake Early is a great collection of poems about nature and At Black River is a haunting poem about an alligator. “Don’t think/I’m not afraid./There is such an unleashing/of horror.”

I didn’t want to end on that note, so I picked up Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis and flipped randomly to page 141, Pure Mantra-Wisdom, Shuddha-vidyaa. It was quite appropriate because this week in my classes we’ve been embodying the inherent wisdom of the universe. Prana is vital life force and has consciousness, and when we breathe fully and move with the breath, we infuse that consciousness into every cell of our bodies. When muscles are tight, prana cannot flow properly. Do yoga to stretch and open our bodies and we feel better because there is clarity in the channels in which prana flows.

In some of those classes, we’ve been chanting the seed sound, bija mantra, for the heart center, anaahata chakra, YAM. Through the chant, our bodies get vibrated with the sound. Sometimes it is even palpable. Subtle, but real. The mantras carry awareness.

Then this morning I was reminded that the feminine form of the word mantra is vidyaa, wisdom. The idea is that the vibration is the conscious thing. This is the beauty of the Sanskrit language, the letters/sounds/syllables evolve from the actual vibration of the created world. If you chant “yam,” you feel it at the heart (if you are so sensitive). Of course this takes lots of practice and trust at first, but slowly slowly the yogi begins to recognize it for herself. Wallis says that we know this doctrine that mantras are conscious was taken seriously because the texts tell us that “if the guru grants initiation into the Tantra to someone who subsequently falls from the path, then that guru must perform a special ritual to apologize to the mantras for putting them to work needlessly.” (p.141)

LakshmiOm Shrim Mahaalakshmyai Namah — the very vibration “is the Goddess Lakshmi in sound form.” (p.141) The vibration is abundance and beauty, elegance and radiant diversity. At this level of awareness the yogi experiences the diversity of energies that arise from a single source, conscious awareness that abides as the vibrational fluctuation and the ground of being itself.

Yam might be simpler to comprehend since it is directly connected to one’s own body at the heart. It is a great place to begin. Or end. Or abide within.

Don’t think I am not afraid. There is such an unleashing of wonder.

Next up: Yoga Indulgence 2013.
Return to The Depth of Great Taste.

Five Acts of Shiva

Photo by Erik Dunham

…Creation

An unexpected songbird greeted me
On Monday morning as I went out
To meet the day.

Martin Luther King Day, the second
Inauguration of our first black president.
Unexpected in the chill of winter.

Tuesday was colder still
As I watched my students move
Through warming backbends
To shake off the crustiness
Of January.

On Wednesday the wind blew
And outside was even colder.
Our indoor cat wanted out on the porch but
Quickly decided against that.

What will Thursday bring?

…Preservation

Snow.
Thursday brings a light falling of gentle powder
Cold.  Cottony.  Inviting.

Even if it is only a few inches
I am glad to be alive to witness it.
My fullest expression of consciousness
Cannot help but feel hopeful.

In many ways we are a divided people
But underneath the layers of daily activity and confusion
There is a wholeness
A shared experience

That longs to be expressed.

…Destruction

Many things are changing at the end of the Mayan calendar,
Out of Pisces and into
Aquarius.

The sun sets on division
And rises again to meet a new challenge.
Cycles continue but there must be
A letting go.

Let go of the fear of darkness
It is only one way of being.
Your shadow informs your light
And that light is glorious.

But first constriction and barriers
Must. break. down.

…Concealment

I do not know what is hidden,
Cannot know intellectually
But it can be felt.

Daily I practice to sensitize myself
To what lurks in shadow.
The seeds of change hibernate
In darkness

Patiently waiting.  Accepting nourishment
Receiving grace herself
As only the universe can provide.

There are worlds inside,
Planets and stars, moons and space
Not yet awakened by the sunny glow of consciousness

Yet still waiting for that right time.

…Revelation

My body disappears and I become
A constellation.

Seven shining stars in a straight line
My spirit floats in outer space.

The deepest darkness speckled with all manner
Of pinpricks of light.

When my body reappears, as it always does,
I am transformed
Transfixed by the vastness of Self.

My seven stars are surrounded by petals now
The powers of sound, light, heat, water, earth.

Holding me here.  In the wake of history.

Thousands of petals grow and dance out of the top
Of my head
As my teacher looks on.

Four petals blossom and reach out from the base
Of my spine
In my lover’s embrace.

I welcome each one,
Each experience an expression of wholeness.

Playful, joyful, full of sorrow.
Contradictions, yes, but

Rich

With

Life

 

 

Next up: I Should vs. I Am.

Go back to: My Holiday Wish For You

Sadhana

Sadhana is one of the first Sanskrit words that I ever learned.  Practice.

“Tantra Yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice.” – Sri Anandamurti

“Practice and all is coming.” – Sri Patthabi Jois

Last Friday night I completed teaching a six week special course on Meditation for Stress Relief.  One thing I tried to impress is that practice is really the key — set an intention to practice at least 10 minutes a day for the duration of our six week time together.  They say it takes three weeks of repeated practice to create a new habit, and we had six.  Did any students make that goal?  I am not completely sure, but at least the intention was there, the intention to practice was holding the space to actually make it happen.  If not now, some day.

So last week I was all prepared to offer a great meditation on working with difficult emotions, which we did, but not without interruption.  The entire time we sat in the studio at Willow Street Yoga Center in Takoma Park, there was construction going on directly upstairs from us.  This was at 6:15pm on a Friday night, mind you.  It was just little noises at first, but once we were settled in to the actual meditation itself, twice — not once, but twice — some heavy object like a drill or something was dropped. In the midst of (relative) silence, an abrupt, harsh, jarring noise.

When you are so in tune with your breath, you can really feel all the ways in which a loud jarring noise affects you.  Tendrils of sensation immediately fanned out from my ears to my belly to my skin.  My adrenaline kicked up a notch.  I can only imagine what it was like for my students. So, a gentle reminder, we are in a safe place, the ceiling is not going to come crashing down around us, please return to the flow of your breath.  And then the BANG happened again.

It reminded me of a Spiritual Warrior Camp I once attended.  Near Scranton, Pennsylvania, about ten years ago, my suite-mate at the time and I decided to take a week and practice meditation with fellow yogis who wanted to kick up their sadhana experience.  And kick it up we did.  We would wake early, 5am, and meditate.  We practiced meditation five times each day – early morning, before each meal, and before bed.  And in between we hiked and played paint ball (?!? how is this yogic?!?) and hiked more.

This was the one and only time I’ve ever played paintball, and it was not fun.  There were about 20 of us in this course and we divided into two teams.  Our team had strategy, and we even won, if you can call it that, but big purple bruises on my legs were evidence that I did not enjoy it.  Sometimes you’ve gotta do things you just don’t like I guess.

During one particular meditation, the three yogis leading the retreat had us sit out in a field near the ashram and while we were supposed to keep our eyes closed and focus on our mantras, they were running around us with drums and tambourines and little fireworks that you throw on the ground and make a big loud crack when they hit.  Yep, just like trying to meditate while construction is going on directly above you at a yoga studio.

That part of camp was great fun really.  I learned to focus deeper and not be attached to the stuff that doesn’t matter.  I learned to let the stuff that may be jarring just exist without having to react to it.  I learned let the stuff that does not pertain to me, even though it might affect me on some level, take its course without derailing my plans.  It is possible, it just takes practice.

On this path no effort is wasted, no gain is ever reversed; even a little of this practice will shelter you from great sorrow.

Bhagavad Gita 2.40 (Stephen Mitchell translation)

Next up: This Is Why I Do It

Go back to: I Feel Crappy

Full Circle in Floyd

Floyd Yoga Jam at Burnette Farm this past weekend was a rocking good time.

We arrived on Friday with our tiny backpacker tent and camped by a little creek for the weekend.  Some highlights for me:

Aug 31, 2012
Photo by Erik Dunham

Friday night’s Melody of the Moon class in the Buddha Tent with Sierra Hollister that included a healing circle meditation.  It was a slow flow that helped everyone chill out and settle into the rhythm of the weekend.  The blue moon made this experience that much sweeter.

Saturday morning’s dharma talk with Jeff Tiebout.  Turns out, he is a friend of a friend from way back when.  We discussed happiness, movement, ethical living, practice, and cultivating a sense of celebration in your life.  This sense of celebration is a difficult one to maintain, but reminding yourself to live in the present moment and experience this moment for what it is right now is a big first step.  Count your blessings.

Sunday morning’s Bhakti Yoga workshop with Durga Das, aka David Newman, and his wife Mira was incredibly inspiring.  Not only did David include stories about the chanting that we all proceeded to do in both call-and-response fashion and together, but by the end of the workshop, he had inspired so many in the audience to stand up and offer their own expression in the “call” portion of the chant, to the joy and delight of the crowd’s “response.”  Maybe 50 or 60 people were there and many who stood up had never, ever sung a solo in front of a crowd before, but people were so inspired to offer their own energy to the experience, they couldn’t help it.  David masterfully made all of the singers feel so comfortable with their own expression.  Some people obviously have had some sort of vocal training or at least practice, and others could not keep a beat or sing in key… and it was all just amazing and beautiful and fun.  Each voice was a unique flavor in the musical soup.  Every heart present melted and opened.

Okay, so I will not forget about the music.  Bryan Elijah Smith and the Wildhearts are one of my new faves of this summer.  These guys are young and fresh and original sounding.  Funktion is another band I can highly recommend.  They are totally danceable… and hula hoop-able!  Trevor Hall rocked the house on Saturday night.  And of course David Newman and his kirtan band shared the love in a way that only they can conjure.

Yoga and music.  Together.  I cannot think of anything better.

All tricked out!

Well, except for leading a fun meditation on the energy of Ganesha on Sunday morning in the Buddha Tent.  I was so happy that people actually showed up for an early morning meditation after jamming into the wee hours the night before.  We played with the mantra Om Gam Ganapataye Namah.  This bija mantra of Ganesha is the seed that contains the fullest potential of the energy of the elephant deity himself.  “Bija” means “seed” and Ganesha, as with any mythological figure, represents some aspect of our own awareness.  In this case, Ganesha is the one who sits in a threshold.  He is the remover of obstacles because he is the obstacle.  In case you hadn’t noticed, elephants are big.  When he sits at a threshold in your own path, he is inviting you to a deeper conversation with yourself.  It is not helpful to ignore him or deny that he exists or even that the doorway exists.  He wants you to engage with him in order to help you move through that gateway to some greater experience in your own life.  It is not always happy — most obstacles in life tend to be a real pain (to state the obvious, yes) — but the engagement, the working with rather than resisting whatever challenge you face is the path to transforming that challenge into something that supports you and your life.

I first learned meditation while in school at Virginia Tech.  It was so great to return to southwest Virginia to actually teach meditation.  Here’s to many more years and good times to come at Floyd Yoga Jam.  Special thanks to the organizers, Shirleyann Burgess and Laura Polant for doing such an excellent job in organizing all the events and making sure that they ran smoothly.  And Laura’s dog Cody!

Om Gam Ganapataye Namah

Return to Hot, Clear Water.

Next up: Ayurvedic Comfort Food

Eyes Open Meditation, Part V

By mid-morning, we had returned to the temple grounds for the culminating event of the festival, darshan. Shiva Nataraja was waiting in the Raja Sabha, and even though we arrived early for this ritual, there were many already assembled there. It was clear that it would be difficult to get up close to Nataraja without pushing. We gathered with the dikshitar families in front of the homa platform to progress as a group into the courtyard and then the King’s Hall, hopeful to get up close to Nataraja in all of his grandeur after the morning bath. We paraded through the crowds with our guides acting as bodyguards to keep us somewhat together and to get up close. The nearer we came to the hall, the more difficult it became. We made it to the doors, and even through them, but it was a total mosh pit. There were big people and little people, everyone sweating in the south Indian summer heat, I had to hold tight to my pallu or else my sari, one single, extremely long wrap of silk, could be pulled off even. The largest of the sweaty Indian men would laugh as they lurched from side to side, directing the flow of humanity, generating new waves of motion just to stir up the energy in the room. It was tight in there, and Indian children would sometimes cry when they got squished between bodies. At one point an elderly woman was next to me and we exchanged a look of resigned amusement, knowing that we could not move forward or back, and so we just settled into the space we were holding. Turns out, the elderly woman was Vasu’s mother and he was very worried for her being stuck in the crowd and perhaps a bit fragile. So within moments Vasu had navigated the thick crowd and plucked her out from the center into the safety of the sidelines. How he was able to move himself and her out of the crowd is still mind-boggling to me. I was stuck in the middle of bodies of all shapes and sizes, knowing I couldn’t go anywhere, doing my best to blend in to the current.

When the curtains were finally drawn and Nataraja was visible, wave upon wave of emotion passed over the crowd, people whooped and swooned. There was nothing else to do but soak it up, and hold on to my sari. Since I could not see very well at the middle of the mosh pit Raja Sabha surrounded by taller people, I settled again into the space I was occupying and just moved with the current for still longer. Darshan lasted quite a while it seemed, and then when the curtains were drawn, the crowd energy was palpably saddened. The dikshitars yelled to create a pathway down the center for the procession to move back through the courtyard to the Inner Sanctum. It was time for Nataraja to go home.

Miraculously the crowds parted down the center of the hall and I, along with some dikshitars’ families in front of me and my intrepid group behind, were pushed into the parting to lead the procession back to the Inner Sanctum. I held my pallu tight, kept my head low, and followed the ones in front of me. I didn’t want to get lost or lose my place in the procession either. We walked down the long courtyard and back into the main temple grounds to the 1000 Pillared Hall. At some point in the 1000 Pillared Hall it occurred to me that there was no way I would actually get lost because by now I knew my way around the temple, and even the town, and so I should stop worrying and actually look up and enjoy the procession. There wasn’t even a need to maintain my place in the procession really, so I should just relax. This thought went through my head and I immediately looked up and gazed around.

The carved faces on the columns blended with the faces of the crowds which covered every square centimeter of space inside the hall. All of the colors of eyes and clothing and skin and hair were moving together. Singing together. At once, each of those faces became the cells of one body, my body. We were one huge organism breathing as one. Swaying and dancing and loving as one. Each individual was a unique awareness that had chosen to be here at this moment to experience This Moment. And it was complete harmony. Complete balance as the currents of human culture and excitement pulsed through our veins and our hearts together. All of the external movement supported a greater internal truth. Eyes closed or eyes wide open, we were one giant being together, supporting each other, loving each other, by the grace of Nataraja. A kula in the highest sense of the word.
The bells of the temple began to ring. Nataraja returned to his resting place, and Shivakamasundari to hers. All was in order, ready to rest and then begin anew.

2011 is not over yet. There is still time to learn to ride the ocean waves. But for now, I am content riding the waves of grace.

Go back to Part IV.

 

Next: I Dream of Water

Eyes Open Meditation, Part IV

The morning of the tenth day of the festival began at 1:30am. My roommate at the hotel and I had missed the wake-up call to be at the temple, and we had to rush to get dressed to be there in time. If you did not grow up dressing yourself in a sari, it is impossible to do it by yourself, it takes a community effort for sure. On this morning, we had our saris on in seven minutes, record-time if you ask me.

We had to be awake so early in order to get a space up front for the final abhiseka ceremony. This one was for Shiva and Shivakumasundari together, the grand bathing that leads up to darshan, a viewing of Nataraja, and the culmination of the festival.

When we arrived at the temple, Vasu led us around the side of the open air courtyard in front of the Raja Sabha, the king’s hall. Some dikshitars were chanting the Vedas as a fire ceremony was taking place. With the estimated three-quarters of a million people attending the festival, and most of them already at the temple so early, it was a little difficult to find a space for our whole group plus the families of the attending dikshitars. There was some confusion when we were trying to squeeze into a space that got smaller and smaller as the crowds gathered behind us. Some of our group were right in front of the long tables where Shiva and Shivakamasundari stood, I ended up to Shiva’s right with others of our group, perfectly behind a large column that was blocking our view. But, we had to count our blessings because we were still within a few meters of all of the activity rather than out in the courtyard where you would need binoculars and x-ray vision to actually see.

The deities’ jewels and finery had been removed and they were in simple bathing robes. The dikshitars had formed a make-shift fire line to pass the different substances in which they would be bathing from the supply area to their perch. Kripakaram stood on the table with Shiva and his consort as other dikshitars began passing buckets of rose water to the front to pour over their heads, an offering of love and sweet smells and beauty. They were completely doused with each substance and then rinsed clean with clear water before the next substance was applied. I tried to get a good vantage point as the ceremony began, but it was difficult due to the massive amounts of people crowded into the small space and that big pillar, so I chose to sit down behind the pillar where there was more space and some fresh air. I sat in lotus posture and closed my eyes, attempting to visualize what was going on before me in my mind’s eye. I’m sure with my eyes closed I was not getting every detail of the ritual, but my imagination was pretty vivid that morning, I could see clearly the joyous abandon that was directing the dikshitars in their work. I could feel the rhythmic waves of consciousness directing the energy of the place, and I was immersed in that flow of infinite awareness that had coalesced as physicality, sensuality, in Chidambaram on that morning. And the chanting of the Vedas was as resonant throughout the entire temple grounds as they were thick in my ears and head and body.

After soaking up this internal reflection of the outer experience for some time, I really wanted to actually see what was happening, so I opened my eyes and tried to squeeze in to the crowd to watch. I was just in time for the honey bath. The golden, sticky liquid formed a thick coating around the gold of the murtis, glistening in the light of the temple. Shiva and Shivakamasundari were radiant. The honey clung to their forms in a rich, viscous, sensuous embrace. Their golden faces gleamed as their half open eyes gazed out among the crowds.

As the round of honey came to a close, the deities were rinsed clean with water and the next round began. So many substances in buckets were passed hand to hand and poured over their heads, hour after hour. Finally, just before dawn, Kripakaram began the last round of abhiseka, flower petals. Buckets and more buckets of fuschia and white flower petals, with tiny green leaves mixed in for the beauty of it. Bucket after bucket was emptied over their heads, and one dikshitar kept patting down the pile so that we could continue to see their faces. It was not impossible to think that Shiva and Shivakamasundari were totally smiling back at the crowds from underneath all of those delicate petals. All of that attention, all of that love was directed at the masters of the universe, here at the center of the universe; consciousness was sucked in to the heart of the celebration.

When all of the white and pink petals had been poured, when the Vedas had been chanted, the ceremony drew to a close. Dikshitars and local police pulled the curtains around the tables on the main stage and a fence was closed to the other side of us. Many in the crowd rushed the chain-link fence and tried to reach their hands through, to grab a few of the petals made in offering to the gods. I was in between the curtain and the gate, with easy access to petals and hands, so I helped make that connection in a sweet gesture of loving offering that was definitely prompted from a grace beyond my own self.

The sun was just beginning to rise over the temple walls, the tide of love and energetic excitement was receding momentarily, and it was time for chai.

Go to Part V.

Go back to Part III.

 

Eyes Open Meditation, Part III

Later that day when the parade began, the streets surrounding the temple had become the temple itself. Shiva Nataraja was at large in the outside world, with Shivakamasundari following closely behind him. The dikshitars had carried the large murtis up five flights of stairs in an outdoor loading dock built specifically for the purpose of loading the deities onto the carts that would carry them through the town. The carts were a beautiful sculpture of wood and stone; they were about six stories high, with god and goddess on the top floor. The wheels were taller than I, and the whole thing was decorated in tapestries and fine cloth. Of course Shiva and company were decked out in their finest bling as well.

There were long, thick ropes, as thick as the palanquin logs, that were used to pull the carts through the streets. And since the streets had become the temple, many people were not wearing shoes. Massive amounts of humans were laughing and pulling and stepping on each others toes to provide seva, service to Shiva, by carrying him through the town. You could not not laugh at the entire spectacle. Who would think to celebrate in such a way? Women were drawing beautifulmandalas in the streets with rice flour as a sort of red carpet for these statues. And all just to honor Consciousness, life, the full spectrum of being. The culture of south India is all about ananda, bliss, on this day.

As the hours passed, the throngs of people in the streets got bigger, more crowded. Everywhere we went, the westerners in saris and lungis were a definite attraction. Indian people have perfected the stare, but it always felt very benevolent, loving even, as though they were proud to share their culture. We took turns pulling the carts and walking beside them and sometimes our group stayed together and sometimes we broke up into smaller groups. You had to really pay attention to stick together in the large bustling crowds. At one point in the afternoon I decided that I just wanted to be immersed in the joy of the crowd on my own, so I let my friends in front of me get further ahead until I was absorbed in laughing, dark brown skin. The mass of humanity was like a current of consciousness moving through the streets, with others on the sides shoring up the banks of the river. I settled into a space on a bank in order to watch the immense carts travel by. Indian ladies and children near me smiled and laughed and asked if I was enjoying myself. A bull was walking through the center of the street against the tide. Nobody was about to stop him.

After a short while, a friend from our group appeared a few metres away in the crowd. “Are you alone?” she mouthed. “We’re going this way.” And she pointed behind the street to an alley where we could catch up with the others and take our place at the loading dock to watch Shiva and Shivakamasundari disembark after a long days’ journey. We raced through the alleyway, over motorcycles and gullies, around little children, being careful not to step in cow dung, and finally climbed the same five flights of stairs on which the dikshitars had carried the heavy palanquins earlier that day and a lifetime ago. I was so thankful to have a seat after all that time.

Sitting there, I was not prepared for the wave of emotion to overtake me when the two main carts rounded a corner in the distance and began inching closer. There was a fine haze in the air, as there often is in dusty, hot south India in the late afternoon. Through the haze the immense carts looked so regal and I began to feel a distinct connection to every other festival in Chidambaram that had taken place just so. Historians date these celebrations to approximately 1000 C.E., and I began wondering, how many lifetimes had I spent in that very spot? It was eerie and deeply calming at the same time. The colorful carts, the drummers, dancers, and horn players, the street vendors selling sweets, the women drawing decorations in the streets, the men, women, and children who were so animated and joyous to participate, all swirled into one massive wave of humanity that reflected the ananda that is our true nature.

I thought of my teachers, past and present, I thought of my family and friends, I thought of my experiences, all of which have supported me and led me up to that very day, that very moment. The joy and love all around me was inside me and I could not contain it as tears came to my opened eyes.

Go to Part IV.

Go back to Part II.

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