Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Crude Karma

farm May 2010 005

Karma is a flexible word, yogic in its ability to twist into different meanings. People use it when something dramatic happens, to indicate luck, fate, destiny, justice, punishment or reward. None of those are quite right. Trying to understand karma through events is useful, but crude.

I don’t mean crude in a crass sense, but rather visceral, material, something in the visible world. Traditionally, karma refers to patterns of existence under the surface, the ebb and flow of the universe, a tide we affect as much as we are affected by it. It is as much what doesn’t happen, as what does. Crude, we can see. It floats on the surface of things; it can reveal some of what’s in the depths. Analyzing crude karma –what events mean-- can be illuminating, because it is based on things we can see. Events are the invisible process—the things we’re so used to we don’t see them anymore—made visible. Events can help us see, but we have to be careful to keep our vision clear and honest. The most significant lessons are the ones we don’t want to learn.

Every time there is a disaster, some Hindu somewhere says: It was their karma. This drives me crazy. Nobody needs to hear that after experiencing trauma. The way karma is commonly understood, this implies that suffering was deserved.  “Deserving” is another flexible word, implying either entitlement or punishment. Karma is morally neutral. It is not judgment and it is not license to judge others. No one is the authorized agent of karma: you can’t go around smacking people upside the head and then smugly proclaiming it must have been their karma. Bad manners and exploitation have no spiritual justification. The application of any ideal must stand up to common sense and common decency. We are each responsible for our actions.

Karma is the consequence of action. I could insert some poetic quotes from the Bhagavad-Gita, but I’ll spare you. The Gita is a wonderful, wise book, but we don’t need to look to the ancient world for battlefield examples; we are struggling through our own epics right now. We live in a time of dramatic, large-scale events. Now we have to make sense of them.

But understanding is a subtle, slippery thing. Trying to draw a direct correlation of one event to another is tricky. We want to ask: why is this happening? (or, why does this keep happening?) and come up with an answer. But understanding is not an event or intellectual exercise; it is a process. We live it.

Karma is not fatalistic; it is the opposite: the measure of how  our actions on the Universe affects us in return. However, it can appear fatalistic, because once set in motion, certain things must play out. If you drink water, you feel nice and hydrated, but at some point, you will have to pee. That’s an obvious (and crude) example, but a good one. When you’re a little kid, the need to pee is an event that just seems to happen, totally disconnected from anything going on at the time: one minute you’re building a tower, then suddenly….It can be pretty traumatic. I’m sure toddlers wonder: why is this happening to me? As you get older, you figure out that it’s not this mysterious thing. It’s not a punishment, reward, fate, justice, luck or destiny, but it didn’t just randomly occur either. To adults, it may be inconvenient or a relief (or both), but it’s not good or bad. You don’t feel guilty or proud of it. It’s just life in motion. You drink, you pee. You buy, you pay. That, crudely, is karma.

You can learn, and change, and next time the outcome can be some extent. You will always have to pee, but it stops being an event. The drama that gives it an emotional or moral component is gone. You know it’s going to happen, and you learn to be competent. This might seem like a facetious example, but it’s not intended to be silly. It’s amazing, the things we struggle to come to terms with, then absorb, and then barely think of again. So much of what drives our lives has become invisible to us.

Life is driven by choice; according to Hindu belief, to be born (or not) is a choice: you return to life again and again not just because of “karma” to fulfill, but because life is fun; or, some say, we amass karma because we want to stay connected to life; as if life is someone you like but are too shy to ask out, so you leave your sunglasses at their house for an excuse to return. Karma does not have to be a burden. It’s frequently compared to payment, or debt: I think this is apt but misleading, because we have considerable emotional and cultural baggage about debt. No-one really likes the idea of being in debt: we’d all like to own our lives free and clear. But—debt is often what lets us have our cozy homes, our convenient cars, our work wardrobes, vacations, and so on. Incurring debt is often a lot of fun. The money you owe (or earn) does not express the joy and sorrow it helped you experience. Your home is far more to you than the value of your house. Debt can get out of hand, but it can be enriching, too. The process of living is a constant series of exchanges. 

In Hindu thought, Leela, the game board, is symbolic of the world we live in: a game with some rules, but we’re free to play, and it’s no fun to play alone! In Vodou, Ayizan is the spirit of both initiation and the marketplace. While these things seem unconnected, they are intertwined.  The marketplace is also Leela, the world. To initiate is to be in the world; to be in the world is to take part in the entertaining interactions and exchanges of life. You do this through your choices, which in turn become become part of the flow of energy. You may not be attentive to them, but your actions do not just disappear into nowhere when you’re done with them. There are other players on the board, and the marketplace effects everyone.

The idea of Karma unites us: what you do affects me, and vice versa. One person’s action ripples to effect many. There is no question of being deserving or undeserving. We’re all in this together. We all shop in the same market, we all swim in the same Waters. We all thirst. 

This sense of connection makes it appealing, and easy, to lay the blame for things that cause us pain on someone else’s doorstep, someone else’s actions. It’s tempting to blame our Mom, the Universe, God, the Government, Corporations, for letting us down, leading us astray, failing to protect us, or generally screwing us up (or over). But there is no “Government” or “Universe” that is above and beyond us, all powerful and all knowing. Our mom is a lady who did her best; our Government is elected and held accountable by us; our friends, relatives and neighbors work for Corporations from which we buy goods that we want to remain affordable, so we can do what we need to do, and enjoy life along the way.

There is no “them.” We are the Corporations and the Government. We are moms and dads. We are the Universe. This is our world, our joy, our mess.

Our actions are choices. I choose something, not necessarily something dramatic and moral, but an everyday thing, an inevitable thing: I’m thirsty. Everybody has to drink, right? So I’m thirsty. Right now. Excuse me.

Ah, that’s better. My lovely niece stopped by to do some yard work, and brought me an iced coffee from Caribou. Life is made up of such pleasant everyday moments, soon forgotten and usually unremarked upon. But, not noticing something does not mean it is unimportant. So much of what drives our lives is invisible. The most significant lessons are the hardest to learn.

Here are some consequences to my choice of drink: I’m not thirsty any more. I feel happy. I owe my niece four dollars. Later I will have to pee. I’m sensitive to caffeine so I’m going to fly through the day, get a huge amount of work done, and probably not sleep much tonight. If I’m up at 4am, that’s an obvious, a crude, consequence of my beverage. But the ripples spread further, wider: events rise out of process. I might not be the only one losing sleep because of my choices. Buying my coffee from Caribou in a plastic cup supports local jobs, as well as the larger coffee, transportation and petroleum industries.

Embedded in our everyday choices are a whole host of  consequences. Choices direct life. Karma is life in action. Now watch what happens. See the ripples spread.  When we’re all choosing the same thing, all acting the same way, those ripples coalesce into an a wave, a flood, an event that unbalances the world. The game board tips: we all go tumbling. Why does this keep happening?

This is crude karma. It is not done by “them” to “us.” It is not justice, or judgment. It is not luck, fate, destiny, reward or punishment. Although some people may bear the brunt of the suffering, they do not deserve it. We do not have to feel guilty or proud, but if we really want to understand, we have to live a process that can lead to a different outcome.

Our thirst leads us to all manner of tasty delights, but there is a consequence to reckon with, here in the material world. Actions continue far beyond our intent. Eventually the tide brings everything back to our own precious shores.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Svaha~I make this offering

*Here is another one from the archives, circa 2000.

I am not this, consumed by flame; I am not that, washed in water;
I am not that which drew air, nor am I that which walked upon the earth.
I am the earth, I am the air and I am the water.
I am the fire.
All that which is impermanent, I leave behind.
Svaha svaha, svaha, it is no more mine.

My father is dead. I watched it happen, as he performed his own funeral service on the banks of the Ganges. I have heard that Sanskrit phrase, svaha, it is no more mine, over and over again, my entire life. It is said with every offering given on the altar, into a consecrated fire or sacred river. In my family, it is said with humor and resignation, over opportunities or items lost. Our mental shrug, Oh, well, its gone.

That ceremony transformed my father, my Tata, into something else: a Swami, beyond definitions of family, gender, religion. He began a journey away from of me and mine, and sought a life of service. Swamis were not a mystery to me; I grew up with Baba, a guru who initiated me into our tradition when I was six years old. I felt lucky, even as a kid, to know him. He made a family of everyone who needed one. He made the world magical.

When I was nineteen, my dad, struggling with diabetes and a heart condition, was given a last chance by the doctors: a triple by-pass. This was back in the days when heart surgery was a thing of fear and miracles. In the voice that lulled me to sleep as a child with countless guided relaxations (oh, how I relished being able to make him yell when I was a teenager!) he told me that his life was coming to an end, one way or another. He wished to survive, but if he did, it would not be as it was. It was time. He would begin the process of transition towards Swamihood. My mother would care for him after surgery. They would live together as brother and sister for a time. They would part eventually, husband and wife no longer. Not divorce, he stressed, as though I didn’t know. He would renounce his former life, his family. Our father was leaving us for God.

It seemed natural that this was happening. When he said that he would need his children’s formal blessing, I was startled, as if he was asking our permission to stay out late. I must have talked about it with my siblings, my friends, but I have no recollection. I don’t remember feeling rejected or abandoned. It was actually kind of exciting, as if he had won The Nobel Prize or something. Tata was ours, but never only ours. We always shared him with so much, his books, his disciples and his mission. Much was shared with us in return.

Watching him chant his own funeral prayers was another thing. His familiar voice rising and falling, rising and falling as he sang the ancient hymns. I remember sitting in the mild mountain sun, catching my brother’s eye, and thinking, our father is dying.

I am grateful for the Swami who rose from that pyre, although it took awhile to sort things out. What do I call him? (settled on “Tata Swami”) How do I introduce myself? I can’t say “I’m his daughter” anymore, can I? Or can I? There were a few awkward years where no-one was sure how to behave, what was acceptable. This was new territory for all of us. I avoided him.

My relationship with Swami Veda is very different now, but that’s to be expected, I’m not a teenager anymore. I got over my joy of being able to make him raise his voice. Instead I have found pride, solace and inspiration in watching him become. My father had always been a teacher, but a Swami is something more. And he has become more to me than a father. I look forward to the few times a year that I see him, long nights when we sit up and talk. We have an ongoing debate: Are things as they always have been or does the world really change? We argue but also laugh a lot. He still loves to tell jokes, most of them based on awful and elaborate multi-lingual puns. Through Swami Veda, I have finally gotten to know my dad.

No matter what paths I walk, they are extensions of an ancient tradition. I believe the teachings of the mountain sages, teachings repeated in the Bible, Koran, Torah. Teachings spoken by priests and shamans and druids, wisdom based on experience of living: Know thyself. Let go of what limits you. Respect others. Swami Veda has brought that to countless people. He has acquired the weighty title of Maha-mandalashvar, a Swami among Swamis. He has been responsible for bringing the leaders of Buddhism and Hinduism together for the first time in twenty-three centuries, to be the first ambassador of Hinduism in China in I don’t know how long. I may only see him a few times a year, but when I am really in trouble, it’s his phone that rings in the night, where ever he is. When I sit down to meditate, it is his voice in my head…relaaax your shoulders…breathe deeply, slooowly, smoooothly. The echo of the father I let go.

I don’t think it will be so easy to let Swami Veda go, which is ironic.

Not today or tomorrow, not in the next six months, but, holy or not, he is going to die, to make that final life change. I have seen it, under the mountain sun. This time, I am afraid. When Baba died, I knew there was no-one who could replace him; but we had Swami Veda. I had Swami Veda. When he is gone, who is left? Who will be there for me?

And I find when I ask that question, I have trouble meeting my own eyes; for who is left is looking back at me. You skirt around it in your own way; for me it comes down, bluntly, to selfishness. I want mine, my life, my choices, my freedom. I wanted my father. I want the illusion of owning my life…even if I know it’s an illusion. But I am a child of our tradition; I am my father’s daughter. The voice in my head has become my own.

There is no “one” who will take over, who will be Our Father. Who will be mine.

It is exhausting to fight your own truth; I imagine it must be a great relief to finally, totally, just be yourself. I understand why traditions of self-knowledge are not so popular. Revelation can be very disruptive. Compassion is hard work. Surrender takes some getting used to. Our voices are useless if we don’t share them.

I grow tired of the bondage of mine. I know I am not this that walks, breathes, which someday will be washed and burned. I hope that I will have the strength to look at this life I have hoarded so selfishly and be able to someday say, with relief, svaha, it is no more mine. And then live it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Looking Down at Clouds

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The world is encompassed in oval glass. The engine roars to keep you aloft; it should be deafening, but the enormity of where you are, how fast you’re going, how you stay here, is nothing more than a background hum.

Clouds scoot along a level scrim of sky, imperceptibly contracting, expanding, disappearing. You feel you could reach out and pop one into your mouth. Beneath that, the world stretches and rolls out a map of itself. These are the Great Plains. Vast marbled sweeps of floodplain and cleared fields are chocolate brown and fudgy black, luscious and rich enough to eat. Scattered forests look bushy; they curl darkly in on themselves. Rivers slide and muscle through the land. They are never blue.

Occasional cities clot and sprawl. Gleaming downtowns are bar graph topography at the center of large grid-plains of streets. Ringing this, you see lobed arrays of roads, trees and houses arranged in orderly arabesques, everything in agreement. Cars are sparkles of light, Morse code flashes against the dark flow of road. But these cities are not what cover the land. Most of what you see is farm. Tangram fields are puzzled together: straight edged and serious. Silos rise and flash beside arrangements of angular buildings: bright as a polished blade, tidy as a place setting.

Where is the wilderness? You’re surprised at how much land is strapped and planed and boxed up, neatly. Knife-edged. The sky remains the horizon.