Friday, January 22, 2010

eschatological signs

"Exceptional people abandon all
to follow the truth they have seen
that is now for them the one thing that matters."
(Sri Aurobindo)

Friday morning, 22 january, 2010

I don't know why I never noticed before that there were so many Muslims here in Tiruvanamalai, but this time I've seen so many guys walking around wearing kufis on their heads (not sure if they are called that here in India...). Our driver to Chennai proudly told us his name was Basha, "a good Muslim name!" It's Friday morning here and above the normal din of temples playing their music over loudspeakers and the traffic rumbling by on the main street, this morning there is also the sound of the muezzins calling people to worship on this the day when all are called to the mosque. Basha told me that there are ten "masjids" here in Tiruvanamalai.

Speaking of Islam, I think that the two Islamic songs got the best reception at the concert last night, my regular outdoor concert at the Arunai Ananda Hotel sponsored by JP and Quo Vadis. "Bismillah" was, as usual, a big hit with the folks. But also I've found a way to deliver "The Drink Sent Down" solo in a way that it really works too. I do them in that order. (If anyone cares, I've thrown the capo on the second fret for both of those songs, so they are actually now in C#m where my voice is a little stronger.) I'm very pleased with the set of music I've put together for the concerts ahead (MC echoed that too, that this is a very strong concert). The first time I did the concert here in Tiru was the time the high E string on my guitar broke something like four times before the peformance and I was tying the last broken string back on to the end pin minutes before the concert with the help of a pair of finger nail clippers. It amazingly lasted throughout that concert and for a week more. This time I was prepared for the worst but all went smoothly. I've brought the old Taylor along for this trip in the soft gig bag wrapped in my orange shawl for extra protection (Leonard will not be pleased; it got damaged by Singapore Airlines in 2008 and he ordered me never to travel with a soft case again, but I really wanted to bring this guitar and not carry a big case, so... so far so good.) Heng Sure loved it when I said this before: this guitar really loves India. It just sings. Even last night with not such a good sound system or microphones, the guitar sounded great, the bass notes really deep and the high strings not too thin. A good number of people came but oddly enough a whole bunch of them left toward the end all at about the same time, mostly sitting to my left. Perhaps they were all from the same group and had another event to attend, I don't know. But I was in the middle of "Vedahametam," had just exectued that long solo section rather well, I must say, and was heading into the "Tvameva Mata" verse when someone else stood up and left--right in the middle of the song, right in front of me! I allowed myself to lose my concentration and I dropped the third line of this song that I have sung now hundreds of times. I've been a lot more circumspect about my Sanskrit pronunciation since Bettina and Fr George and Vinaya at Shantivanam, (and with the head priest of the temple sitting in the audience), but that song I'm pretty much down on, so that was embarrassing. But that was the worst thing I did all night and all in all it was a very nice evening.

The trip to Chennai for Theophy's wedding was interesting. I do try to stay close to the ground when I am in India and avoid some of the comforts that we Westerners can afford, but it's not always easy when my hosts want to afford me luxuries that they think I might be used to or need. Originally I was going to take a bus into Chennai for the wedding on my own. But then it seemed as if a whole group of us was going to go from Quo Vadis, stay the night and pick up Agnete at the airport arriving from Myanmar on the way. But then it turned out (this is how things go in India) that only I was going to the wedding but a young woman named Pivey from Finland who is working with JP wanted to go to Chennai to buy a new camera, so JP had hired a car for us for the day, with our own driver. (That was Basha, mentioned above, a very nice attentive man, a friend of JP.) That felt a little extravagant, but I just rolled along with it and was grateful for the comfort and speed. But then when we got to Chennai, Basha dropped us off for lunch at a restaurant that someone had recommended to Pivey, specifically telling her that I would like it. I don't know why she thought that; I was actually horrifed by the place. It was like a five star hotel with all Western food, table cloths and cloth napkins, and it costs about five times more than I normally pay for any meal in India.

It's interesting to watch my own reactions to these kinds of things. I have to let go of the image of myself that I want to project and protect, and I so don't want to be "seen" as just another tourist skimming over the surface of India but really surrounding myself with a cloud of comfort out of which I can watch everything as if I were driving through a wildlife preserve in an air conditioned bus. And I don't want to "be" that either, but I think I am as much bothered by the perception as by the reality. Staying here at Ramana Ashram, simple but comfortable, we are surrounded by sadhus who really live by grace and begging, men (it is rare to non-existent to find a female wanderer here) who live with absolutely no possessions outside of what they can carry in a little bag, some who consciously get rid of their money as soon as they get it, and want to live naked and poor. I know that not everyone is called to that--even Jesus didn't ask that of all his followers, only of his close disciples going on mission--but I understand more and more what a sign that is, what we refer to in Roman Catholicism as an "eschatological sign," a sign of the end of things and the fullness of things. That's what the renunciate is doing--pointing to the end of things when there will be no possessions, no partnering, no homes, when we need to cast off, let go of everything--even "attachments to dear ones and aversions to others" as my favorite Tibetan metta prayer goes--in order to be able to squeeze through the narrow gate of eternity which is the source and summit of our life.

It's interesting to read Aurobindo on this subject. I have found a number of times passages in which he gently critiques what he calls the "exaggeration of the impulse at renunciation" which he says caused the whole system of the four "ashrams"--stages of life to collapse. He says we always tend toward that in spiritual traditions: "If we regard escape from life as our desirable end, ... if life has not a divine significance to it, the impatient human intellect and will must end by driving at a short cut and getting rid as much as possible of any more tedious and dilatory processes." The problem though it that life can then get falsely "split into the spiritual and the mundane and there can only be an abrupt transition, not a harmony or reconciliation" of the diverse parts of our nature. And of course what he is always aiming at is integral Yoga, specifically this harmony and reconciliation of all of the aspects of our being, spirit, soul and body. Still in all, we cannot do without the eschatological sign toward which outward poverty points, "our ultimate aim and destiny," "our spiritual longing for the Beyond," "an ultimate release from an ignorant mundane existence."

I think often of my first yoga teacher's admonition to us in asana: "find that edge between your minimum and your maximum." When I go to a Yoga class I often realize that my asana practice has gotten a little lazy, that I haven't pushed that maximum very much, and others around me inspire and challenge me. India too inspires and challenges that maximum in me in so many ways, to give a little more to the spiritual life, to my meditation, to the simplicity of my life, to my devotional practices.

It's this mountain, too, Arunachala. It roots out the ego of those who meditate on it in their hearts.

(afternoon) A few of us who still remained had a simple Eucharist in the flat of a German woman named Heike who lives near Quo Vadis with Marcus, a new friend from Brazil, and two other women from I'm-not-sure-where, with Fr. Augustine from Shantivanam presiding, who is here visiting and staying with this same Heike. But now the last of the other participants of the centenary are gone. I saw Vinaya off just before lunch with a few last words of wisdom about Samkhya philosophy, sannyasa and the Bhagavad Gita, and a hearty hug and kiss; Joseph seems to have been swallowed back up by the road. Even JP and Agnete are going to be gone for the weekend, off with their staff to give a retreat in the mountains. (They would have liked me to go with them but also offered that I could stay here until they return and we all go to Madurai next week for three days. They didn't seem too disappointed that I chose that instead.) I've gotten to that point already here at Ramana Ashram that I get to every time I'm here, when I start longing for the quiet and simplicity of my own rhythm and routine, not even wanting to go to the eating hall or the public spaces but staying here in the back where things are much quieter and it feels almost like a monastery, and I can slip in and out of the back gate to climb the mountain path. MC has arranged for us to celebrate Eucharist at Quo Vadis on Sunday morning again but other than that I now have three days with not much to do but stare at Arunachala outside of my window, hide in its crags with the coneys, and let everything that has gone in these past three intense weeks settle in.