The Elephant in the Room

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20131107 was a Thursday. I don’t write about these things very often, but I had an experience during that evening’s puja and when I shared tidbits about it with a friend, I received encouragement that this end up bloggered. So here you have it… To be clear, my daily pujas are REALLY simple. Short and sweet. I think the most the whole ordeal only ever really takes is something around 15-20 minutes. On particularly “holy” days, I do a bit more in terms of worship.

Last night was only different from any normal week night puja in that my home mandir has been newly decorated with some white Xmas lights. I’ve done this before and really enjoy the warm, glowing effect it has on the entire temple room. But that’s not entirely true about last night’s puja only being different because of Xmas lights. Last night was also different because “something” happened. When I mentioned this to my friend, I think I put it in terms of a “visitation” but the closer reality is likely that it was more of a “clarification.”

My home mandir currently

My home mandir currently

I’m sitting before the mandir like always, doing the ritual like always. I recall a certain point in the process when I almost suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. My immediate perception was that Shri Ganesh-ji had “arrived” and was in the room with me. Mind you, the beginning of every puja involves an invocation, so technically He’s always present during puja. I call to Him. He arrives. And I worship. This time however, the air in the room felt like it was more occupied than usual.

Toward the end of the puja I spend time in contemplation, dhyana, japa. It was at this time that I felt particularly aware of the room and everything happening in it. The glow from the mandir was pleasant. The asana I had wrapped myself in was hugging. The incense, a recent Diwali gift from my bahin in Atlanta, smelled great. For a very short time I seemed to feel the vibrations from the shlokas and other things intoned during the puja – as if they were reverberating throughout the room still. Then suddenly, and very sweetly, I realized that I wasn’t alone in the room. My first thought was something like, “Whoa-shit! Ganesha’s here big time!” The only form of Ganesha that I actually saw was the Vira-Ganesh murti in my mandir, but I really felt another, far-fuller, Presence.

Some readers are likely entertaining thoughts like, “This kind of stuff is all in his head.” And, I believe, that is the truth. Now, before anyone gets all huffy and puffy on me, let me say that I’m not implying that Ganesh is imaginary. What I intend to say instead is that Ganesh and I are essentially non-different and what I really, truly, and actually felt then was my Self.

I recall Shri Eckhart Tolle telling of a time when he was at his lowest and had grown suicidal. One of the last thoughts he recalls from the moments before he planned to go through with the act was “I cannot live with myself.” Strangely, right then, it dawned on him that there were two entities in that thought. There was first the “myself” that couldn’t be lived with and then there was also the “I” that seemed to be speaking and could no longer tolerate an existence with the “myself.” He questioned right then who was the “I” that couldn’t live with his “myself.” It was then that he realized that there is a component of who he is that isn’t touched by the misery of the “myself” and had grown weary of experiencing that misery.

Some would maybe say that this sounds a little like a schizophrenic break, but the reality is: We are not our mind.

The mind is an immensely powerful thing. And the ego, necessary for functioning in this life, maintains an incredibly close relationship with the mind. One of the results of this relationship is that we begin identifying with our thoughts and consequently believe that we are our mind – or that our thoughts reflect our truest selves. It’s not true.

There’s a saying, which this post is titled after, that mentions “the elephant in the room” and references something not spoken about, but potentially quite obvious. The elephant felt to be in the room with me during the final moments of last night’s puja is That. This elephant could well be called Ganesha. It would just as well be called my Self – the timeless spark of God that lives in each of us. The “I” that lives with “myself.” It’s very much like “the elephant in the room” because it’s not spoken of hardly ever, yet it’s all that there really is. I suppose within the Advaita Hindu view of things, this elephant is in the room and pervades the room, and IS the room. I often am able to separate my mind/ego from who I am – even to the point that I can watch the mind/ego function, and as Tolle says, it’s madness. But it was a blessing and true surprise last night when my Self became the Ganesha my worship was directed at – and that the connection was so complete that “I” filled the room and even surprised my own mind.

The friend who encouraged me to publish a post about the experience, when I initially refused, encouraged me to write – not so much to say, “Look how awesome this was” as to say, “Look what’s out there.” Reader, please know You are what’s out there. You are what’s worshipable. And You are far more awesome than even yourself realizes.

Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha
Aum Shanti

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Gurupada Puja

Today is the full moon for July, and marks Gurupurnima. This holiday is a “limbo of great importance” to me. The source of importance is obvious to anyone familiar with the day. Purnima correlates to the full moon. In Hinduism, many holidays fall either on the full moon, or within a certain number of days before or after it. The “limbo” part of this, for me, is due to not having a dedicated guru -something else of high importance within the Dharma. With that in mind, in this post I’ll try to detail a few of the most influential gurus in my life.

The first guru worshipped in Hinduism is Sage Vyas. It’s said that Hinduism is the only major world religion without an actual founder. Sage Vyas, however, comes close. He’s known to have lived in ancient times and according to his personal sadhana, had attained a number of siddhis. Aside from being a masterful rishi, he is most noted for compiling/editing the Vedas, which are the foundational body of scripture for Sanatana Dharma. I think he’s also known to have composed a number of other Scriptures holy to Hindus. I adore Sage Vyas for obvious reasons and some reasons which are less obvious. His influence, the karma-phala of his efforts, reaches from modern Hindu religion so far back into history few can conceive. Additionally, a well-known story about the recording of scripture involves Sage Vyas dictating to my very own ishtadevata, Ganesha. Sri gurubhyo namaha!

The stage being set by Vyas thousands of years ago, my parents were 900% my first living guru. Truth be told, my birth mother hasn’t proven herself to be worth the flawed genetic material she managed to pass on, let alone anything of greater value. My father, on the other hand has truly beautiful karma. Part of that karma was that he’d eventually meet and marry my step-mother. The two, together, make an amazing, albeit typical pair and without their guidance my life wouldn’t have amounted to half of what it has. And while I’m still able to discern parts within my own makeup that are surely inherited from my birth mother, I’m honored to report that by far I’m the sum of the two that actually cared enough to raise me. I have the level head and generosity of my father, and like my step-mom, eternally insist on perfection in all the right areas of life, have some pretty decent reasoning skills, and also would likely have made a fair living as a lawyer (AKA I can argue just about anything, always have the higher good as my goal, and no matter what you say, you can be sure I’ll find a flaw in your logic and will end up winning the debate.) If gurus come into our lives (or vice versa in this case!) to help guide and shape us for our betterment, my parents could sit on their rumps for their next ten lifetimes and still succeed in this regard. Because of this, when I’m at temple and we sing the shloka, “Twameva mata cha pita twameva…“, which translates as “You (God) are mother and father…“, I’m filled with adoration and love for these two primary human figures in my life. Below is a picture of my parents and a younger brother (at his wedding, we’re not actually Christians for the most part).

Another guru influence in my life is that of Paramahansa Yogananda. If Vyas-ji was technically a first among gurus, and my parents were the second, then Yogananda-ji was certainly the third. I came to know of him actually in the most unexpected of ways, which I’m hesitant to share. But here goes:

In my early twenties a relationship I had been in came to an end. It had lasted about seven years and when it dissolved, you can imagine, I was still very inexperienced at life. On my own for the first time ever, I was mostly doing just fine. During this time, though, I had been approached by a man from my city’s south side who was seeking models. You see, he sold clothing items online… he ran some kind of website that was fetish-gear-oriented. I’ll spare you the details of exactly what garments I modeled, but the idea is that he was no longer young or lean or unwrinkled and needed a tighter, younger body to show off these things, which folks would then buy from him. Before anyone takes this info and runs with it, believe me when I tell you that the shadiest part of all this was that all photography was shot in his home, as opposed to an actual studio. But none of that is important except to lead me to tell you that this man happens to be a devotee of Yogananda. I had an Om or something on my necklace which caught his attention and started our conversation on all things Hindu. Both of us being caucasian, we commiserated at being the only non-indian Hindus we knew of in the entire state. From then on the modelling was entirely secondary (indeed stopped) and our dealings were mostly in the context of spirituality. He took me to the temple for the first time and gave me my first copy of Yogananda’s autobiography, which as so many others will verify, is life-changing. He also gave me my first copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a translation by P.Lal. Of all the different Gitas available, this simple version remains my favorite.

Since learning of Yogananda, I’ve been drawn to his teachings and have a large number of his books, as well as a book or two written by Yogananda’s own guru, Sri Yukteshwar. I love that Yogananda was so connected with western Christianity. He does well at showing dharma in the Bible. I’ve fallen just shy of joining his “sampradaya,” The Self Realization Fellowship for a couple of reasons, namely that it’s suffered a great bit of internal conflict which has veritably split the group, and it seems to be in decline. All that aside, this is to say nothing about Yogananda or his teachings which are truly liberating. And for that, he’ll always remain a dear teacher to me. Kriya Yoga might not be my best fit, but I’m not nearly done with him, and it’s my hope he isn’t nearly done with me.

Next of gurus influential in my life is Mata Amrtanandamayi Ma. She’s an avatar of Sri Durga. Known around our planet as “The Hugging Saint, and to myself and fellow devotees as Amma (Mother). Her life has been incredible and it’s apparent that She is mahashakti personified. Born into a working class family and pretty much forced into familial slavery, Her upbringing was rough to say the least. Virtually from Her birth she was a kind of lunatic for the Lord, constantly seeking union with Sri Krsna, and even today demonstrates what is known as devibhava for the benefit of others. Today She’s the founder of humanitarian organizations and Her own sampradaya which is truly unique, as well as Amrita Yoga. She’s written many great books and She’s also the creator of the Brahmasthanam. She spends hours and hours (easily 12-16hrs in a single day) seated and receiving Her “children” as She hugs them. The Mother never tires of this. She never stops for breaks for sustenance and offers Her love, freely, until all present have received. These hugs are known to be transformational. She also offers diksha/initiation as well as a unique meditative practice. She’s helping to clean up the current state of bhakti yoga, which She says should instead be called kamya yoga, because too often what we think is bhakti is actually desire-fuel devotion. As often as I’m able, I attend local satsangs and worship Amma for multiple hours on end. I also have a very personal story about a healing I received from Amma soon after coming to find Her. Amme Sharanam!

Someone else, who is also a modern-day guide, deserves recognition. I’m not sure this soul is someone many consider a guru of the level of Amma or Yogananda, but she is no less a spark of Brahman than they, and like them does her best -every chance she has- to uplift and educated and help. She can be found on Facebook and on Youtube. She and I belong to the same (gay) community and our hearts are more similar than not, although I’m no nun. It’s actually because of this siddha-yoga jiva that I own my first copy of the Guru Gita. Her name is Sister Unity Divine, and I find in her inspiration, strength, wisdom, and encouragement. My heart is truly glad to know of her and also to be benefitting from her life’s expression.

As I’m nearing the end of this (very, very, very  long) post I want to lastly give consideration to the inner Guru within each of us. It’s this Guru that all the others are merely an outward, seemingly separate expression of. You, at your deepest, most inner level, are non-different than the Source all other gurus lead you to. Any soul you may choose to follow, who indicates anything diffrently is… False. Believe it. Your truest Self is all that has ever been, all that will ever be, and all you’ll ever need. All else is only meant to help you experientially realize this.

Om Shanti!

Hinduism’s Second Star

The second star designated in Thatte’s booklet is that of Advaita, NonDualism. This is huge for me. From my earliest memories I’ve been spiritual. Winter has always been my least favorite season, but as a young child I can recall looking out my parents’ front door windows at snow swirling down. I sensed the wind. I felt a hint of the temperature on the cold glass. I saw flake after flake swoosh to the ground or a tree branch and pile up on the flakes before it. All of this is very superficial and something anyone can see, but I saw Something behind all those aspects of a snowfall. I had no idea what to call that Something because the family I was born into isn’t religious, but I perceived It no less. For me now, the saddest part of that memory is that I assumed that Something was on the other side of the front door’s window. It must be out there.

As I entered my teens, I familiarized with Christianity through the means of a local Baptist church. I’ll spare the many details of this part of my life. For what seemed like a long time this new chapter satisfied me religiously and spiritually. Still, as with my early childhood, That was external. It should be noted that within every branch of every Abrahamic faith, the vast majority have a very orthodox understanding of an external God. This trait, in my estimation, is a defining characterist of those streams of humanity’s perception of the divine, and frankly I feel this is a sad testament to the state of human affair in recent millenia.

If the Abrahamic faiths can be noted for their distant god, surely the Dharmic faiths should be noted for the opposite trait as something which is equally defining. This is where Advaita/NonDuality comes in and is also why it’s particularly important to me.

“Advaita Vedanta maintains that everything is derived from Brahman and Brahman resides in everything. The Upanishads teach us that the world comes from Brahman and returns to Brahman.” (Thatte, 2010)

All throughout most of Hindu theology nowdays one encounters the notion of Atman. Invariably, this is presented as the human soul and is essentially defined as a spark of the Divine which resides in every entity. This Atman comes from Brahman in the same way a spark comes from a fire. It’s because of this, that hindus have the mantra/prayer, “Aham Brahmasmi,” “I am Brahman.”

Thatte goes on to explain that it’s because of all this that one does not need an external medium to seek God. Because your deepest Self is nondifferent to God, knowing your self(aka self-realization) automatically is synonymous to knowing God.

This is phenominal. Truly, I believe the Abrahamic faiths, at their cores, teach this. Today though, it’s much tougher to discern that from their doctrines. Part of why this is amazing is that it allows the flood gates to open for the experience of God. If God naturally resides in me then I don’t must follow some prophet, else I’m damned. Each person is free, even before the grand self-realization process has begun, to find their own path Home. In my opinion, this is foundational for any real and true spiritual or religious effort. Also, on a very personal level, the fact that this is(currently) a huge difference between Hinduism and the Abrahamics is enough for me to sense the truth there. My time with Christianity didn’t end well or quick, really, and while I honestly hold no actual grudges against individuals I can’t help but find comfort in anything that isn’t Christianity.

Back to the booklet…

Thatte’s practical take-away for this star’s chapter is that: Since each of us is essentially Atman, all should be treated with respect and reverence, just as we’d treat the Supreme Being.

Star three is somewhat a continuation of this star. It deals more with the Sould and its universality.

Om Tat Sat Om