Lufthansa, Flt. 760, somehwhere over Iran
(It's kind of freaky going over Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan on my way to Delhi - I wonder if these countries allow American Airlines to violate their airspace?).
India, or How Did I Get Here?
This little episode in my life really is an expression of "6 degrees of separation" - the notion that you are just 4 to 6 people away from connecting with anyone in the world. It all started in 1994, in the board room of Bell Atlantic Telephone. Previous to that, some bozo in the Bell Atlantic corporation thought it would be a great idea to diversify and get into health care - why not, it's a recession proof market, right? After buying the company that I was hired into in 1992, these geniuses who couldn't get themselves arrested if they had all week decide that they don't want to be in the health care business, and cut us loose, in similar fashion that you blow off a flea that lands on your arm.
So our company floundered a bit and was purchased by an independent set of investors. They hired one James McCord as CEO, who is a different fellow than the James McCord of Watergate fame (I think), who has this deep booming voice, a great resource for a leader of men. In his first speech to the group of us who managed to stick through the lean times, he lays out a benefit package that includes having sabbaticals. Now I'm all ears - sabbaticals, I assumed, are things that college professors and other really important people get, not a high-tech grunt like myself. But as soon as Jim said it, I said to myself, "I'm going to India" - I don't know why, it wasn't some great burning desire, but I knew that's where I was going!
But Jim said it and he kept his word. So a sabbatical program was started which required 5 years of continuous employment at our company, and anyone left over from Bell Atlantic got two years retroactive, which mean all I had to do was stick around for three years to get this nice perk. Not that I was going anywhere, it is a decent job, and only a 10 minute commute, something truly precious in car crazy California.
So the time went by, and as soon as I was eligible I submitted my sabbatical form. But there was a little catch to it - since the company is small, it gets some kind of tax benefit for sabbaticals, as long as the sabbatical is either educationally based or some kind of voluntary work. In that I wanted to go to many different places in India, this presented a bit of a problem but I phrased my journey as one of spiritual education of Indian non-dual traditions (i.e. Advaita Vedanta). And additionally, as I am an amateur Vedic astrologer, I also planned on studying Vedic astrology also.
This had to be approved by the vice president of R&D of my company. So I go out to lunch with him and it turns out that he has an interest in astrology also. Since I know this trip is destiny (it shows up in my Vedic astrology chart), he approves my sabbatical with no limitations or changes. I'm on my way.
And I'm not really pulling some fast one - my sabbatical (which is 6 weeks plus vacation for a total of 8 weeks in India) is exactly about the theme of spiritual education, with some Vedic Astrology thrown in. This trip is about exploring the spiritual and geographical roots of the traditions that have had an influence on me. One was a practice with Guru Maharaji, which took up most of my twenties, which essentially was from the Shabd Yoga tradition and the meditation was quite similar to the Yogananda Kriya Yoga system. Maharaji was from the Hardwar India area, and I plan on spending some time in nearby Rishikesh.
From Rishikesh, I plan on going into the Himalayan foot hills to do part of the "Char Dham Yatra" a pilgrimage to one or more of 4 ashrams that Shankara initiated in the 7th(?) century when Buddhism left India. These ashrams, visited by hundreds of thousand of Indians each year, are considered extremely holy sites and filled with plenty of shakti, spiritual force. These ashrams are in Badrinath, Kedernath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, all areas where tributaries run to form the Ganges. All of these are at 10,000 feet or so, and I hope to hit one or two of these, weather permitting - I am coming when it's touchy with the weather. As India is not known for it snow removal capabilities, these areas may be shut down for the winter, but I'll go as high as possible, as there are important points along the way, such as a cave where Shiva did many practices. It is open to all and you can go in there and meditate. I will not miss that. And of course, these areas have views of the highest peaks of India, 25,000 feet in elevation, so hopefully photo ops will abound.
From tromping around the Himalayan foot hills, it's back to Delhi to take a plane to Varanasi, the holiest city in India, famous for it ghats, steps that enter into the Ganges river, where people bathe for purification and people come to die and be cremated.
From Varanasi, I may go to the Taj Mahal and the temples of Khakuraho, famous for their explicitly erotic sculptures. From there it's onto Bombay, rather Mumbai, to meet the teacher Ramesh Balzekar, who had a huge impact on my spiritual process with his book, Consciousness Speaks - definitely one of those instances where Guru takes the form of a book. May also visit Ranjeet Maharaj, a contemporary of the famous advaitic teacher Nisargadhatta Maharaj.
I also hope to visit the gravesite of the Indian Siddha Bhaghwan Nityananda, the Guru to Swami Muktananda, who had a big influence on one of my teachers, Da Free John (Adi Da). I was a student of his for 4 years or so. Another possibility is the gravesite of Shirdi Sai Baba (not the famous living guru Satya Sai Baba), who also had an effect on Da Free John, and is a beloved saint in India.
From Bombay I travel to south India to do a retreat at Sri Ramanashram, the ashram of Ramana Maharshi - booked that one over the internet! I will visit Ramanashram (in Tirumvanamalai) twice, once during the "Deepam" festival, where the mountain Arunachala (where Ramana meditated for years) is celebrated as an embodiment of Lord Shiva. Hundred of thousands of people come to this festival, so getting a place to stay may be difficult. But it is during this festival where one Lakshmana Swamy, one of the last living devotees of Ramana Maharshi (at least one that we know of) who functions as a teacher gives darshan. Then a second time, when Deepam is over, I will retreat at Ramanashram. The quirky circumstance of finding a book about Ramana Maharshi in 1974 initiated me into the spiritual life, so going to Ramanashram will be a special treat.
I also plan on visiting some excellent Vedic astrologers in Delhi, Bombay and other parts of South India.
Only a few of these possibilities are solidly planned, as so many experienced travelers to India have told me, you can't really plan for India - there are too many things that can and will go wrong, and India will do a number on you, one way or another. And there is always the chance meeting with someone or getting some information to go to some other location that feels right at the time. So I'm keeping it loose for the most part, and will make itinerary plans in small pieces, when the next steps seem clear to me. I'm not going to find a teacher or to look for some epiphany, but more to explore the "shakti", the spiritual force that formed the basis of the various traditions that had an influence on my spiritual process. It will, I believe, lead to a deeper appreciation of the traditions that served me, and to underscore the spiritual good fortune that I have had in my life.
I will definitely keep you posted as I go along, as long as this laptop holds up, and as long as I can find a working Internet cafe or service in the cities of India I will visit.
The Truman Show
Interviewer (Harry Shearer): "Why do you think Truman hasn't discovered the real nature of his world?"
Cristof (Ed Harris): "Because he accepts as reality what is presented to him."
Sylvia Garland (Natasha McElhone): "You keep him there as a prisoner!"
Cristof: "If Truman was totally determined to know the truth about his world, I couldn't stop him."
One of the films on our flight over here was the Truman Show, which IMO was one of the top two movies of the year, the other being Saving Private Ryan. These two should battle it out for a lot of Oscars. One should be best supporting actor, Ed Harris as Cristof, a man who plays both God in all forms: creator, preserver, and (almost) destroyer, as well as Mara, the demon that plagued the Buddha, attempting to distract him from his realization of the nature of the world.
Seeing the Truman Show again brought home even stronger the analogy of spiritual evolution which IMO is at the heart and soul of this movie. Ostensibly it is about a guy who doesn't know he's in an ongoing show, not understanding the facade that is being presented everyday, hiding the true reality.
Truman lives his life meeting all expected norms, not challenging or asking too many questions. He seems satisfied with his life, and that satisfaction seems somewhat painful to the viewer, with its suburban paradise facade. But similar to the story of Buddha, when his driver led the Buddha down the wrong street, and Buddha sees a sick, old and dead man, creating a major crisis, Truman almost gets hit in the head with a light fixture from the ceiling of his giant prison. It brings forth a crisis of doubt and questioning in his otherwise superficial life. Now doubt is ordinarily seen in negative terms, something that eats away from conventional faith and hope, but doubt in this context is similar to its use in the Zen Buddhist tradition. Doubt of the solidity, the ultimate realness of phenomenal existence. Truman begins to doubt the "reality" of his world, and this doubt is accompanied by a renewed longing for something greater in life.
When this lesson has sunken in enough, Truman tries to take steps to understand his world more deeply. But at every turn he is met with someone who keeps telling him that it's so safe and cozy. His so-called friend is feeding lies to him through Cristof, his wife is patronizingly undermining him and his mother lays major guilt trips in him to keep him from his investigation into the truth. In one scene he's looking at a family album with his wife and mother, which reminded me of the daughters of Mara of Buddhist fame, the seductive voices that keep one from their spiritual destiny.
So eventually Truman takes action, and like all spiritual aspirants, tries to find the right vehicle to take him to the "other shore", and in his case literally. First he tries a plane trip to Fiji, that fails, then a bus trip to Chicago, and then a car ride off the island. All these "vehicles" or yanas fail him, because they are simply strategies of escapism and avoidance - Truman has yet to confront his most basic fear and go through it, which of course is true in real life - all sorts of practices and spiritual scenes could be attempted, but they are all whitewash over the work that has to be finally done -which for people is the transcending the fear and terror of death, including Truman. The right vehicle has to be found to make spiritual life effective - as the Sufis say, the right time, the right place, the right teacher.
Truman had a traumatic episode in childhood which left him paralyzed of being on the water. It doesn't take a PhD in Jungian Psychology to make a statement about water representing subconscious forces that have not been brought to the "surface" of conscious existence. So Truman's attempt to sail the waters of his own fears is exactly what was needed in his process. And he is confronted by great storms - but his transformation is already underway - he's already embodied the total determination that Cristof spoke about - determined if it kills him, which it does for a few moments. And once that final death occurs, even "God" has to pay homage to that, which Cristof does. But not without a last attempt to lure him back to his "safe" existence.
Truman is already a different person, despite Cristof's walk-down-memory-lane speech, like a parent seeing his/her child always as a child, no matter what the age. Truman has already "penetrated" the hypnotic veil of his conditional existence, this time literally with the bow of the ship, and the veil turns out to be drywall! And in the final scene Truman has to finally meet the ultimate challenge - there is no rainbow at the end of the tunnel, but just the black void of the Great Unknown behind the now useless facade or veil. And with humor and a deep breath he makes his evolutionary step.
And though it is a great Hollywood ending, with Truman stepping into the void, and hints of meeting his true love in life, Sylvia Garland, it has to be said that the next step in evolution, personal or collective, comes with its freedoms but also with its sets of problems or challenges, as Ken Wilber so notes in his books. Think about the kind of trauma that Truman would encounter trying to adjust to the "real" world.
But nevertheless, seeing Truman defy the odds through his own impulse to know the truth without any limits is very moving and inspiring to me. I love movies where the hero has to fight forces holding him/her back in order to find a true revelation.