Friday, May 26, 2006

Deepak Chopra and ashram memories

I've just finished reading Peace Is the Way, by Deepak Chopra. I tend to be a bit wary of gurus who come preaching love and expanded consciousness in America. Many of them get quite rich in the process (as has Dr. Chopra), which causes me to become suspicious of their real intentions. However, Deepak Chopra's tone, while appropriately assured, is very warm and empathetic, radiating genuine love and concern. He properly credits Quaker peace activist A.J. Muste with the maxim that inspired the title of the book: "There is no way to peace, peace is the way." (BTW, an inspiring article on Muste can be found in the April issue of Friends Journal.)

I found the book very uplifting, if uneven. Dr. Chopra has a way of summarizing key concepts in a series of pithy, concrete phrases. OK, some of them sound faintly platitudinous. But hey, just because something's a truism, doesn't mean it's not true. Anyway, I did lots of underlining.

The book begins with a discussion of ou
r fear of "them" since 9/11 and our search for security (through military means, of course), continues with our current atmosphere of hyperpatriotism and "toxic nationalism" ("Nationalism is sophisticated tribalism," Dr. Chopra writes, quoting Krishnamurti), and then segues into our ideas about God (who takes sides in conflicts ... our side, naturally...). After awhile, however, the thread of ideas seems to drift a bit. I think I sort of get lost during the final two chapters, in which the author describes "The Body at Peace," and distinguishes true from false hope. But I think that with a little review, I'll get the message. Anyway, more on the author's ideas in a later entry.

When reading about our true nature:

"The way of peace tells us that our true identity is at the level of spirit and nowhere else. All other identities are temporary. Many are false."

the illusion of this world --maya-- and the illusion that we are separate from one another and from God:

"...closeness to God, a life without separation from one's source."

and about the true nature of God: "pure consciousness"... I heard the words of another guru and of satsangs past.

In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I used to spend our vacations at an ashram where the residents and guests practiced bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion...devotion to the teacher --the guru-- as well as devotion t
o the "inner guru" ... maybe another way of saying "that of God" in all of us.

I never got past the elementary yoga postures. As a matter of fact, until my cardio-kickboxing class that I've been attending for a year now, I've always been dismally unsuccessful at any form of physical activity. I didn't particularly care for getting up at 5:30 either but, considering that we turned in at 9:00pm, I wasn't sleep deprived. The ashram food was good the first few times we visited. That was when they were serving Indian cuisine, and I've had a fondness for it ever since. But at a certain point the guru decided that the ashram would go macrobiotic. He considered this the purest diet of all. I never could acquire a taste for daikon and those other root vegetables...or miso soup.

But I loved the chanting. I had been in choirs and liturgical groups all my life, and the Sanskrit was downright intriguing. I've always had an attraction to languages. (Hadn't I sung in Latin?) The strange thing was that once back home, I could never remember how the chants went. Though a chant would last 20 minutes or more, accompanied by tabla and other drums, as brothers and sisters added tambourines, finger symbols, and bells, as our voices swirled upward in a great crescendo and everyone rose bodily and began to dance, and I was sure that chant would reverberate inside of me for the rest of my life ...shri Ram jay Ram jay jay Ram... I would get home and not be able to sing more than two notes. The particular modulations of Eastern music just couldn't seem to take root in my too-Western brain, even thought the chants were simplicity itself. But each time we went back to the ashram, I was eager to reimmerse myself in them.

I didn't care for the fact that some of the brothers and sisters adopted traditional white Indian garb. It struck me as an affectation. But I'm sure it felt natural to them, so that was fine. Those who formally became disciples of the guru were given Sanskrit names: Gayatri, Mirabai, Bhishma, Pragnya, Govinda... They were really beautiful sounding names. Some disciples took the next, the highest, step and became renunciates. The men shaved their heads and the women cut their hair very short. They wore only white and received yet a another name.

We learned a few Sanskrit terms here and there ... like the suffix -ji, which is like putting "dear" or "beloved' in front of the name in English: guruji = dear guru, bapuji = beloved Daddy, an affectionate term for our guru's spiritual teacher. My husband and I still address birthday and anniversary cards with each other's name and the suffix -ji.

While I felt a bit rebellious toward some of the practices, I came to recognize and appreciate that everything, from morning yoga to vegetarianism, was always offered, never forced. It was recognized that each individual progressed along the path at his or her own pace. No one was ever blamed or made to feel guilty. The guru encouraged everyone to take responsibility for his/her spiritual development, to let it unfold naturally ... the way the lotus opens to the sun...flexibility not rigidity... so when Deepak Chopra talks about thinking for oneself in spiritual matters, it sounds familiar. And it reminds me of what I liked most about spending time at the ashram, the place where I first learned that God doesn't whip us into shape, but lets us gradually grow in the Light.

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