20 October 2010


Vote NO on bumpersticker-thinking to resolve complex issues!


18 October 2010

I Couldn't Have Said It Better Myself....

“For as long as literature has existed, suffering, joy, horror, grace, and everything that is great in humankind has produced great novels. These exceptional books are often not very well-known, and are in constant danger of being forgotten, and in today’s world, where the number of books being published is considerable, the power of marketing and the cynicism of business have joined forces to keep those extraordinary books indistinguishable from millions of insignificant, not to say pointless books.

“But those masterful novels are life-giving. They enchant us. They help us to live. They teach us. It has become necessary to come to their defense and promote them relentlessly, because it is an illusion to think that they have the power to radiate all by themselves. …

“We want necessary books, books we can read the day after a funeral, when we have no tears left from all our crying, when we can hardly stand for the pain; books that will be there like loved ones when we have tidied a dead child’s room and copied out her secret notes to have them with us, always, and breathed in her clothes hanging in the wardrobe a thousand times, and there is nothing left to do; books for those nights when no matter how exhausted we are we cannot sleep, and all we want is to tear ourselves away from obsessive visions; books that have heft and do not let us down …

“We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please.

“We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise.

“We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that [she] might be lost; [her] discouragement, [her] courage, [her] anguish, [her] stubbornness, the risk of failure that [she] has taken.

“We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.

“We want books that leave nothing out; neither human tragedy nor everyday wonders, books that bring fresh air to our lungs

“And even if there is only one such book per decade, even if there is only one … every ten years, that would be enough. We want nothing else.”

from A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cossé, Europa editions; copyright © 2009 Éuropa Editions Gallimard, Paris. www.europaeditions.com

Photo of Wayne Collins courtesy of Images of Amazing Grace. Copyright © 2010 Grace L. Harwood. Used by permission.

09 September 2010

Rambling Midnight Thoughts on that Wacko Preacher in Florida, Etc.

Exactly how these self-appointed “Christian ministers” get the “call” is unclear. Certainly some, such as the late Rev. Jim Jones, might well have “gotten the call” watching the wooden plates fill up as they were passed hand to hand along the rows of pews of a Sunday morning. Some, like my father, might well have spent years and years reading books about The Good Book and realized they had something to say of value. Certainly I was pleased to hear that Mary the Magdalene was not a “whore,” but rather the daughter of a very rich family who apparently bankrolled Jesus and his band of merry men on their journeys through the New Testament. It was also fairly clear to my father, who was ordained into the Disciples of Christ, a small Protestant sect with subtle but meaningless distinctions of belief separating them from Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists, that The Church preferred men like the Rev. Jones to him on account of Jones’ ability to open wallets and pour out cash. Who called this other "preacher," Terry Jones, is anybody's guess.

But, once having received “The Call,” there is little that can be done to monitor what comes out of the mouths of these people, particularly, apparently, if their last name is "Jones." Nothing much to stop them from flying hundreds of people to a foreign country, stealing their social security and welfare checks, and giving them poison to drink, for that matter. My mother was a moral compass for my father, carefully reading his sermons as she typed them out on Saturday afternoon, so he was a pretty good guy with all this. Misguided into thinking he might do some good and help people. But a pretty good guy.

Be that as it may, my personal experiences as a preacher’s kid, albeit for only a couple of years, gives me a large block of salt with which to evaluate the pronouncements of these “religious” folk who believe they speak for their boss, whatever they choose to call it. Even politicians get called on the carpet every four years or so. But these boys with their shiny shoes and dark suits? Not so much. While these "men of God" do claim Jesus keeps an eye on them (and sparrows in particular, for some odd reason), there's simply no "higher authority" regulating their behavior, as anyone watching the Catholic choir boy scandal should know. (Compared to the Catholic Church, protestant church organization in the US is a real wild wild west.) And, as for Jesus doing annual employment evaluations of these self-appointed characters, I wouldn’t know. Never met the guy, being as how the one thing I’m pretty sure of is, if he existed at all, he’s been dead for millennia. But if anybody else is calling them to task, I’d be surprised. They all have the potential of being loose cannons.

I personally think we should bury all these "religious" books in a very large hole and start over, because these characters, like this tiny little man in Florida with 50 followers who want to burn one of them, have pretty well wrung any real meaning out of the rituals and readings of their Sunday meetings. And go back to nature and listen, really listen to its teachings. Because if there is any spirituality that is going to take us forward through this morass, that is where we'll find it.

That’s the thing. I think that’s what Whatever That Is behind all this tried to tell Moses (according to one of these books, anyway). That Which Is (or, as the eastern folk like to call it, The Tao) pretty clearly instructed ole Moses (and the rest of us for all eternity, I suspect) to not call That Which Is by any name because we’d get busy then and claim we were the ones who really had the 411 on That Which Is and then pretty soon we’d be off to the races, fighting and discriminating and killing each other over which little set of papers we declare holy and The Real Deal. So, what did Moses do? What all these "prophets" do. Sigh. He wrote down what he thought happened and what he wrote became the basis for deciding who were innies and who were outies. Huff and puff.

Now we have this little clown in Florida who reminds me of this old fella named Vance who lived outside of the little town where my father was preacher until my mother put her foot down. One Sunday after church Daddy and I went out to give his wife Communion (which, BTW, was Welch’s Grape Juice and Matzo crackers). Aside from the fact that I was puzzled about why Christians have ritualized cannibalism as a center of their practice, this day was strange for me because this old guy told us at length and in great detail about the murder of Joseph Smith in Carthage jail, and how his granddad led the mob which killed him, as though this were a good thing. Pulling himself up tall, he said, “And if I had to do it again for Jesus, I would be in the front row.”

My poor papa was so horrified, he just put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Never, never ever forget this day.” And then he didn’t say another word all the way home.

So now the Irani folks are stoning this woman because of their little book, and the Taliban are acting out blowing people into hamburger because of their little book. Some people believe you draw a little red dot in the middle of your forehead, and other people believe they should kill you because you do. Then there’s folks who believe they should be able to kill gay people because of their little book. Men in Utah believe they can treat women like cattle because of their little book. People who believe if they have the right kind of beads and the right number of beads and then say the right prayer the same number as the beads, then that's the way to go. People who believe they should have their own country because of their little book. And on and on and on and on…. Oh, for heaven's sake, people, please! Don't you see? If these books you read don't help you live in peace and harmony with others on the planet, what in hell are you doing????

As for this little man in Florida and his merry band of 50 followers "sending a message to Islam," well, fella, look. First of all, I have more than 50 followers. Virtually every blogger on the world-wide web has 50 followers. But you? For one thing, why in Christ's name would anyone live in Florida not live near water? But that evidence of insanity aside, now there are a whole lot of dangerous people who know your name. They know where you live. And they know what you stand for. You've gone and called out some really crazy people who now want you dead. That was really smart. Good job. Please note I did not say Muslim people are crazy. Or dangerous. Because, just like Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, or any other group, there are nutty, dangerous Muslims, and saints among 'em. And a whole lot of middle. Folks who are a mixture of "good" and "evil," and mostly just trying to get through life, just trying to live. But now you've told the whole world you stand for hatred, bigotry, ignorance, and poverty of spirit. Among those even interested, Mr. Jones, in what you have to say, are people who make bombs and blow up things. As my kid brother has observed in other circumstances, this just might well be natural selection in action.

16 August 2010

A Second Post-Script to .....

One time I heard Gurumayi speak of a fella who had left his wallet in his shoes in the shoe room outside the meditation hall. To no great surprise, the wallet, together with thousands in cash, was missing when he retrieved his shoes. He was very upset because this was supposedly "a holy place," and these "good people." Upon hearing of this, the Guru chastised this man for putting temptation in the path of weak people, thereby screwing up their karma. She then advised those listening that they should never leave common sense at the door of the ashram.

A Post-Script to my Posting on "Eat, Pray, Love"

One thing that has always seemed most extraordinary to me is that there are decades of rumors and more direct accusations of sexual misconduct on the part of Muktananda and others in the hierarchy of Siddha Yoga, and yet somehow, mysteriously, unfathomably, this reflects on Gurumayi. I simply can’t comprehend this. First of all, we are not responsible for what others do. That’s kinda hornbook law, don’t you think? Otherwise, kind of a mess, with me having to go to prison for what you’ve done and like that.

Okay, okay, so, a, b, c, 1-2-3, a very young girl is “given” by her parents to this man when she is oh, what, 9? 10? And somehow, mysteriously also, it never occurs to those who are so very vitriolic in their criticism of her that perhaps she was actually one of the victims of this sexual abuse? Instead, somehow, mysteriously, Muktananda’s (and her brother’s) sexual misconduct with devotees is supposed to reflect on Gurumayi’s integrity as a teacher. Excuse me? How exactly does THAT work? And why is it that those “accusing” SYDA and so on never once (and believe me, I have looked!) suggested that this woman herself might have been abused as a child by these people. (Certainly I do remember how very rude Muktananda was toward her when she’d grown up to be his translator. And I’ve heard others notice that.)

As to my thought that she was possibly abused, I certainly don’t know that this is true. How on earth would I know? But what I can’t understand is, why has no one else asked the question? Just like why is everyone so up in arms about Catholic priests sexually abusing young boys, but not the women or nuns in their charge? Does anyone with a lick of sense actually believe women in the Catholic Church have not been abused? (Or any other place, such as prisons, protestant churches, the workplace, etc., where unchecked influence and authority are given to men who simply aren’t questioned?) So why aren't all these armchair critics of Gurumayi stumbling over these totally obvious questions?

I heard one rumor that Gurumayi actually beat her brother with a ballbat in Hawaii upon discovering that he, as Co-Guru, had been sexually involved with devotees. (Please note, again, I said rumor. So, nobody sue me, okay? Believe me, it wouldn’t be worth your time.) If, in fact, she realized that her beloved younger brother had raised by Muktananda, Werner Erhard, and the other men running the show, to become a sexual predator, couldn't that just enrage her to the point of violence? Ya think? And yet, again, mysteriously, in all the innuendo, and “exposure,” “evidence,” and so regarding this teacher and her movement, nobody but nobody but nobody has raised the possibility that as Malti, a young girl under the charge of a bunch of randy old men, far from home and sanctuary, might have been, oh, I don’t know, at RISK? What a concept! Whether or not my ponderings are based in fact is not the issue here. The issue is, why are people who live in America in the 21st Century not asking what to me seems such a totally important and obvious question? In their determination to to “expose” the Guru, are they truly unable to see what to me is a very large gray Indian elephant in the living room? And if indeed my wonderings do have some truth to them, wouldn’t that just explain a whole hell of a lot about why, in the end, she might simply walk away from the whole mess?

13 August 2010

Chop Vegetables, Eat, Meditate, Walk, Sleep...

I have knelt at her feet more times than I can recount; more than a dozen times, she touched me with her peacock feathers after I’d stood for hours in endless lines of like-minded pilgrims; I walked beside her; she laughed at my little jokes; told me to pursue my art as my service to her; and she counseled me in ways that helped me heal and grow immensely. There are at least two times I know of she probably pulled me back from dying. She was one of my most beloved teachers, and I would not be who I am today without having known her.

“She” is the Guru of the “pray” part of Eat, Pray, Love, the first-person account of Liz Gilbert, who was given a year’s worth of money to recover from a divorce and write about it, now a major motion picture starting Julia Roberts, a person far more suited to playing the Guru herself because of her own vast experience in dealing with people "stalking movie stars." "She" would use the term "meditate," not the term "pray." And thousands upon thousands know this 55-year-old woman as their beloved “Gurumayi.” Born Malti Shetty in Mumbai on June 24, 1955, she grew up to become Swami Chidvilasananda, on her visa a “meditation teacher.” Which is a little like calling Michelangelo a “church painter.” I first met her when she was a translator for Muktananda in the mid-70s, and then again in the mid-80s, when she had become the sole leader of Siddha Yoga world-wide.

I have no intention of telling 'secrets' about Siddha Yoga. The internet is full of stuff, if you are of a mind to 'expose' the Guru. Have fun. If that is who you are. If that is how you want to spend your time. But I think it’s a better idea to figure out how to connect with the infinite, sacred energy of the universe. Because we have so little time here, you know? And I have no intention of advising that you go to her Ashrams in upstate New York or India, looking for Swami Chidvilasanda. Honest, there are places to get quality spiritual guidance much nearer at hand. And she doesn't need the aggravation. Oh, maybe Suze Orman or Felicia Rashad wouldn't be sitting on the next asana, but for my money, your cat is a perfectly serviceable Guru, and your apartment a good ashram, if you are on the right path.

Don't misunderstand. I am perfectly happy that people go off to “find themselves.” (If they find me, I'd be happy if they'd send me home.) But there is something very “Siddha Yoga” about this whole best-seller book/movie deal. What an amazing world it would be if the Patanjali Yoga Sutras hit the NY Times best seller list. Or Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen. And I for one would love to see Khrisnamurti's life made into a major motion picture. I think, in the end, the Siddha Yoga people in general are not looking for “God,” but for a way to construct their lives from a narrow bandwidth of human experience so they feel as though they have gained some control and know exactly what they need to do (buy the right chanting tapes, saris, meditation pillows, go to India, the Catskills, attend the right number of classes, hang the appropriate number of photographs of Guru in your home, get the “Enlightenment” diploma). It’s the same thing that irritated me when Gurumayi told the Oakland Ashram to open their homes to the people at risk in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. In a holocaust that displaced nearly 10,000 people, these "devotees" folk found exactly one family of devotees to invite. In comparison, Berkeley’s lesbian-owned Brick Hut Cafe fed an endless stream of firefighters and emergency workers on their own tab during the week of that nightmare. And my jaw dropped when I heard people tell me about the conversation on the telephone I had with Gurumayi when the fire broke out, reported as though they, not I, had made that call from a San Francisco high rise that unforgettable Sunday afternoon.

As time wore on, I became increasingly aware of a huge gap widening between the astonishing, amazing spiritual experiences I would have in the presence of this truly remarkable woman and the way so many of her followers threw ethics, compassion, and manners to the wind in their addictive quest to be near her. It was not about spiritual awakening or finding the god within (who is there, within all of us, no-ticket-to-punch, comes-with-the-service), so much as it was bragging to your friends that you knew where Swami got her nails done in Manhattan or that you’d had “work” done by the same plastic surgeon she used. A simple equation: The more air you breathed in her actual presence, the more your individual self-worth capitalized. Much like sports figures, movie actors, rock stars ....

What I finally concluded was, Gurumayi is herself simply a mirror, a mirror held up to us of our culture, our society, our way of being here, now, this place. She is different in Mexico, different in Europe. I think from whatever place she finds herself, she draws upon that energy to show those people the nature and texture of the life surrounding them. While there were some lovely, amazing people surrounding this woman (some of whom I am still close friends with, or simply admire very much), much of what I saw among her “devotees” sickened me. And not just shallow “It’s Tuesday-so-let’s-find-God” stuff; or “Guru gave me Shaktipat so my shit no longer smells,” but some really ugly stuff. One example was a former director of the Oakland Ashram who refused to fix the lock on the back door of an apartment she rented to a long-time Ashram resident who was dying of metastic breast cancer, but did manage to raise her rent. I literally threw up in the bathroom of the Ashram upon learning of this. Is Gurumayi responsible for those people? Or the experiences Liz Gilbert had in India? Or is she a wonderful, beautiful mirror, reflecting back the very best and worst we are capable of? I couldn’t even begin to answer that. Except when I talked to Swami Prabuddhananda at the SF Vedanta Society about this, he said, “Yes, all true, but please, show me what part of all this is not God?”

The last time I saw Gurumayi at the Oakland Ashram, I suspect she had become completely worn out and frustrated with the “Hollywood star” energy her followers and the Liz Gilberts of the world surrounded her with. Even though I had known her for nearly two decades, I couldn’t get into the main meditation hall. A friend gave me a seat in a nearby building where they were televising her sitting in her Guru’s chair on two giant TV screens. It was on Guru Purnima, “the Guru’s moon,” the brightest full moon of the summer, and thousands of people were crowded in just to catch the merest glimpse of her. She said, “People, people, people. I am NOT the moon! I am only the finger pointing at the moon.” Then, darkness on the screen, and then, the moon, the full moon over Oakland, broadcast to us. I walked out into the night air and stood on the corner, looking at the moon, watching her being driven away in her Lincoln Towncar. She hadn't come down the chimney, and she didn't leave in a sleigh pulled by reindeer (or, for that matter, wise men didn't seem in evidence). I believe the most astonishing thing about her is that she is a human being. Just like the rest of us. I think we feel she, and Jesus, and other teachers, must be somehow very different from us. If she is, then we have no obligation to try harder, be better, grow more, become extraordinary. How very tiresome (and lonely) for them it must be!

The next day I did go by the Ashram, but wasn’t “allowed” inside a place where I had taken care of the garden courtyard for years, not because I had done anything 'wrong,' but because I wasn't a part of the 'in-crowd' who ran the place. I walked around to Marshall Street where I found folks so desperate to be near her that they were leaning against a wooden wall separating the Ashram's little courtyard garden from a parking lot. It seemed Gurumayi was inside, hanging out with the wealthy and influential members of the community. Someone waved me over, and I crowded in with the others, my ear against the fence, just for a moment, to hear her voice. When I realized what I was doing, I stepped back. I am, after all, a light-filled child of the universe. (As poet laureat Billy Collins wrote, “I am so full of light that if you cut me, I would shine.”) I am not a beggar groveling in a parking lot for crumbs from someone who is supposedly my teacher. I thanked the man who had given me his spot and walked away.

Certainly, Gurumayi is an extraordinary person. I think what she would tell you if you actually listened to her is, she would counsel you to eat mindfully, share what you have, meditate every day, be aware, kind and caring of the folks in your life, and show respect for that which deserves respect. To try to see the divine in each other. To feel gratitude and appreciation for what you have been given. And to walk. Walk, walk, walk. Outdoors. In nature. With life all around. Breathe it in. Connect with it. I mean, this is a woman who walked up Mt. Fujiyama on a whim! She has long long toes, and loves loves loves to walk. “Eat, Pray, Love” are not the bulletpoints of what she teaches. Oh, sure, go ahead, read Gilbert's book, if you must. But I'd think better time spent would be Ayya Khemma's Being Nobody, Going Nowhere. Yes, by all means, go to the movie. I think Julia Roberts recently built a new house in LA and probably could use the money. If you have the means, spend time traveling. Italy is so wonderful in the fall. But understand, the spiritual path is not an easy one. Money, good connections, and the right car won’t get you there. And there are no shortcuts.

But if you are serious, there are many other such extraordinary teachers, all across the globe. Throw a stone and you will find someone, if that’s what you want. Go to Green Gulch, Gold Mountain, Plum Village, Ganga-ji, Ammachi, Thich Nhat Hahn, Pema Chodron, Joko Beck, John of God, and on and on. You will find so very many lost and lonely folks looking for them. And you will find some deep and honest spiritual warriors to keep you company as well. Because, as Swami Prabuddhananda recently said, “If you aren’t spending your life trying to connect with the Divine, well, that’s just dumb.” But, caveat emptor, as I knew in my 20s, and know so completely today, anyone who pays big bucks to become “enlightened” isn’t.


I don't feel like risking legal action by using an image of Swami Chidvilasananda, because the SYDA Foundation gets very nasty about such things. Instead, I'm posting a photo my friend Grace Harwood took of what I would like to see more of us "becoming," a simple monk walking in front of the M.H. DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park. If you want to see what Gurumayi looks like: http://www.siddhayoga.org/gurumayi-chidvilasananda