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