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


Peelermac said...


Perhaps "this" (your entry today) is what it's all about. She helped you, you helped "us", we become more motivated to help someone else, and so on. Anyway, as simple as that sounds, that's the message I am taking away from your essay. I am moved.


meryl333 said...

Organizations tend to mess things up. Just people, ya know. So hard to keep the simplicity & purity. And yet, it is heartening to hear that being in the presence of the guru there is still guru shakti and purity there. And yet we need none of it. As our dear Swami P. always says "go to Mother" ... and She will always be there for us... always patiently waiting for us to notice Her in our own hearts.

Agy said...

You touched my heart with this post...so moving with words of infinite wisdom. You described a "place" that I like to be in my everyday life...sometimes difficult...sometimes, not so much. Thank you for sharing heartfelt wisdom.

Jane Hardin/ Agyness

Anonymous said...

Profound to say the least. You capture the essence of people thinking spirituality can be attained so easily. The spiritual path, or the mystic path, is one that winds people through the ordinary, the grit, the helping others, service always to the unknown, the smelly, the this and the that. Some people have to go down the road of vain imaginings. Pinochio's Island is a good example of being lost in the fun fair.

Wonderfully written, insightful, courageous and yet loving.

frannie said...

Great article, and a wonderful look into how our egos and humanhood can throw us off track.

Josie said...

"but for my money, your cat is a perfectly serviceable Guru, and your apartment a good ashram, if you are on the right path. "......I giggled and high fived you through the computer...did you feel it?

Anonymous said...

Hi Mugsy,

Thank you for posting this story. There's something I find very refreshing about your perspective. I'm particularly struck by this passage:

“ . . . 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 . . ."

You capture so well the particular variety of devotee hoopla that occurred in “Gurumayi's presence” – something that surprisingly hasn’t been written about all that much, at least not in the distilled specifics you offer here. Reading your story and this passage took me back to the days when Gurumayi was still around, the times when I saw her on tour, got swept up in all the fervor and felt that same pull-push – those moments when I (literally or figuratively) jerked back and thought "Hey, wait a minute. What am I doing?"

For all the emphasis Siddha Yoga supposedly placed on "Looking within", when Gurumayi was around the only thing anyone was looking at was her.

- Lucid

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Black Gold said...

Great post.. i was raised with siddha yoga and Ammachi due to my mothers interest. Never was i shelter from the realities of idolization. They are all reflections of our societal truths.
Amidst it all, when I am in the presence of devotees- those who seek "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" I am at peace with the world.