Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Second Encounter with Ma

So, a week after my first visit with Ma, I started getting frustrated that there hadn't been a second one. I expected some kind of spiritual training regimen when I got here. Meditation once or twice a day, and some one-on-one instruction with Ma or a surrogate. By a week in, I thought I'd be discovering specific, verifiable information using only the power of my mind. Or something. I wanted a montage. Instead, my only formal education had been in the peeling and chopping of vegetables.

I also felt lonely, and isolated, and uncertain of the rules or norms around me. Compared to Los Angeles, everyone at the Ashram seemed eerily quiet and satisfied with their lives. No one engaged me in deep philosophical conversation, or deep conversation of any kind, or even seemed especially interested in my presence among them at all. People were very nice, and sweet, and welcoming, and then just minded their own business, and it freaked me out.

I wanted explicit instructions, and attention, and I wasn't getting either. This got me a little bit stir-crazy. There was important business to attend to, business I didn't understand in the slightest, and nothing was happening.

It was my step-mother, Eve, who helped me make sense of it. She made two points:

First, the Ashram activates your shit. Eve had seen this herself when she came here, and other people have verified it for me since then. Whatever your ego issues are, whatever your doubts or frustrations or personal neuroses, this place is makes them step right up and make a stink of themselves. It could be something about how it's all set up, the culture or mechanics of the place, but the consensus seems to be that Ma does it directly and on purpose. Sitting in her private rooms, she stirs the pot of everyone's psyches and makes the ugly parts float to the surface. If I was upset, maybe more so than the situation required, and I couldn't just ignore or repress what was bothering me, then that was just about par for the course.

Second, psychic inquiry is dangerous. Eve said that all of the people she's seen explore that and try to develop their abilities have ended up harming themselves with it one way or another. The safer approach, Eve said, is to just let it come to you as it wants to on its own. It's a difference of intention - seeking that stuff out is usually a matter of pride (there's that word again), curiosity, or power. Whatever it is that allows these psychic connections, it really doesn't like being used in that way. I had a measure of all three of those interests - power, curiosity, and pride - and that probably wasn't helping me much.

I should insert a word here about skepticism, again. Around this time in my visit, I decided my empiricism claim from the day before I arrived was definite bunk. As a scientist, you have to remain skeptical of claims about unusual phenomena. You can consider participants' reports as data, but you can't immediately consider them to be evidence. I'm here as a seeker, though, and not a scientist. I want to be changed and affected by my experiences here, and not just catalog them for future dissection. I'm sure I might change my mind, even many times over, about what happened to me here, but for the moment I'm taking it all at face value. I feel more open, more loving, more satisfied for having spent about a month here, now. Even the skeptic in me considers that evidence that believing in it all, for now, is valuable.

At the time, though, I found what Eve had to say pretty upsetting. The first part made sense. I had just spent a couple days wrestling with the question of whether or not I'm a good Jew, addressing doubts I'd gotten pretty good, previously, at ignoring. Everyone has trouble feeling welcome in a new community, but I'd never felt quite this isolated around such pleasant, welcoming people as I did here. To hear that it's expected, it's normal, it's caused,  came as a huge relief.

The second part pissed me off, though. I came here on Ma's invitation! I just want to know what this third-eye business is all about! I'm gonna be an important spiritual leader some day, and if I have some special gift that she hid away when I was a kid, I deserve some training and explanation so I can use it right! That's not pride, that's... Oh.

This is why I wanted to do my last post before this one. I was waiting around at the Ashram for someone to tell me how to transform into super-rabbi, and no one was coming. I told myself I could handle whatever psychic business that might entail, but I knew I was lying. My hurry was based on fear, that I would leave the Ashram without learning something I had to know to achieve my destiny, that I wouldn't be good enough if I didn't learn whatever Ma could teach me.

I sat and thought for a while. Eve said exploring the psychic is dangerous, and it responds to your intentions. And Ma was leaving me to stew for a while in my own karma and baggage and shit, letting me work my way through some of that. What if those ego issues are obstacles to intuition, and making me deal with them is part of my education? It seemed like the thing to do was let that happen, and let my stuff clear away, and allow myself to grow more receptive to whatever was out there.

If Ma wants to teach me about psychic communication, why not teach by total immersion? I thought. I mean, couldn't she be trying to reach me through my 3rd eye right now? Again, the thing to do was just allow myself to receive whatever was out there.

And then Ma appeared. I felt her energy in the room. A kind of warm, blurry, almost-face. We didn't have a conversation, exactly, but there was an exchange of ideas and intentions. I asked her what kind of Jew she is, and she smacked me around a little for being cheeky. I told her I wanted to be learning more, she told me my education, for a while, would be hidden in the experience of just living there. I asked to see her bathroom, she made a scary face, I said "You can't scare me," and she proved me wrong. I apologized and thanked her, she told me she loved me, and I sat with that for a while, kinda dumbfounded. I asked her if this was really happening, and she told me to go knock on another resident's door and see what he thought. He told me, out loud, using words, that Ma sometimes just does that. She appears in dreams, or while you're washing dishes or walking your dog, and she tells you what she wants you to know.

I spent a couple days debating whether that whole thing really happened. With a little help, I realized it didn't matter. It happened. If she doesn't remember, if it never happens again, that's still what it was. We had a conversation. 

Either way, I felt a lot better afterward. I didn't feel so ignored, or untethered. I read my books and wrote in my journal and chopped those vegetables knowing that there was value in just being here, facing myself. I took some time every few days to try to feel that open and receptive again, and tried not to distract myself with the hope that Ma would reappear. So far she hasn't, but I still feel good for just sitting, and breathing, and letting my heart rest open.

A week or two later, Ma called me. On the phone, this time. I was driving a couple visitors to the airport, and I half wonder if she could tell, somehow, that I had left her immediate area. She told me not to worry that I hadn't seen her again, that she loved me a lot, and that just being at Kashi was enough spiritual work for me at the moment. I thanked her for calling me, and reassuring me, and having me there at the Ashram, and she said she would see me again soon and hung up the phone. I didn't ask if she had appeared to me magically the other night. I know she did, and don't mind if she didn't.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


I want to get to my second encounter with Ma, but I think we should talk about Pride first. And that's not especially easy. I don't know how to talk about pride honestly without exhibiting it, and that makes this a difficult piece for me to write and reread. But I think I've come to understand pride, my own uglier pride, a bit better over the last few weeks, and that's what we can talk about.

That pride goes like this: I'm not just smart, I'm right. I'm not just charming, I'm convincing and inspiring and very charismatic. People like me now, sure, but when I really get myself together, everyone will love and admire me. I'm not just spiritually insightful, I'm going to radically transform the way we talk about God. And all of that's so because I have a special destiny. In the dark of night, I have these thoughts and hope that they're true.

Even by day, I have grand aspirations. I want to help people, lots of people, discover their own internal spiritual compass. I want to help tell some part of a story that unites us, and inspires us, and provides meaning to our daily toil. I want to be a part of the long and continuing line of spiritual leadership that has helped people everywhere for always. There are always leaders at the spiritual growing edge, and I think I'm as right for the position as almost anyone. I know it's work I would love. But I don't know how to actually do it, and that makes me worry I won't be able to.

I feel like I'm a key, wandering around looking for the lock I open. I feel like I've got a really good idea in me somewhere, and I just need to learn the right words, and find the right references, and I'll express this thing I don't know that I know and be done with it. I have this big, righteous, and specific job to do, but if I'm not smart, charming, and spiritual enough, I won't succeed at it. Walking around, washing dishes, driving to the grocery store, I wrack my brain to figure out what that job is and how to do it. I know it's something about truth, and consciousness, and God, and religion, and the sum direction of history, but I can never quite put it all together. Yet. My value as a person comes down to getting this right, and on time.

But that whole feeling I just described, that sense of a specific and pre-determined trial or destiny - that's a load of crap. It's a tempting fantasy, but that's not how being a rabbi works. That's not how leadership works,  or anything like that. With you, friend, as my witness, I'm giving up that dream. There are critical moments, to be sure, but most of the good work done in the world is slow, gradual, and fuzzy around the edges. If I'm going to be a good rabbi, it'll take some virtues one day and others the next, and no one moment of truth will define me.

And even good rabbis fail sometimes. If I'm just trying to produce some single idea, that idea has to be really, really right, and I have to be really, really awesome to have thought of it. If I'm trying to produce a lot of little ideas over the next 50 years or so, some of them can be better than others, and I can still be a normal, mildly awesome human being.

I think that pride comes out of that illusion of simplicity. Thinking that being a good rabbi means there's some definitive difference between me and the next guy. Thinking someday I'll have that flash of insight, and congratulating myself in advance. Thinking that "being a good rabbi" is something that happens, and not something I'll have to work on, day in and day out, for a long time.

Jealousy, the other vice Ma named in me, draws from the same well. I'm jealous of my father, 'cause he's already Reb Zalman and I never will be. I'm jealous of Ma for the depth and vividness of her spiritual experiences. I'm jealous of Elizabeth Gilbert, because "Eat, Pray, Love" is so much clearer a spiritual travelogue than this is. I'm jealous of Ken Wilber for how brilliantly and clearly he thinks. Smaller, similar jealousies pop up around my friends, and my peers, and complete strangers, but there's a theme here. I'm jealous of people whose spiritual work makes more sense to me than my own. I'm not confronted with how much they struggled to speak so lucidly, and it's easy to assume they didn't have to. 

With all this pride and jealousy, with this mistaken sense of a mission, it's hard to stay flexible. I'm afraid to lose what I already (think I) understand. I've worked hard to reach my opinions, and they're leading me on to my predestined Big Idea (right?), so anything contradictory is a distraction. And if it's not contradictory, why would I waste my time on what I already understand? 

I do listen, and learn, and even change my mind sometimes, but I'm too quick to categorize into boxes I can already account for. I keep thinking I've already got the basic structure, and anything new has to fit somewhere in that. I'm hardly alone in that habit, but I'd be a better man with less certainty. 

I don't know how to change that, yet. It's hard to absorb information I don't understand. It's hard to admit that I don't understand it. But it would be a whole lot harder to reach some one, single, all-encompassing realization that will transform human spirituality forever. Given the option, I'll start trying for humility instead.

So I don't know. I don't really know what pride is, or what my problems are, or whatever. But I'm glad to be working on it. I take a deep breath, I close my eyes, and I let go of expectations. I just am, and I want to know, and God will use me however he wishes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


The last 24 hours have been pretty ridiculous.

I went out to see Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker last night, and ended up jumping ship at the last minute to watch vulgar manchild fantasy She's Out of My League instead. I've been trudging through some dense emotional wetlands lately (See? I learned a new word, and now I'm using it in a sentence), and it was nice to see something stupid and sincere about the importance of self-esteem. Who doesn't love self-esteem, really?

I got home around 1 am and learned that my dear friend Rada was in Savannah for the weekend, a mere 5 hours away. I contemplated driving up there, realized that was stupid, wrote in my journal about said wetlands instead until falling asleep circa 4 in the morning.

Then at 10:30 this morning I got in my car and drove to Savannah. My kitchen boss, Rudra Das, had mentioned more than once that I could take a day off if I ever needed to, so I walked away from a pot of potatoes what needed chopping and went on a crazy mini-roadtrip instead.

Let's clarify "mini?" I think I did more total driving today than on any other single day since leaving Los Angeles. Sedona to Amarillo was definitely more hours, thanks to the snow, but this was 50 more miles.

And I love Rada. Like, a lot, even. But it takes some unusual circumstances for me to drive 700 miles in a day to spend one hour with anyone. I've been here at the Ashram for a month, intense emotional wetlands and whatnot, and in that time I hadn't laid eyes on anyone I've known from anywhere else. My heart craved a few hours' driving solitude and a reality check from a Yotam expert.

I've been working on leading from my heart instead of my head. As I chopped the first few potatoes, my heart kept saying "Savannah" while my head said "That's ridiculous." But my head thought about it a little longer and said, "Well, if that's really what you want, I guess we can go to Savannah." My heart just nodded.

I spent the drive up in contemplation and radio. NPR podcasts are my travel buddy, btw. Between "Planet Money" segments, I tried to settle into waiting, just waiting through the miles, feeling what it was like to obey Heart.

I noticed, somewhere in northern Florida, that I'd been approaching opening my heart the wrong way. I can feel crappy sometimes, and I can feel happy sometimes, but neither one of those is really satisfying. I found something awesome when I opened up to feeling happy AND crappy at the same time. To put it more mystically, I stretched my heart across the chasm between the worst of what is and the best of what could be and felt them flow to one another.

I've used the word "Heart" six times now in three paragraphs, and I don't really know what I mean there. I'm not a heart realist in any non-biological sense of the word. But I've been exploring my reactions to the word in different scenarios, and finding that all very wonderful. However many weeks from now, when my main narrative catches up with the Intermission, that will all probably make a lot more sense to me.

I found Rada, and it was excellent. I gave her a ride from the Savannah Chili's to the Savannah Airport, and we talked about how childhood and adolescence are kind of homogenizing, then in college and young adulthood we rediscover our uniqueness. My half of the conversation, I was kinda riffing on this article. (Hat tip to Surya for sending it to me a couple weeks ago.)


An hour of Rada is never enough, but was nevertheless delectable. Reality? Totally checked.

On the ride back, I made a "Can do" list. "To do" lists always abuse their power.

I called Luke, and I asked him if I have a moral obligation to know more about the worst of what's going on in the world. I pray for an end to bad shit (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our consume-and-pollute form of capitalism, folks still killing folks in Darfur). Do I have a responsibility to know the details of these problems, even if I may not take direct action? We didn't reach a definitive answer, naturally, and your thoughts are of course more than welcome. But we did end up talking for 3 hours about the nature of tragedy, the role of tragedy in personal development, the nature of personal development, and why I love Community so much (Thursdays on NBC!). We glided seamlessly more than once between Rabbis as a metaphor for Architects and Architects as a metaphor for Rabbis, which, frankly, was amazing.

Luke is an Architect. So that part should make sense now.

One last shoutout goes to Ben and Bianca, who also kept me company for an hour of the road back to the Ashram. They're gonna post the website for their upcoming theatrical production in the comments section, and anyone in or near Los Angeles should attend it. We did less philosophy and more catch up and Star Trek sequel speculation, but I missed them and needed some compassionate listening.

I probably miss you, too, by the way. I don't want you to think you're not special to me just because I'm not calling you out.

So, 12 hours out I got home again. I'm exhausted, satisfied, well socialized, and ready for more spiritual growth, heart wrenching selfsploration, and potato chopping come the sunshine. But there's a swimming pool outside I haven't used before, and Mr. Heart says I need a quick dip before bed.



(ho ho ho)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Introduction to the Ashram, Running away, and Jewish guilt

Dear Friends,

It's hard to write about the Ashram. Every once in a while I start thinking I understand what's going on here, and, well, you know how that goes...

I got to hang out with Rodger Kamenetz for a couple hours in New Orleans. He made a career, for a while, meeting spiritual leaders and writing about their work. My father is featured prominently in one of his books, and Rodger wrote most of a biography about him that may never be published. They're friends.

Rodger's advice for writing about important things was to start physical, then go biographical, and end mystical if you get there at all. So let's try that with the Ashram and see what happens.

Physically speaking, we've got a few acres here, kind of meadowy fields interspersed with a forest/swam blend they call "wetlands." (Do people know this? I'd never head of it before.) It is Florida, so you've got bright green grass, a bright blue sky, and bright yellow sunlight. When it rains, like today, you've got a bright grey sky instead. At night, when it's not raining, the brightest stars I've seen in a long time. We're right up against a river to the west, and sometimes I brave the mosquitoes to watch the sunset.

About 80 or so people live on the Ashram, and most of them work off-site. We gather for common meals four times a week, and for Darshan (teaching and guided meditation from Guru Ma Jaya) three nights a week. The rest of the time, most folks just live here. A couple dozen, maybe, work in the office or the yoga studio, or maintain the grounds.

I work in the kitchen as needed, mostly chopping, peeling, and washing whatever needs it. My boss there is a smart, funny, enthusiastic guy who has lived here since he was 13 (he's 44 now). He's got a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a BA in computer science, and he cooks and takes care of Ma and travels with her anywhere she goes. I started calling him "boss," 'cause he's my boss, then he started calling me "boss," 'cause he's just cool like that. Working in the kitchen with Swami Rudra Das is the most fun I have all week.

The food is pretty healthy, I'm often outdoors, and I go to the occasional yoga class, so I'm already buckling my belt about two inches tighter. That feels good, but I'm trying not to pay it much attention.

I thought I would see Ma every day, or every other day, or some kind of regularly. I expected a spiritual training regimen, learning to see with my 3rd eye and be one with the universe. Instead of a montage, I've only had two encounters with Ma since getting here, outside of Darshan.

The first encounter was right after I arrived. She called me in to her private rooms and kinda looked me over. She told me I have a gift, and I'd be selfish not to share with the world. She also told me I was limited by my pride and jealousy and I had to shape up. I told her "I just want to know what I'm doing," and she said "Right now, what you're doing is running away from life." . At that moment, exhausted from two weeks of travel and adventure, halfway through a nasty cold, I probably was. Ma told me that when a woman tries to get close to me I put a wall up between us, and that's why I'm lonely. She told me to meditate sometimes on the question "Who am I?" without really attempting a definitive answer. She asked about my father and step-mother's health. She asked whether I have good friends, what I was doing in Los Angeles, and what my plans are for the future. I'd been crying from nearly the moment I entered the room, just overwhelmed by her presence.

Ma told me to look into her eyes, and then she did something. She calls it "taking me in." I don't really remember what she said while this was happening, but I felt a great flow of energy passing through me. It felt like a wedge of my skull was opened up, and my head was immersed in a warm river. I felt the presence of God, and told myself that no one has died this way. A couple times I closed my eyes, which Ma had said to do if I got scared. When I did, Ma asked me what my guilt was about. I said I felt like a bad Jew for the many rules I don't follow. When it was done, she said I was brave for how much I had handled.

Ma gave me a hug, told me she loved me, and sent me on my way. She said we'd do more (I assumed, still, that meant soon and often) and to think about everything she'd said. She told me to meditate sometimes by dwelling on the question - but not trying to answer it - "Who am I?" On my way out the door, she said that we need to get me past crying. "By the time you leave," said Ma, "You'll be a laughing fool."

I went for a walk and cried some more, kind of swimming back into normal reality. I went to sleep early that night.

I knocked down "running away from life" pretty quickly. Once I got over the "No I'm not. Shut up!" hurdle, it only took me a day or so. I had been in comfort-seeking mode since I got to the Ashram, and Ma made me see that. I'd lost sight of the purpose-seeking that carried me out of LA. So I got over my cold, reminded myself this was serious business, and spent a while breathing into my belly and stoking the fires there. That one felt like a throw-away, an easy one, just to make sure I was listening.

Feeling like a bad Jew was a bit harder, but I happen to know an authority on good Judaism. I called up Rabbi Father and asked what being a good Jew is about. He listed a few things. One is engagement with the calendar, which I can buy into. The Jewish calendar guides and structures our spiritual lives, and I'm hardly an expert, but I think I get what it's about. Two is loving the Torah, and I do. I don't understand why, honestly, but holding a Torah scroll, or just being near one, is always powerful and inspiring for me, and it feels like love. Considering the text, instead of the object - I don't know who wrote it, when, or why, but I sincerely believe that the Torah contains more wisdom than I can understand. Three was covenant. I'd always thought, on some well-hidden level, that a covenant with God mean there was some set of rules I should be following (although maybe not the Orthodox ones, exactly), and not following them made me a bad Jew. My father's interpretation of covenant is that I should be studying the traditional rules, letting them point me toward God, and earnestly seeking to know what God wants of me. So I'm a good Jew, but being a good Jew is a process.

The difference might sound like semantics, or like an excuse for lazy Judaism, but it was a big shift in thought for me. Wrestling with the commandments is being a good Jew, not evidence that I'm a bad one. Accepting that let me open much more deeply to God and Torah, and lightened my burdens. When it hit me I cried less and laughed more, and I take that to be a great sign.

This is a lot for one night, so I'll leave it there and go to sleep now. Some Pride, more laughing foolishness, and my second encounter with Ma coming up soon. Hopefully it won't take three more weeks for me to post again, but I'm making no promises. This is a crazy place, and it took a lot of false starts to write anything.

You are loved by the Universe. Isn't that wonderful?