watching the river flow

august 2, 2006

alleppey, india

ok, you somewhat sinking and despairing wisdom seekers,

you figure i came to ind-ja for some mind-altering discovery of truth, wisdom, self knowledge, enlightenment, and healing, or at least for a meaningful dose of spirituality. not for motor bikes, red hair, curries, kathakali, death-defying, karmic descents from green tea mountain tops, or even black tongues (mostly gone, probably more due to an overdose of pepto bismal than any laying on of psychic hands - sorry),

well, i will try not to disappoint you.

first, a little history of indian thought, philosophy, and spirituality, as revealed by centuries of written material in sanskrit, and condensed by india's 1st and only nobel laureate in literature, rabindrath tagore, and no doubt mangled and passed on by your humble servant and mumbo jumbo traveler, krishna true-less.

there are 3 stages of this literature:

first, there are the vedic hymns or "vedas", dating back to at least 1500 b.c. (as confirmed by the skeptical western researchers) and probably being much older. these are a poetic testament of an ancient and innocent people's collective reaction to the wonder and awe of existence. they attribute divinity to every element and force of nature. thousands of gods and goddesses: vishnu, shiva, paravati, krishna, ganesh (the elephant headed dude), etc. etc. a little like any pagan mythology. roman, greek, egyptian, etc. (and long before the all-knowing, all-punishing and omnipotent judeo-christian-islamic one-god, yahweh). the vedas are a brave and joyous testament of a more simple and innocent time and people, in which fear of the gods was balanced by an equal and beautiful trust in them.

next, there are the "upanishads", the next stage of sacred sanskrit indian philosophy and literature. these express the same wonder and poetry as the vedas, deepened and widened by the calm of meditation. they express a keener spiritual longing and shift the emphasis from the wonder at the world outside, to the significance of the self within. the individual self yearns to unite with the supreme self, which though unknowable and incomprehensible, is yet realized through self discipline and knowledge of the self in the human experience.

finally, there is the "bhagavadgita", which, through the imaginative story of krishna and arjuna, approaches reality through love and devotion. neither the self control and discipline of meditation, as found in the upanishads, nor yoga (a physical and spiritual connecting to the greater self, nothing like our corrupted "power yoga" in the west) are enough in themselves. but through righteous, devoted, and detached living, the individual is helped to rise above the demands of the ego and to identify with the supreme self (atman?). “love is all you need”, once again.

this sequence is a lovely one, i think, as it evolves from a self-centered anthropomorphism and the creation of a fickle cosmology of gods and goddesses, to a transcendence of the individual self through a connection with the universal self, to a focus, love, and devotion outside the self - to another, or, “the other”. finally, whether we look at hinduism (above), buddhism, christianity, islam, it all seems to come down to the same thing. spirituality is about transcendence, about losing the ego-bound and desirous self in something greater, in service, in love of another, or - the other.

and the sequence from a child-like and mindless worship of all-powerful, magically-endowed deities (shiva, jesus, allah, etc) and a dependence on them for external things (i pray/ask for money, health, love, whatever) - to a more self-centered, but ultimately self-less kind of connection - are what religions, to my mind, are so limited in offering, and what those on a more "spiritual" path are, in fact, seeking.

so -- i'm down from the mountain, now at sea level again, down in laid back alleppey, sweating and smiling, and watching the river flow. i have a little bamboo hut on the "backwaters" of keral-lalala, and i am sitting in the "grandfather" chair with both my legs on the extended long arms of the teak wood chair. it is the chair of the senior member of the community or the "grandfather", and smiling rajeev tells me i look "right" in the chair. i smile back at him and - watch the river flow. i don't move a muscle, and everything floats by: little clumps of green and purple water lilies, giant 3-bedroom bamboo house boats, equipped with smiling, agape, and camera-popping tourists, tiny fishing canoes, 5-person kayaks, downpourings of monsoon, and right now, the 200 foot, hundred man "snake boats", the longest boats in the world, which are practicing for the end of august annual race, covered by national geographic and camera crews from around the world.

the key is in not moving, and in letting the world come to you. it does, you know. you don't have to aspire to be on the expensive house boat, which costs mucho more rupees, and simply carries its hungry ghost world floaters-by, looking, longing, at you, on the shore. the delicious fresh caught fish dinners come to you. and the communal barbecues with french, australian, indian, and world-wise travelers sitting around the guest house patio, swapping stories and insights from far off places like rajastan, tibet, new york, LA, bordeaux and sidney. it all sounds and tastes like a delicious alleppey stew, and the grandfather with red hair is treated with respect and curiosity as he talks about clowning and cancer and solo performance and art.

the next day, i reluctantly decide to move. i'm planning to go see the current guru du jour, the hugging "ama", i.e. the hugging "mother" who is supposed to embrace every visitor and devotee in a mother theresa-like hug of healing, enlightenment, cure, and whatever the imaginative huggee desires. but just before i go, a lovely real-life theresa from swaziland, tells me to go see a more local and less famous, swami, just down the road in varkala by 100 rupee rickshaw. she says she's been hugged by ama several times and actually experienced nothing at all; in fact, noticing that giant ama was paying more attention to her aide de camp for information about the next huggee, than to the current huggee enveloped in her magnificent and beatific arms. "a hoax?", i intone. "well", says theresa, "as far as i can tell, there are a lot of desperate and weak-willed sycophants surrounding ama, each more invested than the other, in petty squabbles for her attention and approval. go see the swami in varkala. he's much more accessible. and tell him i sent you."

so i go. to see the swami. he sees me. just me and him. a tete a tete with the swami. a part of me feels weird. what am i doing here? what am i supposed to say to the swami? i don’t really know, but i  say, "hello swami. next month i will be 59 years old, and i've never met a swami before." he smiles. he asks me where i’m from. i tell him. he says he’s been to america before. a well-traveled swami. he asks me if i want to go to the ashram's dining hall to have something to eat. "i'm hungry," he says. we do. go to the dining hall. i'm afraid of washing my hands in the tap water. i do. i'm afraid of drinking the "natural spring water", dyed red with some ayurvedic import. i drink it. i eat whatever the swami eats. with my hands, of course. it's good. we talk. about how and when he became a swami. "i used to by a mechanical engineer. thirty years ago." we chat. his eyes don't quite focus on me. they seem to be slightly crossed, and lost, in a life spent too long in meditation. he's very warm and human though.

we walk to his office. i sit across from him. "ok," he says, "your turn. ask me whatever you'd like." i ask. about spirituality. "it has nothing to do with religion," he says. i'm encouraged. a wise swami. "it's about losing the ego and connecting to the higher self. however you do that is fine." i'm pleased. i ask about love. "too many people choose a partner to make them feel better about themselves. this is not good. it can be dangerous." "co-dependent," i say. "yes,” he answers". i ask if he gives personal advice. "sometimes," he says. i can't tell if he's looking at me or somewhere within himself. we smile a lot between each other. i'm not intimidated, as i might have been when i was younger. we must be about the same age. about 30 years ago, i dropped pre-med and became a modern dancer, an artist, a clown. now i'm a teacher. him too.

no, i'm not a swami, BUT he tells me i look like one. my eyes, my beads, my energy. riiiiight, swami krishna true-less. but still, swami seems to confirm what i already know. what i knew before i came to india. i'm on the right path. i think. sometimes, i know. less ego, more transcendence. less me, more love and devotion. that's what my marriage has been about. generosity, challenge, giving. expecting nothing back. one lesson after another -- in selflessness. a long way to go, of course. no arrival, of course. just steps along the road. every day asks more. asks the impossible. but living each day. everyday. each moment. rising to each challenge. one at a time.

"strength, courage, and wisdom. inside of me. all along." -- india.arie

the next couple of days, by virtue of lovely theresa from swaziland again, finds "grandpa" at varkala beach, almost at the southern tip of sumptuous india. a few more trains, buses, and rickshaws have deposited him/me at "krishnatheeram resort", right on the cliffs of varkala, with a pacific palisades view of the arabian sea, and better yet, direct access to a delightful and delicious swim in the wild and salty surf. i've been waiting the whole trip for this holy dip in the big salty. i'm wearing LA's dave's left-on-lucretia swim suit, and i'm dipping and diving away, and the currents are kind to me, and i am…..

dancing between the rain drops.

wishing you were here. or next year, on a house boat in alleppey. let's goooooooooo. even better than the beaches of goa.

you/we/i don't need no hugging ama. "strength, courage, and wisdom. inside of us. all along................"

still watching the river flow.... as i taxi to the airport at 3:30 this morning, and fly back to the desert of LA from the sweat and stench of india..............

still watching the river flow................

om out,

swami not, krishna true-less