There is a funny quality to the BAPS Temple, in that at times I feel at a distance from the place. For a start we have to give our names at the gate before we can get in. There is a logic to this that I can understand… but it doesn’t “feel good.” And more puzzling, I was struck again with how we women have to sit in the back and had to eat and gather separately from the men. Is this really the least bit holy? Instead of taking the higher road and learning to master their minds, hearts and desires, why do the men insist we be segregated, is it to protect them from their own weaknesses? The irony is that women are no threat to men, I mean what do men have to fear, that they might have a sexual fantasy? On the other hand, what do women have to fear from men? Sexual harassment, rape, abuse, it seems the situation here is upside down and that the men should, if they insist on segregating us, have to sit in the back so as to contemplate why they cannot control their minds. Simply put, women are people, not “distractions.” This does, however, have a grand upside… we don’t have to be surrounded by men! It is, quite frankly, rather lovely to be free from them. I, for one, love being surrounded only by other women. And fully embracing duality here, to be honest, I found the old-fashoned segregation of genders somehow warm and charming, especially considering their determination to respect their traditions and not budge for a modern mindset. For me, this whole “thing” creates a vibratory cognitive dissonance that I cannot resolve and mostly embrace joyfully. Simply put, while the segregation annoys me a tad, I also rather like being a part of it. So, in the end, for all my questions, who’s to say, who’s to judge? Not me. But a rock ain’t gonna stop a river from flowing, and that ain’t gonna stop me from asking these questions.
…Ah… but then… was I discriminated against? I was refused admittance to the main event of the evening. While I usually find myself extremely welcome among Indians (who are the most welcoming and hospitable people I have ever met), once in a while I encounter situations like this. Manharji would have none of this and somehow his presence got me into the event, and for some reason, at this point I was personally escorted to the front row of the women’s section, and there I met the lovely, smiling and exemplarily hospitable Rameshi (if I got that right), who truly understood the Hindu tradition that guests are to be treated like visiting Deities. She was a delight to talk to and wanted nothing more than to make me feel welcome. To say the least, my BAPS experiences, at times, leave me with a lot of questions. All the same, I revere the place even if I, respectfully, have some questions.
But enough of that, when the event ended I was shuttled along in a river of Indian women, bustling, bumping, and reminding me once and for all that among Indians there is no such thing as personal space. While most Americans might find this intolerable and offensive, I, personally, truly love physical contact, and found their fearless physicality refreshing and warm. Apart from being far taller than most of them, I felt absolutely at home among the Indian women. Once we got into the women’s dining hall, I was treated to a lovely thali plate, and sat on the floor with the other women and ate, like many of them, with my fingers.
But so it goes at BAPS, segregation on one hand, a warm welcome and inspired beauty on the other; being excluded on the one hand, and being treated by the Indian women like one of them on the other. But through it all, being in awe of the divinity I feel in that temple.Shortly after, Manharji dropped me off at the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, which he felt would be the perfect central place for me to stay as it was between Patel Plaza, the BAPS Temple, the Chinmaya Mission and the Global Mall (which has a Shiva Mandir and a Ganesh shrine as well as great Indian food and shops). That night, after Manharji left, the presiding monk, Brother Shankara, said he wanted to know about me. We sat in the library and he asked, “What brought you here?”
“Well,” I started, smiling, feeling already a deep sense of relief, “that’s gonna get us right to the heart of the matter, isn’t it?” To which he told me he didn’t want to waste time on small talk, and neither did I, so we dug in. What followed was not only exactly the talk I needed to have, were not only the words I needed to hear, but I was in the presence of exactly who I needed to be talking with. My gut, God, and Manharji had been right. Yes, the impulse I had to get out of Gainesville NOW was the voice of Durga (or “The Mother,” as Brother Shankara insisted) drawing me into the arms of wisdom and caring. This is an important lesson, which is that if you listen to yourself, without making excuses, and just up and “Get On The Right Thing,” rather than sinking further down, Consciousness, Brahman, Gurus and your gut will always lead you to where you need to be, to who you need to be talking with, to what you need to know, to how it’s all going to work out, and to why… well… to why I needed to follow that impulse to simply drop everything and go. Once your consciousness tunes into the higher consciousness, your own consciousness becomes guided by the supreme consciousness. This is how consciousness works, consciousness will lead one consciously to the consciousness one needs, but you have to both surrender and listen. I have taken many such leaps of faith, and they have always worked out. I had no plans, no reservations, I just placed my fate in the hands of Manharji and God, and landed in the care of the people and situations I needed. In other words, however hard I could have tried, I could not have researched, planned or organized anything as profoundly perfect as this all turned out to be. Even the suffering that led to my restless and sudden impulse to leave was a boon, the blessing that placed me in the care of people and places that will continue to nourish me as I travel deeper down the path of a seeker.
I started by telling Brother Shankara everything I have just told you in this writing so far, then we dug in deep, real deep, and got straight to the heart of the matter.
I told him how over the past few weeks I have backslid, and how I became overwhelmed with fears and doubts. I began wondering, what if I am nothing more than flesh and blood, the descendant of fesces flinging monkeys, here to vote for or against Trump, here to watch Monday Night Football… or not, here to text, Facebook, and here to decide between eating at McDonalds or eating vegan “cookies.” What if all this God stuff is nonsense? What if all the time I spent monastically at home in the forest, meditating, contemplating, hiking and studying scriptures was a waste of time? What if the joy and peace I experienced then was a delusion, was nothing more than me avoiding “reality?” All of this had made me miserable, and had led to a depressive and anxiety state so deep that I began seeking distraction. It led me to such distraction that I began looking for answers that could come only from outside, from other people, and this led to disappointment, which led to a clinging attachment, which led to frustration, sadness, anger, loneliness and bitterness. By the bitter end of it, Wednesday’s class, I had lost my way, I had no longer had any control over my own emotions. Like Sita, “Ram, get me that deer,” I had let myself become distracted, my mind like that of the frightened and fleeing deer… and what happened to Ram and Sita after that? Well, if you don’t know the story, everything unravelled and all hell broke loose!
I lost my ability to discern, I had sunk into suffering by clinging to materialism for answers I knew the world did not contain, by seeking love and comfort no one around me was in a position cared to offer. “Ram, get me that deer.”
He knew, of course, that the root of the problem was not loneliness, but my spiritual crisis, he asked how long I had been a seeker. I churned that through in my memory and said, “Oh… seven years.”
He applauded and laughed, “Right on schedule. I hate to tell you this, Justine, but you are right on schedule.” He then elaborated and explained to me that they call this the “seven-year itch.” I don’t know why, but for some reason, the seven-year mark seems to be very difficult for serious seekers. Who knew? To say the least, I was greatly relieved, as this normalized a situation that I thought had become my own personal hell. Now I knew that my own personal hell was so universal as to be laughably predictable. He went on to explain that these battles and backslides never end, that even the most advanced of seekers and the most realized of beings have them. On one level it was a huge relief, on another it was somewhat devastating to know that I had more of this coming. I was hoping for a point of no return to happen, in which I would slide into joy until death, and that would be that. Yes, I now understood, even enlightened beings have vasanas, and have to contend with being “space-time meat vehicles.” I began to see Osho (Rajneesh, a controversial Guru) with more clarity. Of course Rajneesh proved to be dangerously insane, paranoid and delusional… but those traits did not mean he was not also wise, insightful and worthy of respectful consideration. Once one embraces Sanatana Dharma, one realizes that there are no easy answers… none! And… if you think there are… may God help you.
We talked about the great story of the Devas and Asuras churning the sea for Amrita, and of how, in so doing, they released the poisons, and I told him I felt like I was at that stage where the poisons could destroy me, the world (as my notion of “reality” has been permanently destroyed, in the Shivanic sense), and the Gods. He seemed to thrive on hearing about my battles, not through any Sadism, but because I was revealing myself to him as a “serious seeker” (as he referred to me continuously), and he recognized in me that I am one of them.
“Gooble gobble.. one of us… one of us!”
In the end he welcomed me into the fold, told me I was allowed to come here at any time, and that I could call on him day or night to talk, and that he wanted me to know how much he meant that. I told him I have students who I try and help, and that I do know that he means it, as so do I. So, yes, not only have I found a new Guru in Brother Shankara, but I have found a new family of seekers. And beyond that, there is and was no pressure, as they say, “The doors of the ashram are always open,” meaning you can come and go and come and go. I can rise and fall, revel and doubt, and the Vedanta Center and Brother Shankara will be there. I can be human, can make mistakes, can choose a path that is not the one focused on at the Vedanta Center, as there are so many paths within Sanatana Dharma and I do not yet know which one is for me, and yet still be on the path of liberation, and be part of their community. Brother Shankara in no way pressured me to follow the path of the Vedanta Center, and warmly welcomed and honored the path I was on… or will resolve myself to.
By the end of our talks I felt the beginning of a healing. I feel now like I will have deeper insight and wisdom as I deal with these downsides and backslides that are all part of the spiritual journey, that are all part of the process of learning to master the mind. Will I ever truly master my mind? I don’t know, but I do know that the process has already provided me with many boons and greater peace and joy, and now the homes, friends and teachers I will need along the path.
Next: Part 2 of 3… And much much more…