Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Accessing the New Non-Dualism: The Sacred and Why Our Lives May Depend On It

It is not a little ironic that the majority of yoga traditions share with traditional forms of Christianity the ethos of the spiritual-is-not-material. The fraudulent “Prosperity Gospel” types notwithstanding, let us not forget that early Christianity not only abjured the world and Caesar’s materialism, it was quite sure that The End was near. ‘Seems we’re still waiting (look busy).

But in the meantime remember that the call to poverty, simplicity, and non-attachment can in certain yoga traditions go just as far as the End of the Worlders, it can mean a downright aversion to life itself. (You have to do third level chart asana to get that word “abhiniveśa” not to mean something like “disdain” or “aversion” to life. Really.) So since at least Vivekananda ---no friend to asana practitioners, by the way--- there’s been a consistent yoga meme that a “true” spiritual life diminishes our interests in material acquisition, attenuates our desires, and brings us closer to [name your goal here] when we are less interested in “things.”

To make a little irony a lot more irony, modern postural yoga better known around here as Aisle 9a where you find it in the local grocery store (I kid you not…), is all about the body, wellness, cool tights and mats and stuff, and apparently smoothies too. Lord knows, you’re not supposed to aver your embodiment but care of it--- all the while looking for some kind of honest relief from the maelstrom, maybe even buy yourself a mattress from Rodney. (Bless him, my calling him out here I mean to express a pure sense of envy and acquisitive admiration…) Yogis seem conflicted over things until they realize that they can’t actually live without them.

Your yoga hasn’t made any of that getting along with stuff easier on you because it's working from the subliminal cultural ethos of our ol’Protestant ethic and that pesky spirit of capitalism. Who knew capitalism had spirit? Weber? We ephemeral temporal beings have a helluva’ time talking about our temporal needs much less our desires, much less those kinds of desires that speak to things we don’t absolutelypositively-reallyreally say we need. 

 Guilt follows us around like a ten minute ASPCA commercial. But nonetheless we persist, laden as we are with bodies that wear clothes, are stuck at 98.6 degrees and so workin’ that complicated comfort thing known as homeostasis, getting a bit warmer or cooler all the time. We still having to get around the world as we age, procreate, get sick, die, and mostly dissimulate further and further about being material selves. Since we don’t survive death, we invent ways to say we do.

Well, I have had just about enough of this disavowal of “stuff.” You may want some next spiritual garage sale or to make your bourgeoisie case for even less Scandinavian furniture and more Zen walls but I got news for ya’: you are a material being, stuff matters, and we need to read this stuff memo far more carefully before we go and recycle it. We are not just our thoughts and feelings. We are not less material and somehow just ethereal. However limited, mortal, and conditioned we are, you are here right now, never less a churnin’urn of burnin’funk and I gots news for you, you wouldn’t want it any other way. At least not anytime soon. So get with stuff. Get that you like it, need it, want it, and must deal with it.

Now all of this is to say that stuff actually can be the cause of our problems, even if you were just thinking that I was going to tell you otherwise. So fear not, I don’t have a problem with stuff, until I do. I have a serious problem with the kinds of stuff that make other people’s lives miserable. I call that stuff, profane stuff. And this spiritual thing is about getting with the sacred. Where I live lawn darts are illegal because people can get hurt, especially children. Lawn darts are profane. Guns too. But guns are more than readily available things, they are a right, and so by my sacred criteria even more of a thing, not less.

That too is part of the problem: guns are not treated enough like other things or, to put it plainly, as plain things. Guns in America are somehow your right, no matter what thing they are, and rights are sacred. That means that rights are things we protect and claim provide special purpose and meaning. Rights protect our freedoms by limiting certain kinds of access. That’s at least some of the important issue here in America and our problem. In other places decidedly more sane and no less material or stuff-ly, guns are things that, like lawn darts, are either illegal or, like Sudafed, something you have to have a reason to buy if, you know, you’re looking to do some real damage.

But in America, guns are your Constitutional Right, a fact writ so large into our consciousness that it warrants Capital Letters. We not only fetish our guns, we really, really fetish our rights. That’s not a terrible thing or wrong thing. It’s a sacred thing. And while rights are mere propositions, virtual things that exist in our heads in ways that are only secondarily in our bodies, they take us to the issues that make things sacred, or not. The guns are real and rights are sacred, let’s be clear. It’s not at all clear than everyone still believes that our rights to guns should be sacred. For the time being, let that one slide. We need to make a more important point.

When it comes to things, what we call “the sacred” is both the thing and it is access to the thing. To possess a thing is to have access. Materially speaking, this is the veritable meaning of a difference without a distinction. The things we call “sacred” require privileged access and particular kinds of restrictions, limitations, and values. Otherwise they are nothing but profanity. When a right is unrestricted is it no longer sacred, by definition; rather it is the profane itself, divorced from things and from access to things.

Don’t mistake me, I’m not saying that guns are sacred. I am saying we view our rights to be sacred, and that sacred is about access to things. In fact, I want to say that our rights are especially meaningful when they are connected to material things and so speak to the sacred, to our accessing things. The point is simple: let’s not separate our thoughts from our things, let’s not separate the ideas we deem valuable from the material world in which we live. 

We can even propose this to be our entirely new definition of “non-dualism”: the kind that insists that thoughts and feelings must not be separated from bodies, things, and the…ummm, you know, the real world. Further, our non-duality is better fathomed NOT as oneness but as a world of manyness: the things of the world, like our thoughts and feelings, are plural, diverse, complex, and often so necessarily confusing. So much more the reason we need a concept of the sacred that identifies things with access and our access to things as sacred.

We will not be made less complicated by our new non-dualism though life did, in fact, just get a wee bit simpler. You see, we can now take the indissolvable relationship we really have between thoughts and feelings and things in the world more seriously. We don’t get to say that how we feel is somehow independent of things anymore than we claim that things burden our thinking and feeling. We’re now of this world in everyway. If we want the sacred, that is, a spiritual life with things and thoughts and feelings, then we are going to have to create meaningful points of access. Access, we already know, leads us back to things.

As we witness America's failing leadership and test our collective character, we're heartened by the resolve and candor, the decency and determination of teenagers. They know what needs to be done. Hand it to young millenials to know that the virtual world is real, that their feelings and thoughts involve their relationship to real things in the world, like guns and locks and doors and crazy people. They understand there are serious issues of mental health and moral decency. But, more importantly, they are attuned to a world of material facts and the consequences of access, corruption, and ethical denial. They are mad as hell and they mean to make a difference because they know that our rights are profane if there is no burden of access to the things of the world. Too much access not only renders the sacred meaningless: it renders things promiscuous, usually downright dangerous and wrong. That too is what we mean by “profane.” Their ferocity and spirit is our gateway to the sacred, if we too have the willingness to take mortal thought and the material world as seriously they do, if we are willing to make spirit and matter inextricable from one another.

So let's first be clear here about our feelings: anger, outrage, and passion can indeed be allies. What _might_ be different this time is that there is enough of all of these feelings to animate voters and provoke change. What we need to change involves things, not just ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Lemme put this as plainly as I can: It's the guns, stupid. What we must manage is access. As these young people have said time and again now, the change we must demand is not limited to feelings and thoughts and ideas about freedom. We can’t be free unless we decide too that our points of access to things either free us or burden us further.

The NRA and the vast majority of Republicans have supported and advanced _unrestricted_ access to guns because, as Senator Lankford of OK put it again, for them it's not the guns but the person behind the gun. Ironically, the Party most committed to pecuniary material profit, to a pure economics of greed is the one claiming our situation is purely a matter of soul. The thing, the gun doesn’t matter because that too is not a thing at all. It is truly a right. Their dualism is complete. The person is nothing but a responsibility, the gun is a right, thus the gun cannot be the problem because, well, it's only sort of a thing at all.  Leave to a Republican to make the case that the material world is nothing but spirit.

Listening to Lankford drove me further into apoplexy and asperity. I could feel it all the way down to my spleen, wherever exactly that is. And I also tell myself that in a democracy we make room for dissonance, for irreconcilable differences of opinion, for rancorous, even repugnant values we cannot abide. But the issue before us is not just rights or feelings or freedom as if these were not about things. To separate the two is the true false dualism. That dualism is the NRA’s religion. It has infected the souls of living, material beings. We must not succumb to their dualism.

Our opponents say that when we control our feelings, when we become responsible for our thoughts, then the gun is not the problem. This is an irrefutable argument. Or is it? What if we understand that things-in-the-world and access-to-things are just as real, in fact inseparable from feelings. Is there any care you have that doesn’t mean a thing?

We don’t need to be mentally ill to use a gun for nefarious or self-destructive purposes. We need access to realize our thoughts and feelings. In our new non-dualism that access, that thing, that gun can’t be separated from our thoughts and feelings, no matter what sorts we have. What I can and cannot access in the material world may in truth bring the world more sacred truth. Our lives may depend on that. The sacred surely does.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Art, the Artist, Truth, and the Liar: Finding the Space of In-Between

I have been unburdened by fear of "the boss" for many years now and have tried to use that power and privilege to pay it forward. Tenured University professors can do some good in the world by standing with the less powerful and doing their level best to speak the truth. When someone with my privilege violates a basic moral code of decency or uses power for far less noble ends then the foundations of trust as well as the very notion of honest standards are undermined. When we know there is no equality then where is equity? We don't, in truth, want equality since that would reduce everything to sameness. We want equity, and that is value judgment of fairness. And what is that?

We must revise systems that confer privilege but create inequities of opportunity. But no matter how that privilege has been won it should remain contentious and conflicting for us: how to separate or distinguish the work from the worker, the message from the messenger, the art from the artist, the truth from the one delivering it who may be in so many other respects a liar. We're going to have to create a field for that possibility and a method for occupying such a field with integrity and seriousness.

The list of failed human beings ---failed by hypocrisy, deed, the grave disparity between what they may have accomplished and how they live or lived will include all of us. Let's rid ourselves of the immaculate saint or, worse, the attribution of moral superiority itself. I can think of few more insidious beliefs than the attribution of saintliness to yet another one among us. This is not to cast everyone so much the sinner as it is to say that to fail is to be human ---and that the greatest things ever accomplished came through the alleyways and down the main thoroughfares of failure.

It is particularly disheartening, of course, when moral failure particularly taints an object of great value ---Picasso as a person, Picasso's art. Chuck Close is the latest in the list of reprovables whose work is now the subject of censure and even removal from public galleries. The ethics police may have done their job, the Law and Order franchise produces its justice but when the outcome means that we no longer have the art, the work, the creation of value because the artist or creator is deeply flawed, then perhaps we have lost more than we have gained. It's impossible to separate the creation from its creator so instead we must learn to live in the field that exists between them--- at the boundaries and in the middle, all at once.

It is no small matter that Jefferson was a slave holder, a liar, and by nearly any standard of our age a rapist ---and that he wrote (most of) the immortal words of the American Declaration. What are we without those words and ideals? What are we with the shadow of Jefferson, if we are wise enough to take that seriously too? And there are no immortal words without those shadows. Lincoln too came too slowly to the abolitionist's moral clarity but would have America reached any new birth of freedom in the form of the 13th Amendment had he been less morally corrupt? Might not the inexcusable scourge remained even longer had he not charted a course of corrupted pragmatism? Let us add that he seemed adroitly aware of his corruption and hypocrisy. How that must have troubled his heart, no? I try to imagine what it was like to bear that burden of lies and moral corruption when the pursuit of decency and truth was so troubled, so incomplete and fraught with irreconcilable facts.

If we are unable to distinguish the value of the art, the value of the work, or even the truth that is so important to us _in_ the work from their deeply flawed human creators, what is left? How do we deal with this? What would the museums and library shelves of the world look like if every hypocrite or moral failure were purged? It's easier somehow to castigate the political where corruption can be understood as part of the job description. 'Tis messy business this being human.

So what do we do when our teachers fail us and the teachings remain valuable? The inevitable "it is great but..." conversation begins, of course, and how is that helpful when there is no possible righting of the situation?

This is why Rajanaka tells the stories of the gods and demons the way we do, where Shiva and Parvati and the lot of them do indeed disappoint, fail, and reveal their own shadows, regrets, and awkward remediations. They can't fix themselves either, nor are they redeemed by something else like karma or liberation or innate perfection however much the traditions would prefer this sort of bypass. And indeed everyone wants a pass, no one wants to believe that the immaculate or the perfect or at least the fixable and the learnable will not carry the day. What is god but a fixation on the impossible that we must claim for ourselves, for better and for worse.

But the greatness of the myths is that we can be sure that when Shiva or Hanuman or even Rama screws up, then takes the error to heart, and works with the process that they will screw it up _again_. However much is learned from a mistake, it's usually made again or then some other one. Imperfection knows no end and perfection has no beginning. I find some strange consolation in such imperfect gods because the perfect has proven that much more unhelpful.

So what next?

Rajanaka's teaching was Appa's first teaching to me: "If you like, you can come back tomorrow..." And so it was every single day we sat together. Sure, there were prospects for improvement and even genuine transformation, relief, rectification, and lessons well-learned. But the task was more than learning from mistakes or admitting that we are always in perpetual conflict between our ideals and our manifestation. Rajanaka teaches that the space of incongruity, the field that appears because of the irresolvable and inevitable recurrence of disconnection is the field of yoga, the field of connection. In other words, it is to inhabit that field of alterity where the conflict will necessarily define the field itself that makes us consider what we can do and who we want to be. To return to that dissimilarity between who we want to be and who we are: day after day and in story after story, that is what we need to do. Our effort is the process that sees the inevitable disconnection as a resource of deeper connection.

What must Jefferson have had to do to have endured, denied, addressed or refused to when he took the seat of his own heart? I struggle to imagine his inner pain and I wonder if it hurt so much that he had to deny it just to survive himself. How do any of us _live with ourselves_ when the struggle is real no matter how honestly or dishonestly we are living the truth within this space of incongruity and dissonance? In Rajanaka the "midline" opens and expands not only to drive us towards a greater sense of value but to compel us to occupy the place of our true dissonance, our always unfinished business of holding the world together (what is called loka-samgraha in Sanskrit). If we are not actually struggling and if this project of the midline's volatility is not our daily bread, we are likely not casting enough light on the shadow or being honest enough to the pursuit of virtue.

That place where we don't live up to what we could be is a moving target; it's never the same even for a moment, no matter how much of the same feelings seem to reoccupy that same space again and again. Feelings like fear, regret, jealous, shame, all of which are so challenging to treat as assets rather then mere liabilities. To engage that disproportion and asymmetry, to pause and gain sight of it, to create some perspective, and try to see just a bit more clearly what will never come fully into focus, we call that sarpa-drshti, or the "serpent vision." We are at once that serpent and we are its hamsa, it's nature adversarial predator. Put mythically, we're both snakes and birds, and there's more there to consider.

It is (a)ham is "I" and "sa" is "that", what is unseen is both the beginning ("a" the unseen first letter that is the first Sanskrit letter) and it is the object of our reflections, it is "that" (sah). If that was a bit confusing that's my fault. Suffice it to say, we are the creator and destroyer of all of the selves we need to see the next, the broken, or missing self. But that we must do. The tools are mythology and poetry, science and ritual, bodies, minds, and hearts engaged. The key to the yoga of such an engagement is just that: stay engaged, let the next story come, return again to the field that holds the disparities that confuse and challenge you.

I want to know everyday how it feels to hold together a world that cannot help but break again so it can continue to move and create light that invariably makes shadow because I want to burn more brightly. There will be no art then without failure or flaw; no poetry that ascends that does not fall; no truth that remains pure if what we want is to grow the truth. Moving like the serpent means we can learn to go _anywhere_. Learning the stillness of the serpent allows us to find the field of movement where nothing is immune to the outrageous fortunes that define the mortal condition. More soon, much more.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Phantom Memories: Hoarding, Archiving, and More about Darshan


I collect memories, among other things. Pretty much nearly all things. I don't have a problem with "things." I openly admit to liking "nice things" though I often doubt my adhikāra to have them. I might be unqualified for some nice things ---either because I know I can't afford them or because I will certain stain that white t-shirt the day I wear it. I might also be making you already uncomfortable with "things" and "keeping" but there are lots of ways to live and love. Tolerance isn't about liking what someone else does, it's about dealing with it.

When I mention something like keeping a this or that, my wife Susan coughs uncomfortably and whispers, "Hoarder..." She has a point. It's hard for me to part with things that matter to me. A _lot_ matters to me. Things, little things, seemingly inconsequential things, memory things and material things are often ways I keep track. Of course, lots of folks purge or take up Zen or act out their inner Protestant unconsciously because it's so very American to do that ---that part of you that thinks everything must go, throw it out, buy only Scandinavian or Shaker furniture, eat raw, leave no trace, no things.

Renunciate yogas have always been the most popular in the West--- Vedanta, most Buddhisms--- precisely because they are shadow forms of our collective Protestant past. We are being told without our consent that possession is a problem to solve. Let me make this more uncomfortable: I think of most interpretations of "Kashmir Shaivism" and "Tantra" as shadow consolations for trying to stay in the world with things but telling yourself that things aren't really things at all. I'm not buying it. Things matter because we too are thing in the world. If you want to reduce that to your consciousness, go ahead. You're still in the business of collecting so long as you are alive. What in the world matters to you? What do you want to want? Those are question swe can ask and revisit, and collect. How _you_ answer that question is what I think _your_ yoga is about. If you want less, go for it. Collect your selves as you see fit.

I call this empty-is-better view the murti-free existence and, personally, I want nothing to do with it. I have 330 Million gods, goddesses, demons, and demigods, at the very least. Everyday there are more. I'm also sentimental to the core and as I get older even a bit nostalgic. I'm wary of nostalgia in ways I am not of sentiment. Sentiments are pretty much all we got. The best part of nostalgia is that it invokes a certain kind of pain and lamentation into the mix of loss and the past. I'm good with that. I'm not trying to "get over" my losses. I know I have room for those too. I'm not looking to "go back" so much as "make room." There's always more room. More mind, more feeling, more soul, more music, more art, more memories.

So I keep things, usually as memories. Ticket stubs, notes and postcards, I rip off the color codes on the bottom of cereal boxes that I really like ---the color codes, not the cereal. It's a good thing we have a barn. I give a lot of stuff away and even sell stuff. Meh. It's about the memories and the people and the gods. Oftentimes giving away things is the best part of having them. Give away the good stuff, not the left overs. That's a fine teaching of a god called Ucchista Ganapati, another story.

Like I said, rarely do I have the thought that I want to "go back" to some way anything was before. That strikes me as a simple violation of the arrow of time and my deep distaste for wishing for a world that can't be and the fact that there are no do overs or take backs. This is at the heart of the paradox to embrace too. Time waits for no one, says Rishi Mick, and we need to move forward to learn from mistakes and continue to grow. There's just too much that I haven't yet collected that I need to get to. I haven't read all of that French Lit that I love or every last word of every Platonic dialogue or every single line of 99,000 lines of Mahabharata in Sanskrit. I'm working on it. I got _more_ stuff to collect every single day.

For those of you who think this isn't "yogic" or "spiritual", I would merely respond that your tastes for abnegation and renunciation do not, in fact, describe the whole of "yoga traditions." I'm still collecting darshan ---see that piece I wrote from the other day---and there's _no end to that_. There's only _more_ darshan. Seeing, being seen, repeat. You'll have the rest of eternity for oneness aka being dead.

Darshan isn't a check list; it's about how there isn't really one of anything. If there were only one then you wouldn't experience anything you could call experience. I leave that to mystics, I'm not interested. But I do think you collect lots of ones. Darshan is not "I've been to that temple, seen that god..." It's not a trip, it's pilgrimage: go, see, return, repeat. It's not a check list or a bucket list. It's the idea that doing it again--- what "it" is for you--- is what makes you human.

Darshan is how you collect your body, mind, your soul and drive into one moment for just a moment. Repeat. Recurse. Let that moment be an invitation to the next moment when one thing only matters to you. Then let go and let all the rest matter to you--- because that's a normal life--- and you'll be ready for darshan again because there's nothing more uncomfortable than having to rewrite a memory that insists on bringing the all of you to the experience.

Samadhi with your eyes open is not supposed to be a permanent state or a one time happening. It's supposed to be all the forms of time, the punctiliar, linear, repetitive, and recursive: these being the four simplest ways to talk about the experience of embodying time. But that's another story. Experiences to collect should be things that you love and that cause movement, jostling inside, often causing some real discomfort or awakening of a shadow. We can't learn unless we are willing to be moved and that includes in ways that upset the entire apple cart of being. That process doesn't guarantee we will learn but learning doesn't happen without it just sayin' yo.

So the other day, Susan and I, inveterate homebodies, extroverted introverts, and vice-versas, went to see the new Daniel Day-Lewis movie, Phantom Thread. I would watch Day-Lewis read the back of his morning cereal box and find that interesting, so the movie as plot, etc., could matter less to me. Day-Lewis darshan is a story and a moment unto itself. But it could have been a really horrible movie it wouldn't have mattered because it was also just a thing we did, a memory. I didn't keep the receipt from the fast food joint that provided our repast afterwards, that being a step too far. What exactly is a step too far? Good question. Actually walking out of the theatre I apparently dropped the ticket stub and a kind person stopped me to ask if I'd dropped something. Right next to a trash can. I said thank you and put the stub in my pocket.

When we got home I took the ticket stub and I put it in a _second_ copy (or is it a third?) of Fagles' Odyssey translation. Maybe someday I will open that book again, long after I've forgotten about leaving it there, and I will remember the day, the date, the movie, the weather, life. Phantom threads of memory are darshan of another kind. Whoever gets all of these books after I'm gone is going to find a lot of stuff inside them.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Pilgrimage to India: Darshan, and the Practice of Living All In and As If

It’s been forty years since I first traveled to India.  I went first as a student, as a pilgrim knowing almost nothing, as a seeker of the heart looking for what I knew not.  I’ve gone back now more than thirty times over that period, sometimes for stints counted in years, and I hope to go back again and again, every time the opportunity appears.  For the past fifteen years or so I have led pilgrimage for others to join in the practice of darshan and immerse in the richness of the culture. 

I ask the people who come on our pilgrimages if they are willing to act “as if” they are Hindus.  That’s not phony.  There’s nothing fake about it, nothing pretend.  Rather “as if” is a way of being when you are trying to make sense of who you are, what you could be, and what the world is offering and expecting.  “As if” may be a way of learning, it can be a form of serious and sincere participation, and it can also be a form of protest.  In America right now, I think we must continue to act “as if” we are the nation we say we want to be, we say we can be, we aspire to be.  Being an American is a prolonged study in “as if” and to be American is, as I will explain, much like being a Hindu pilgrim.  You’re going to need to contemplate who you are in “as if” terms if you are to create any real integrity.  To be American in the age of Trump we’re going to need more “as if” before we sort out further what more it means.  I think “as if” really means we are doing all we can knowing that there is more to do.

I’m home again now, ready to start a new semester teaching and learning.  I still love being a college professor, I mean, if you have to have a job.  I’ve been more than lucky and all I can really say about this good fortune in life is that I try to understand privilege and opportunity.  I came to know what I wanted as a young man and I’ve never stopped wanting the same thing ---with all of my being.  That’s not the only way to live a meaningful life, for sure.  But it’s been quite the ride.  India is not +everything+ to me because I want even more than that.  Whatever your life’s passion, I hope you have hundreds of passions that ignite you, things you love and can’t stop doing or wanting.  Life’s no zero sum game.  We just run out of time.

But what I know about myself is that I have never wanted anything more than I want India.  And I want everything that India has offered, more still, and I mean to give back.  That’s crucial to me but that’s also not anyone’s business but mine.  What we can share with others , makes all the difference in life.

We just returned from India and had a wonderful time, albeit arduous and tiring as it was fun and enlivening. It's been many years now for our Rajanaka pilgrimage, and this pilgrimage is precisely what we do. No yoga asana or spas or beaches for us.  We meet people, go to temples for the practice of darshan, meet people, go to temples for the practice of darshan.  Repeat.  (More in a moment about darshan.)  We are keen to go in traditional dress observing the most traditional protocols, avoiding some of the larger, more touristy monuments for those Hindu temples that are true south Indian pilgrimage centers. Our goal is darshan and people are darshan too because everything is a "seeing" and being seen experience: everything is darshan until the very moment of darshan in the temple. This warrants some explanation.


It’s important to pause here for a few words about "darshan," which literally means "seeing" and being seen. The practice of darshan arrests the mind into singular focus, places the body in often uncomfortable positions (spoon up, lean in…), and it compels the heart to race into a kind of fury, chaos, and wonder that is difficult to explain but from doing it, and doing it, as it were, "properly." Think of it this way: our whole cognitive and somatic being allocates our attentions, regulates and assigns meaning to our environments, in terms of both inside and outside awareness.  We are, as William James and James Joyce understood, have millions and millions of conversations, conscious and subconscious and unconscious, all at once.  This is what it is to be a living human being and our task is to participate as fully as we can.
We are meant to experience millions of impressions at once, organize them and be organized by them so that we can act and react.

Now enter a place where the mind and the senses are hyperactivated and put on full alert, full throttle, pedal to the metal-- like a Hindu temple. Taking in all of that information (and _everything_ we experience about the world, about ourselves, in fact everything is "information"), now turn that process to _one_ particular focus and goal--- this would be the sanctum of the temple where resides the image, the mūrti, the solid body material form of the deity. Look at the god in the temple, watch for the lamp, pay attention wholly, fully, completely. What happens? Well, hear me say, "Look! Peer in!! Lean in!!" I may even guide you closer.  And then with a host of other small instructions we urge you to keep your attention just for a moment.  Of course, that's not all: there are other millions of small matters of names and birth stars and the touching this and that, and also _not_ touching this and that. This hand, not that hand.  It can be a lot for those unfamiliar. And that is part of the point. You take 330 million feelings, ideas, sensations, and actions and instead of turning inside _only_ to "shut down" the myriad feelings and "distractions", you allow them _all_ to re-focus on that one moment when the lamps wave before the image.

Darshan is meditation, "single-focused consciousness" or samadhi but _with both eyes open_, and it is with the whole body---usually trembling or in some awkward, uncomfortable position--- with the mind reeling in a whirlwind, and all the senses on fire.  Darshan does not mean to calm the storm but rather find the eye of the hurricane and stay in its midst: darshan does not halt the storm so much as create the eerie strangeness that is its center.  Stay in that center even though you can’t .  Stay “as if” you are wholly present when being present is more than you can fathom and can be.

"Samadhi with your eyes open," is what my teacher called darshan. For traditionalist Hindus it is a rather familiar as a practice but what it can do to anyone who takes it seriously provides a rich intellectual, complex emotional, physical, social, cultural, spiritual transaction. After all, you must have the ardor to make the visit and come "properly." For us that means that women wear traditional saris and men wear dhotis wrapped south Indian style.  We make that happen, hopefully with minimal hassle or effort.  Virtuosity is making the difficult look easy, and that’s our goal.  For us there is no compromise, and it can all be _a lot_ to ask of people but you get expert help.  That’s what we all need, a little help from our friends.

We've learned to do this pilgrimage with people who have no experience and no idea what to do. We teach them, they trust us, they bring open minds and hearts, they are gracious and wonderful in their assent--- and we never, ever, ever tell you what to believe or to think or to feel. Our focus is on our ortho-praxy, our "correct actions" so that you don't need to have any paticular orthodoxy.  Belief is in the doing.  I will know you not only by what you say but by what you really do.  Just do this practice "properly" ---and we will show you how--- come on this often very challenging journey and _see what happens_. Our goal is to make it just comfortable _enough_ so that you can enjoying learning--- and real learning is neither comfortable nor completely safe.  Life needs to be safe _enough_ and that is no small matter.  Honestly, I think we are good at that because our leaders have the experience, the decency, and real affection for those who try. Our folks get with the “as if” because they come to learn that that is how you arrive at who you want to be. You may love this practice or may be just a one off experience for you. But it _will_ change you, and that's no small thing.

A bit more.  Is this pilgrimage a "Hindu" practice? Of course it is. It's been described as "full frontal Hinduism," and we make no bones about that. But Hindus have never demanded more from you than your full participation ---and no one ever asks you what you believe or tests your faith. It's do as we do, act in all the “as if-s”,  and see what happens. Do as the people do and participate with them in their ardor, their passion, and their remarkable culture. The key is the ardor---the tapas, the care for the genuine effort it takes to participate fully in the journey with culture and social terms fully in place. (Keep this idea in mind, we’re going to return to it.) There are lots of ways to visit India but we mean to go “all in” and we know how to do that along with the “as if.” You can come along. This can be an experience for you, if you want to make that journey.  You will need to be “all in” and “as if” at the same time.  This is crucial.

In every place we visit I wish you could hear, as I do, the ambient conversations in the Tamil language. People are not only surprised that a group of westerners (we have had many folks of south Asian origins on our pilgrimages) come _as we do._ The women are the stars, of course, because their perfectly wrapped, beautiful saris are _always_ complimented and always noticed positively. Tamils are delighted, proud, and, dare I say, impressed at the effort, the care, the honor done to them. For our part, let's be clear, we do our best to be deeply respectful _and_ to leave behind everywhere we go our gratitude to the local people, especially those less fortunate.  We commit to the culture and we mean to offer something back.

We who organize and lead the trip take care of that, you as a pilgrim get to focus on having an experience of culture, of the people who want to meet you and share a few words or a picture, of yourself. Sure, there’s a lot more to explain than this but darshan has been my life's passion and at the heart of my professional interests too--- to explain, to share, to describe Hindu ways, ideas, images, culture. Darshan is an experience of “all in” and “as if” and there is nothing quite like paradox to churn one’s innermost being.  What is better in life than to invite others to share in your passion? To get someone to care, even for a moment, about what moves your heart and inspires your mind? I mean to stack up obsessions and interests, where each deserves a room in a mansion made of complex desires, whole hearted dedications, and unyielding intensities. It's a privilege to share the things one loves most in life. It's really that simple.


Now all of this was something of a prelude to two points that are far less comfortable but strike me as important.

First, on this last pilgrimage we made a point of going to several places that have serious entry restrictions. There is a sign at the entry to the sanctums that says in no uncertain terms, "No tourists," or sometimes "Hindus Only" beyond this point. We do not come as tourists. We come as Hindus. We are all in and as if Hindus, just like everyone else. There is no racial, linguistic, religious test for being "Hindu". There is no conversation, no attestation, and neither caste nor birth is justification for exclusion. To "be" Hindu is in this case to come +for the practice of darshan+ and to come _properly_, willfully, knowingly for that practice. What you believe is your own business. What you seek is what everyone else is also doing and there is no litmus test but orthopraxy, acting properly and aiming to practice darshan. I am happy to say now that years of practice, honoring local custom, and treating people with deep respect has won us our place.

People see us and recognize us in India. We are well-known as a group throughout south India and we are, dare I say, truly liked and respected.  I never forget how grateful I am to the people and to those who have come with us and made this possible.  Like I said, it’s been more than 15 years for our trip and 40 plus years for me personally.  We talk to local authorities, befriend the priests and temple leadership, talk to local people as much as we can on the streets and in the temples, we explain that we have come for darshan and that we mean to do it right, and we have now in every case been granted access and entry.  This is not because we have come once or twice.  This is because we have come year after year, we have made ourselves known, and even when having been rejected before, we accepted the local decision with quiet dignity, promising to return and try again.  We never argue; we don’t need to. We come as pilgrims and I am happy to say that we were wholly accepted everywhere we went, with truly open arms.  Our dress, our manner, our effort will not change. 

When you are asking for something that is meaningful and important to the local people, to the culture, and it can be hard to accept their choices when things don’t go your way.  But we are so grateful for India’s generosity and hospitality and the Tamil people have offered us everything.  We are guests, but so is everyone else in the temple.  We are “foreigners” and so sometimes clumsy or inept but we come with open hearts and pay close attention to what is expected and required.  We want our pilgrims to feel the welcome and the wonder that we who lead the way feel inside ourselves.  It works.  It works because Indian people have been so very, very kind, inclusive, and generous to us.  “Hindus only” really means that if you come with your heart’s desire, perfectly willing to accept the rules and expectations of culture and authority, you may well get your heart’s desire. It’s not a guarantee, it’s just a process of all in and as if.

This takes me to my second point, which is to say a few words about inclusion and exclusion, about how doing what is right confers on us a sense of being, of belonging, of participating fully.  You can skip this, if you’ve had enough but I think it’s important.

America is in the midst of an ugly, disturbing, and very real politics of exclusion and unwelcoming.  Everyday we read of deportations and threatened deportations of hundreds and thousands of people who have lived here for years and years, many of whom have had no experience of any other country.   We read of whole families with American born children sent “back”; we read of shameless bigotry thinly veiled in this new “immigration policy.”  I am horrified, ashamed, and I want to be bewildered but there is really no time for that.  We must understand what we are doing and what we want.  We must act.  Are we really willing to become the people that exclude?

You know, there are days when I feel like we should just give back the Statue of Liberty because apparently we just don’t mean it anymore.  You know the important part, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” 

Now I am no immigrant to India but I am certainly tired and yearning to breathe her air and be among her people.  I am a guest who has been made to feel welcome.  I know it can be difficult for folks to accept foreigners anywhere in the world and I have felt the sting and felt the grief of exclusion.  But I have accepted those terms as simply part of the story and I don’t resent or attempt to control others’ choices.  It’s a complicated matter for some but, you know, we are people and we can win each other’s hearts if we are honest and decent and, dare I say, caring and compassionate.  This is a lesson I have learned thousands of times in India.  And here at home. 

America is not about any one religion, language, or ethnicity.  I have written a lot about this lately but I want to say that just returning from India again, there is a point to be made about inclusion, about feeling welcomed, and about what it means to be allowed to participate. 

If we say that America is our list of immortal, wonderfully contradictory ideals and values, we would have to admit too our hypocrisies, failures, and shadows.  That’s been an important subject too of late.  But what if, just for a moment, we leave aside the complexities and incongruities that appear when we ask who we say we are, who we say we want to be, and what we actually do.  What if we are all in and act as if. 

If for a moment we can say that being an American is a doing, a practice rather than a belief or conviction, then we are reframe our current situation too with some different insight.  You see, I just came from a place where conviction or belief is in truth less a matter of public discussion than behavior and doing.  Being “Hindu” in a temple, as I argued above, is acting with seriousness and sincerity, abiding by the rules, taking up the practices that we share with others.  No one asks what you believe even if they notice that you are different. 

Well, how about that?  How about the fact that people when they enter America they are entering a kind of sanctum of all in and as if, all with some kind of decorum and awareness.  The matter of the law is paramount, but there is more than that: there is the all in and as if.  We abide and in our laws there is a great deal of freedom about those matters of decorum too.  We Americans are not bound by any single decorum but that we do not violate the law; our ideal is to be equal under the law.  Of course, that does not really happen--- that there is bias, prejudice, injustice, and failure must not be understated.  But let me make the point: to be an American is to be here and to be living under the law.  To be an American is an all in and as if proposition.  That there are people not living as citizens or as legal immigrants is a matter we should take seriously.   Every society has rules and needs them.  So we’re going to have to do what is good and right because there are human lives, real people involved.

But the point is simple: when you are living here you are effectively an American when you are all in and acting as if.  When you recognize the law and live within the decorum that the law provides--- you have rights, freedoms, and choices--- then you are effectively an all in and as if American.  “Law abiding” does not mean that everything you do is legal because, well, let’s be honest about that.  You didn’t speed today in your car?  Not even a little?  You report every single dime of taxable income?  Right.  I thought so. 

But people, people cannot be illegal; they cannot be illegitimate even if they are not wholly sanctioned by the law as we currently have written it.  People are always all in and what we want to know is where is the the rest of their as if.   So we are going to need to change the law, clearly, so that we can accept that being an American is living here under the terms of a complex social and political contract.  Again, I want to emphasize that our social contract is not any one’s idea or cultural reference, much less ethnicity or language.  Our social contract is made with freedom and with the ways we live and express ourselves within the context of our rules. 

And this is the parallel I wanted to make about our being Hindu pilgrims in India.  What makes us “Hindu” is that when we are in India we abide, we care, we live as far as possible as pilgrims, we go all in.  We are all guests on this earth, and some of us are really trying to get along and treat each other with respect and care.  We’re all going to need some as if, just to be honest.  So too when you live in America you are a guest here living under the terms of our collective efforts.  When you are unwelcomed, excluded, and told to leave, that you cannot enter again, well, that is a feeling and a fact that dehumanizes us, reduces us.  That cannot be allowed to be America. 

My Hindu friends in India have taught me time and again the difference here.  They have allowed me to be as if so that I can go all in.  They have invited me to be all in so that I can live as if and be human for it.  I have been excluded and accepted their terms but I have also been graciously, warmly included because I have come to love them, their place, the culture that I wish to share and hold dear.  And when people are here in America, I hope to extend that same feeling to them.  I mean to treat them as if they are Americans because that “as if” is really quite good enough when it means you are being offered the chance to participate.  We’ll sort out the rest, and we need to.  But the lessons of inclusion, participation, and caring decency must come first.  The rest may be details and we’ll need to attend to them too.  If you’re here, I mean to welcome you first as if and then we’ll sort it out the all in.  Thank you, India, again for the life lessons.