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.