Friday, September 4, 2020

45 Years and More Broken Pieces and Sammelana

It's 45 years now since Born to Run was released in 1975. Yeah, that matters to me but this isn't about that. Or is it?

This post is not likely going where we might think it's going. You may get bored. Writing these sentences last, it's also a mixed up muddled up shook up maelstrom of metaphors, more like curry in hurry than a carefully prepared word cuisine. Truth is, I woke up thinking and this mighty rad gumbo of ideas and mixed up metaphors was what was happn'n.

I went to India looking for the path to liberation and for someone to take me there. Though barely more than a teenager, I had read Buddhist sutra and Shankara's Advaita and I wanted to be in that game. I wanted to be able to engage those worlds on their terms and achieve their ends. I didn't realize how I was making the same mistake again.

As a kid I'd taken myself to church to hear what was supposed to be so important. And it was inasmuch as they were talking about the origins of meaning and how to create a life of goodness. It took awhile to figure out just how their versions of these vital human concerns were either another "who would think otherwise" matter or, far worse, a manipulation and exploitation that plays and cons you for their own purposes. So either we're talking about things that need to be beyond dispute---"love your neighbor"---or you are being handed a load of nonsense---"he died for your sins," "your reward will be great in heaven."
I didn't yet surmise that these same issues follow around _every_ religion or spiritual path, particularly in their corporate and institutional forms. When I went to India I was still looking but I thought they had the answers, in their traditions, that I could stand under their umbrella to withstand the consequences of all the rain.

Appa agreed to teach me the sources in the original and his traditionalism was my personal guarantee that I had found the guru. Who could not love this man at first sight? He wasn't seductive and there were no saffron robes or titles or claims but his authenticity was irrefutable, as much as his erudition and integrity. It was when he began to offer his own interpretations and critiques that everything started to change.

It's as if we all have to stand in the rain. The world is pouring rain, whether it's personal, social, political, you name it, the storm is raging. It's going to challenge us to find a place to stand, ways to withstand and perhaps find some kind of refuge. Everyone does that and, if we are lucky, we receive love and learn better how to give some so we can live in our own skin, endure the outrageous fortune. But for me that was not enough.

I'd been lucky, loved aplenty as a kid but when I went looking for meaning---and I mean from adults who were somehow supposed to know---I was disappointed in the answers and then disappointed in their character. They'd opened their umbrella and allowed me to step under, to share it with them but the umbrella was made of fixed dogmas and institutional straw. I figured that out before I went to India. What 

I didn't realize is that I was just looking for _another_ umbrella, just another corporation's story that would offer shelter from the storm.

The "institutional" storytelling gives you answers and reminds you that they are the correct ones. The corporation welcomes you in to participate in _their_ story and if you deviate too far you get in trouble or, like my own Italian grandmother, you get excommunicated because your story can't meet their expectations. My grandmother was excommunicated from the Catholic Church after she divorced by grandfather who had abandoned them---he was deeply traumatized with PTSD after serving in WWI and one day disappeared. To receive the benefits of the New Deal she had to prove destitution, which included three little girls. My mom the middle daughter.

Now that horror story of the church may not be unusual but my point isn't merely to castigate or accuse, it is to point out that we are punished for dissent. Step out from under _that_ umbrella and you are pretty much on your own. 

What I didn't really understand when I met Appa is that he had not only been reared under a wide and encompassing umbrella of traditions, practices, doctrines, and customs, but that he had stepped out from under its shelters. Somehow he had freed himself from the Matrix while still being in the Matrix, in fact, without ever leaving the Matrix. He had not disowned or disavowed, he hadn't been busted for heresy or been found out. He didn't want to leave or abandon his worlds entirely. He didn't do what I'd done even though he too was born to run. He knew however that "it's a death trap, a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young." How's that for a slew of mixed metaphor and allusions?

But in his own quiet way, Sundaramoorthy had fomented in his heart and mind a revolution. He didn't believe that the umbrellas of tradition understood traditionally were any real shelter at all. The rain is no illusion but the umbrella as it was made by his traditions didn't provide enough honest shelter---and after all there is no stopping the storm, the storm eventually takes us all. Rudra and Kali never fail to have their ways.

Appa had his own version of the slow burn, the coming to terms with the storm that we call Rudra and Kali. It wasn't like mine but it was all the same storm. I had the chance to run, he couldn't. Then I got lucky and I ran into him just as I was figuring out that you can run but the storm doesn't stop no matter where you go. I thought he'd show a way through the Buddhists or the Hindus that would finally provide that shelter. I wanted _his_ umbrella to do the job.

But as he began to teach I started to grasp his point. First, that the sources of tradition do indeed raise the important questions and provide plenty of indirection that helps---myth, ritual, practices, ideas, maps that aren't entirely useless. He set about helping me understand what the corporations of tradition were teaching. We all really face the same storms: love and grief, joy and sorrow, mortality and, well, what more, what else?

Next, he never relented in telling me to query and question, to use my own wits, be honest with feelings and ideas, and not capitulate to belief, to adherence, to any dogma or doctrine that he or anyone else was claiming to be the real shelter, the only true shelter, the correct shelter from the storm.

Last, he urged me to have the courage, to look into my own heart---the very meaning of the word "courage"---to see how we share the storm and _need_ an umbrella, need to be part of traditions and histories and, at the same time, not to be co-opted into complacencies of belief, into dogmas that are mere salves or bypass. We can commit to both learning from traditions and a relentless contrariety that refuses to believe or just follow. We aren't all alone in creating our path, we can't make it all up for ourselves---that is folly, self-importance, and lead you to believe that wearing tie-dyed clown pants to a black tie wedding is somehow being yourself.

Rajanaka is the contrariety he collected with that small group of fellow seekers. Its beauty lies in its willingness to see the value of traditions---ideas, questions, practices, customs---and also embrace its own otherness. Appa was adamant in his refusal to capitulate to dogmas or claims that were only fake umbrellas raised between you and the storm---"When I was liberated from liberation, I was at last free to be human."

But he knew he needed, that we all need, shelters from the storm, that it's wise to carry umbrellas in the rain. He could draw deep inspiration from the many languages of tradition, the symbols, forms, and practices but he was just as determined to speak in his own dialect that might become yet another kind of language. His was a dialect that began as something like Srividya and Natarajar's Shaivism but it became another language, one rooted in an understanding so different from its source that it warranted that new designation---it was a new language that had emerged from the old ones. Rajanaka is that method and that language, grounded in the principles of contrariety, of critical thinking and humanism. 

He once said that we gain advantage because we humans have the power to use language but that when we understand that we are formulating with rules (whether we know it or not), then breaking rules and making new rules becomes part of our growing awareness; then with love of a reformulating grammar we can reshape our experiences, we can move matters along into other kinds of expression. We need to know that we bind to rules to make sense of a world that we cannot control but we are not more bound to rules that control us than we are. 

Let me try that again. He was saying we need to come into our own voices to hear ourselves and communicate more deeply with others so that we can share a shared humanity. He was saying we cannot allow that process of personal growth and communication to abandon what we share and what we have learned from the past, from the corporations of tradition---and yet we must try to become our own voice too. That strange need to be part of something more (because we are) and come to our own critical processes, that is the great commingling, that is what we call sammelana. Another meaning of the word "sammelana" is to a gathering for celebration. What Rajanaka celebrates is our ability to make something more once we shatter the mirror and dare to look for the broken, missing, and extra pieces that we piece together to see more.