Greetings to each and every one! May your New Year be filled with light and peace! As Jupiter and Pluto conjoin, setting off a new twelve year cycle in social trends, and as, concurrently with this astrological event, the social structure of Alandi Ashram re-aligns itself, my thoughts turn to family and community. How do we define family? Does our family operate by expansion and inclusion or by rejection and constriction? What are the qualities of family?
With the development of the nuclear family in the second half of the twentieth century, we began to see a dwindling social network with increasing alienation and isolation .More recently, the nuclear family itself--perhaps because it is unsustainably small--has fragmented into the single parent family, with still more isolation. In India, I experienced a very expansive and inclusive attitude towards family--one in which your brother's wife's aunt's sister-in-law is a family member and someone who will help you and seek your help. And among the Chagga people of East Africa I saw an even wider concept of family. Each child had over a hundred women she called mother, and if there was tension at home, she simply walked over to the next hut.
To counteract the prevalent climate of alienation requires care and intentionality. As partnerships shift and change in our postmodern reality, an Indian-like attitude of expansive affiliation can help us maintain ties with those who have been important in our own and our children's lives. Through such open -hearted and inclusive acts as maintaining a positive connexion with an ex-partner's relatives and welcoming a former spouse's new dear ones into our lives, we can forge an expansive family based upon welcome and inclusion rather than resentment and distance. We can also develop our family of the heart, creating a supportive network among those who share our values and devotion.
Three groups of people are especially vulnerable to the effects of fragmented families--children, elders and spiritual leaders. Children need to grow up in a network of long term relationships. They need grandparents, aunts and cousins whose consistent presence they can count on. Our efforts both to sustain inclusive and expansive family and to develop our intentional family of the heart support our children's need to belong, to matter and to be embraced. Ironically, my work on this letter was interrupted by an unexpected visit from two adorable honorary grandchildren. I spent three hours playing with the girls while the mother of one of them helped Sadananda with a project. We played a game in which they named all their family members. Hot on the heels of biological family came, "You and Matrupriya and Gabby." Postmodern extended family in a nutshell!
Elders also are vulnerable to isolation. Appointing elders in your community and neighbourhood as honorary grandparents can meet the elder's need to matter as well as satisfying your children's need for long term connection with elders. And as I move toward taking renunciate vows, I see clearly how vital extended families are to spiritual leaders. In the Orient, the monastic community is held in the arms of the extended family. Family provides the essential horizontal dimension to support the vertical direction of spiritual leaders. After seventeen years of effort to build community here at Alandi ashram, I still haven't experienced the flowering of spiritual community as I had envisioned it, yet in its place I am feeling the power of extended family, a community of the heart whose long term bonds and connectivity creates the foundation for the flowering of intense spiritual community.
Family values are often presented as adherence to conventional morality. The true family values are caring, sharing, connecting and including. In this New Year, let us look at all the ways in which we can increase our experience of inclusion and sharing to create wider circles of open-hearted family with real values.
On a personal note, I will be taking first vows as a celibate renunciate at sunrise on January 14th. You can see the text of the vows elsewhere on this blog . After first vows I will be an aspiring sannyasini (technically, a brahmacharini). Because the vows are so radical, it is traditional to wait a few years before taking solemn vows that cannot be revoked. Please hold me in your prayers on this special day when I become more fully yours than ever.
With my love and blessings always
December 2007 Archives
Yesterday was an unusual birthday for several reasons. To begin with, it was a Saturday, and I was born on a Saturday. Also, this birthday occurred at a time of major life changes, so I had a feeling of being reborn on my birthday. Along with the sense of birth came the vulnerable feelings of the baby I once was, a tiny premature infant in an incubator.
And this rebirth was midwifed by so many wonderful beings! Over thirty of my closest friends gathered to feast and celebrate together. We began with the havdalah ceremony of separating from the Sabbath, in itself a marking of transition. I was in fact born at six o’clock on Saturday evening, so at the time of my birth, havdalah was being celebrated.
Adults of all ages and walks of life attended the ceremony, as well as four children and two babies, giving a deep sense of family. We concluded with the Amethyst Heart ceremony, in which new students were initiated into the Healing Order of the Amethyst Heart, a mystic order which came into beings through dreams that both I and later my students received. Baby Elena became the youngest person ever to be initiated into this energy, receiving the name Suprasanna—one who is ever cheerful and beaming.
This divine feast of love and friendship came as a profound reminder of the truth that all beings are my own and I belong to each one.
Delivered on the occasion of the 2004 Gurukula Graduation
Ayurveda is the fifth Veda, the Veda that deals with Ayush—life. As such, it is the art of understanding what it is to live—fully, richly, joyously. For to live is much, much more than to survive. Survival speaks of a grim-faced, fist-clenched struggle to keep body and soul together. It is an arduous duty and a grave burden. Living, on the other hand, is a celebration, a receiving of daily blessings, a continuous act of gratitude and appreciation. The world of modern medicine speaks of survival rates; we in Ayurveda speak of svasthi, wellbeing.
To make a genuine transition from surviving to living, we must come to understand both Ayush and Veda. The Vedas are the hymns and proclamations of living a truly human life, a life in which we are part and parcel of the web, a life in which Sun dwells in our eyes, Wind in our nostrils, Water in our blood, Fire in our bellies, Space in the marrow of our bones; a life that comes from joy—ananda—lives in joy and unto joy returns.
The language of survival haunts our daily life. “Hallo, how are you doing?” “Oh… surviving” we reply. It’s a shocking answer, one that might be appropriate in Baghdad or Fallujah, in famine and AIDS stricken Africa, in North Korea…but in America? Why is it that in the lap of peace and plenty, we feel so much stress, so much self-concern, that we frame our existence in the language of survival?
The key to understanding this paradox lies in the Vedas. Surviving is the experience of separation, fragmentation and disconnection. The language of survival is the reflection of our fall from innocence, dramatically portrayed in the Torah as our eviction from the Garden of Eden. If I am separate, then it’s me against the world. Water is no longer my blood, it is a torrent in which I fear to drown, or a force I dam to light my city. Fire is no more the place where God dwells within me, it is an enemy I dowse in flame retardant and a servant to smelt my metals and create my plastics. No longer am I a child of earth, for she has long ago ceased to be my golden-breasted mother. Weaned from her abundant teat, we flog her fields with fertilizer, cut her rippling hair, the forests, for wood pulp, and mine her bowels for oil and gold.
Like archetypal two-year-olds, like rebellious teenagers, we have declared our independence from Bhu Devi, our mother earth and Surya, the sun, our father. Moved by the nagging fear that we truly are completely separate, utterly alone, a fragile body that death will at last forever annihilate, we seize, extort and extract from our erstwhile mother what wealth we can. “How are you doing?” they ask. “Surviving”, we say, our reply moved not just by the fear of not being safe, of not having enough, but also by a deep wistfulness, a longing to return to the sense of abundance and peace.
Walking in the way of Ayurveda, of the Vedas, we must undergo a radical conversion of heart from the language and imagery of survival to that of living. As one who lives, I walk with the stars and run with the deer. The mighty ocean lulls me to sleep, her ceaseless waves the faithful beating of my heart. The rising sap of Spring calls me to renewal and with the falling leaves of Autumn I shed old toxins. The light of the sun, the sweat of the pony and the jewel-flash of the kingfisher’s wings are one with the fire of my eyes and the warmth of my outgoing breath. The Earth is mother, I am child of Earth. Born from her, I will return to her. And though my body will become dust, the force of life of which I am a manifestation will continue, like a river. To live in this way is to be delivered from daily fear, to relax into the continuity of the Whole. With every inbreath I receive from the Whole, with every outbreath I die into the Whole.
Abundance is the movement of the breath—hold it and you die. As Jesus said, if we try to save our life, our prana, we lose it, if we die into each moment, we live in the eternity of the Now. Abundance is not to have, it is to receive and give and receive again. To live is to trust, to trust our mother, the wide-flung Earth, adorned with four directions, to trust the cycles of time, the seasons of growth and decay marked for us by the sun and moon, to trust the flow of life from which we come and into which we shall return. This sitting lightly to life enables us to relax and live rather than cling and survive. It is described by the great Mahasiddha Tilopa as resting like a hollow bamboo and by Rumi as waiting like a reed flute for the breath of the Beloved. This is to live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, taking no thought for the morrow. This is simplicity, resting in the care of the Whole as a child rests in its mother’s arms.
Bring yourself back each day, each moment to this sitting lightly, this resting. Remember, this is about svasthi, not survival, about living, not clinging. Without radical conversion to the essence of the Vedas, Ayurveda will be a mere technology. I’m counting on you to offer this ancient teaching as truly the science of life. Thank you and my blessings always to each one of you.