Monday, December 20, 2010

Kirtan Wallah in a South Carolina Gym: A Tale of Hope, Love, Prayer and Iron

One of the keys to my sanity in a lifestyle that involves touring for nine months a year is keeping myself moving and active. Yoga has been a great help, as have my daily outings with Barkley to explore our new environs on any given day.

But there is a small primal corner of my psyche that still needs the catharsis of slinging heavy stuff around. Maybe it’s the same element of my makeup that caused Krishna Das to mistake me for an NFL linebacker when he first came to pick me up at the airport for the “Breath of the Heart” recording sessions ten years ago. Maybe it’s just part of the deal for a number of us with a Y chromosome, another component of the archetypal male psyche that plays a role in other cryptic rituals, like “male bonding.”

Whatever it is, it had a particularly strong hold on me one morning while we were touring the Southeast a couple of years ago. We were in Greenville, South Carolina, and, fortunately for me, Jacqueline Westhead (our beloved friend, booking agent, and percussionist/vocalist) was engaged in a training regimen that involved getting to a gym every couple of days. Our hotel had a deal that provided free access to the local Powerhouse Gym, so off we went.

When we arrived, I was reminded just how long it had been since I had availed myself of Nautilus equipment. As Jacq made her way to the aerobic gear, I decided to start my re-entry into the Nautilus world with the “Pec Fly” machine, one that I remembered as being a favorite from the old days.

I set it for what I thought was a reasonable weight and took my seat. As I began, it became quickly apparent that I was calling on muscles that had been on vacation for some time. So I threw myself into it with even more fervor, until I heard a kindly voice from behind me: “Whoa there, friend, you’re gonna hurt yourself like that.”

I turned to look into the smiling face of an extremely buff African-American man who clearly had spent a lot of time at the gym.

Laughing, he went on, “You’re working with way too much weight there, and the way you’re going, you might just find one of your arms on the other side of the gym.”

“Oh, thanks! Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve worked out…”

“Here, let me help you out.”

I got up and he sat in the machine. “What you want to do here is keep good alignment and use a smooth continuous motion, like this.” He brought his shoulders up and back, lengthening his side body symmetrically.

Hmmm … head of the arm bones back, side body long… sounds very familiar to anyone who has spent time with Anusara Yoga…

“Remember,” he said, “to keep an even flow with each rep, and keeping it slower will allow you to get more benefit with less weight, less strain on your shoulders. Here, now you try it.” He cut the weight on the machine to just over half of what I had been flailing around with.


I sat in the machine again, and, following his advice, began again. The ease of the movement and the immediate benefit I felt from the improved alignment more than compensated for the bruising my ego experienced. He talked me through each repetition with focus and care.

“Thanks again, man,” I told him. “You really helped me out! What’s your name?”

“Emmanuel. I come here all the time with my friend Curt over there.”

Curt, a middle-aged and somewhat stout man with brilliant blue eyes and a cautious but warm smile, walked over from an adjacent machine and we shook hands. “My name’s Benjy. My friend Jacqueline and I came down here today to work out – we’re passing through. Great to meet you guys!”

Meanwhile, Jacq had seen what was going on from across the room and came to join us. She introduced herself to both men.

“So what brings you both to Greenville?” asked Emmanuel.

I noticed a beautiful pendant of a cross hanging around Emmanuel’s neck at about the same time that I saw that Curt was wearing a Christian revival T-shirt. I had a sudden sinking feeling that telling them we were touring around the country leading kirtan might not be all that well-advised.

“Uh, well, we’re musicians on tour.”

“Wow. That’s great!” Emmanuel went on, “What kind of music do you guys play?”

Jacq shot me a look that let me know that she was having thoughts similar to my own.

“Well, it’s a … bit hard to explain,” I said. “My wife Heather, Jacqueline and I … we, um, travel all over the country singing to God with groups of people.” I held my breath for a heartbeat or two, wondering what I might say next.

Both Emmanuel and Curt lit up visibly, having the effect of pouring sunlight into the harsh fluorescent light of Powerhouse Gym.

“Man, that’s absolutely incredible!! Hey, are you guys OK if we pray for y’all, right here and now?” Emmanuel’s bearing and glistening eyes radiated an aura of unswerving agape love.

And Curt’s smile broadened as the tentativeness evaporated from his body language.

“Yes, yes, we’d love that,” I said, breathing again, offering my own unspoken prayer of thanks for the gift of sharing just enough information.

So the four of us stood in a circle in between the rows of metal machines, clasped hands and bowed our heads.

“Dear Lord, please watch over Heather, Jacqueline and Benjy as they make their way around the world to sing your praises,” Emmanuel began. “Keep them safe as they spread Your love across this land … please bless them in all that they do.”

“We’re so glad that you brought them here today, Lord, and may they ever raise you up in praise wherever they go. In Jesus’ name … amen.”

We stood there, silently, eyes closed, holding hands a few moments more.

Emmanuel smiled over at us once again. “Believe me, it’s been a real pleasure meeting you both.”

“It has for us too – we are so grateful. Hope to see you guys again soon,” I said. “May you both be richly blessed.”

“You take care of yourselves,” said Curt softly. “Praise be to God.”

“Praise be to God,” I echoed.

We each looked one another in the eye, slowly releasing our hands. With a last farewell smile, Emmanuel and Curt walked up to the front desk of the gym, talked for a moment with the guy behind the counter, and stepped out the front door, leaving us to bask in the light of transcendent Love.

What a blessing to have met Curt and Emmanuel, whose Hebrew name literally means “God with us.” What a great lesson we were given in the power of love to overcome a broad range of differences in cosmology, philosophy, and dogma.

As Ram Dass states so eloquently in his new book, “Be Love Now”:

“Although you may devote yourself to an aspect of the Beloved, like the guru or the deity as mother, child, or lover, you are in it for the love, not for the attainment, not for the object. It’s one of those wonderful paradoxes you encounter on the path. You can’t attain it; you have to become it. In the process subject and object, lover and Beloved become One. “

Once I had allowed myself to step away from my assumptions and focus on love (as our newfound friends were doing in their love for God), our seeming differences could fall away and we could ourselves become Love. To use a beautiful way in which Ram Dass might frame this spiritual landscape, we had each stepped away from our egos in such a way that we could see each other as souls.

“Open your eyes of love, and see Him who pervades this world. Consider it well, and know that this is your country.” -The Songs of Kabir LXXVI

“tu surat nain nihar”

Translation by Rabindranath Tagore

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Feather – An Extraordinary Journey through Despair, Hope and the Human Condition

The play “Feather” by Bobby Ryan is a masterpiece. The recent run of this play in Portland’s Theater! Theater! offered an exceptional synergy of script, set design, world-class acting and directing that is all too rare.

It is, to be sure, not for the faint of heart, or any of us who are squeamish about a poignant, lucid, no-holds-barred look at the full realm of human experience. With the utmost emotional clarity, the play explores the darkest nights of the soul with unrelenting authenticity and consummate human insight. Bobby Ryan masterfully avoids any sort of cliché or predictability, even to the end of the drama. I was left with a breathless expectation of faith and hope without being given a clear sign of whether this hope could ever be fulfilled.

I have never seen a theater production that did so much with so little; the stage setup was exquisitely stark and simple, with a look and feel between an ancient farmhouse and a spider’s web, yet the actors took the audience into a wide range of places and times with a brilliant combination of blocking, dialog, and flawless audio backdrops and lighting.

I found myself feeling as if I had come to intimately know the characters over the course of the play, resonating with them even as I would cry when the tragedy of their circumstances was brought ever more clearly into focus. This is particularly impressive in light of the fact that I personally know two of the actors quite well – sweet, kind, warm beings of light who are brilliantly creative and fully in touch with themselves.

Yet within less than a minute of the beginning of the play, I was utterly convinced that they were – to their core – the characters they portrayed. And each of these characters was defined in large measure by deep challenges and tragic limitations that bore no relationship whatsoever to the people I know.

The degree of nuance in acting in Feather is stunning. Bobby and Tyler Ryan in particular found ways to convey volumes of emotion and character in even the smallest body language gestures – the tilt of the head, a slightly accelerated blinking of the eyes or a momentary squint, subtle movements of the fingers of either hand … rarely does one see this level of subtle expression even in film, much less live theater.

The grandmother (played by Trish Egan) does a fantastic job of embodying someone who has been dealt a harsh reality and who is both resigned to and deeply bitter about her circumstances; her grandsons became her charge when the boys’ mother dies. In the type of paradoxical embrace of human complexity that is a hallmark of this play, moments of sweetness and loving compassion for the boys are intermingled with hard-drinking anger, hints of incestuous transgressions, and sometimes soft-pedaled but nevertheless brutal mistreatment.

Gabriel (played by Tyler Ryan) is a classic elder brother who seems unswervingly focused on maintaining appropriate, socially acceptable behavior and appearances against a mind-numbing backdrop of tragedy and seemingly insurmountable levels of family dysfunction. His tight-lipped, rigid, ultra-controlled approach to life and unwillingness to show even a hint of vulnerability provide a tremendous foil for the unbridled open expression (and deep-rooted mental/emotional illness) of his younger brother Mak. Gabriel’s unswerving focus on leading a stable, “normal,” socially acceptable and comfortably monochromatic (and essentially invisible) life might leave a lesser actor with a very limited emotional palette, yet Tyler found ways to evoke incredible feeling and expression within the confines of this role.

By contrast, Mak (played by Bobby Ryan) is one of the most emotionally rich characters one could imagine, and Bobby’s portrayal of the character he wrote into existence is absolutely magnificent. In many ways, Bobby’s exploration of Mak’s emotional landscape is redolent of the searing forays into the subconscious one might expect from Hamlet or Death of a Salesman. At other times one cannot help but to be awestruck by Mak’s childlike (and childish) innocence. From the very outset of the play, Bobby’s embodiment of Mak is absolute – and totally captivating. Watching Bobby play Mak is truly the gift of seeing a master of stagecraft at work.

I believe that, in seeing this play at its premiere in Portland, I was in the rare and privileged position of seeing a classic work by world-class artists for the first time ever. It is my hope that there will be many more opportunities in the future, and that thousands of others will be afforded the chance to experience such a magnificent offering.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On offering kirtan in prison

Less than two weeks ago, we went to the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) and offered kirtan to a group of men imprisoned there. In many respects, it was one of the most profound practices I’ve ever had as I travel down this path, and I find myself struggling to put the experience into context.

When we arrived at the gate to the prison, it was immediately clear that we were not making our offering in anything remotely resembling our usual yoga studio/sacred space venues. The towers with the armed guards, the layers of fences with stacks of the most formidable-looking barbed wire I’ve seen, and the unswervingly serious demeanor of the guards served as constant reminders of just where it was we were going.

I learned many things even as we entered the complex – one example of which was how our audio and power cords could be used as tools to facilitate an escape. Apparently they were some of the most desired objects around for would-be escapees – not something that I usually consider as I set up our sound rig. We had to do a very thorough inventory of all such items on the way in and on the way out.

As we entered the compound, traversing layer after layer of gates, guards, iron bars and cement, we eventually came into the main hallway of the facility – the most sterile, forbidding landscape I have ever seen, with seemingly endless concrete walls, painfully harsh fluorescent lighting, and a sharp, hard-edged reverberation that impinged mercilessly on the ears.

We made our way down to the chapel, which took my breath away as we entered. The contrast could not have been more stark – here was a deeply rooted sacred space in the midst of what felt like a living Hell. The collective energy of people in the harshest of circumstances focusing on the Divine was utterly palpable, and these vibrations supported every moment of our offerings there.

Perhaps the best way to summarize my experience is that I recognized that, at the core, these men were absolutely my brothers. The small group that came to our kirtan included Shawn, who had written to me some time ago, thanking me for the “Soul of the Esraj” CD, as it had given him a means to transcend the onerous fact of his long-term incarceration. In my conversations with Shawn, who started his twenty-year sentence at the age of 18, I saw and felt the reflection of the Divine, and recognized a man who had clearly been using his time in prison to fully confront his demons at a deep level – in a way many of us on the outside may never do. In a very real way (as one of the Siddha Yoga teachers who volunteered at OSCI pointed out) he had recast his life as an inmate into that of a sadhaka in an ashram. I can easily imagine how we might have forged a deep friendship if we both lived on the outside.

Many times Heather and I have experienced the profundity of the silence right after a chant – particularly when we’re in the company of a group that is focused on transformation, such as a yoga retreat or meditation intensive. Such a silence has a depth and intentionality that is unmistakable. I don’t think I was prepared for the power of the silence among the group of inmates – it was almost overwhelming.

Particularly at the end of our closing chant (“Baba Hanuman”), I was barely able to fight a stream of tears welling up inside me. And these tears were a curious amalgam of joyful and sorrowful – joy that sprang from the depth of the devotion and practice, and a deep sadness when I remembered where I actually was.

Here was a group of men giving themselves to the practice with a resolve and surrender that is extraordinarily rare, inspiring tears of joy. Juxtaposed with that was the pall of heartbreak and the realization that we were in the midst of a group that society had written off … and written them off for criminal acts that any of us could have committed under certain circumstances. Here was a collection of lives that had come to this place and time through a series of poor choices or tragically life-altering moments – each of these men had given in to emotion, to greed, possibly to just a split second of misalignment and were now paying the price with the most precious gift of all – with their all-too-short time in this life.

Nowhere was the irony of this made more clear than in my conversations with a young inmate who had served 18 months in Iraq. At first he seemed distant, hard to reach, uninterested … until he heard the sound of the esraj. After our kirtan, he told me of how he had heard the poignant sound of an instrument very much like the esraj numerous times while he was out on patrol. His first response to the sound had been fear, but as the nights turned in to weeks and months on patrol, the instrument he heard in Iraq came to be a soothing balm and familiar friend in a world rife with lurking unexpected dangers and explosions of violence.

It is frightening to recognize that he was jailed for exactly the kinds of actions that he had been trained for as a soldier. In one case, violent and destructive acts are honored as brave, patriotic, and selfless. In another set of circumstances, it is cause for lifelong incarceration. It raised timeless questions in my heart about the crazy ways we will justify the horrendous acts of war, how we will take murder, violence and destruction and glorify them contextually even as we throw individuals into a marginalized trash heap or execute them for committing precisely the same actions.

One of the obvious but more prosaic differences between this kirtan at OSCI and our usual experience is that the participants were almost all men – the only exceptions were the chaplain and the other volunteers in the prison who had joined us.

We met a number of men with bright presence, a rare degree of vulnerability, and a clear desire to truly engage with us: one man arrived very early and told us both of his love of music and his Lakota ancestry, another inmate made it very clear that he wanted to get an esraj more than anything he could recall, and yet another young man plied us for information about our local schedule so that he could make sure that his sister on the outside could know about our events around Portland.

One conceptual phenomenon that has intrigued me from very early in my life is that of thresholds. What, for example, is the line which separates genius or insight from insanity? Or what is it that will allow one of us to spontaneously and irretrievably commit some horrendous act that, if we’re honest with ourselves, nearly all of us have contemplated at some time?

Yet another threshold involves how we would classify ourselves on some kind of spiritual continuum, where different systems of religious belief present a clear and seemingly irreconcilable chasm between theological vantage points: Do we start from the assumption that we are consciously evolved and intimately connected to the Divine - yet humanly flawed – or are we inherently evil, shackled to Original Sin, with only tantalizing flashes of goodness, kindness, or divinely inspired awareness?

Coming into the unmistakably black-and-white world thrusts these kinds of questions in my face in the same stark way that the cruel fluorescent lights filled the bleak halls of this Oregon prison. I realized that I had taken in just enough of the American pop cultural notion of prison that I was not prepared to feel such a sense of connection with the men serving time here. I expected total hardness, mistrust, even animosity. Yet I can’t say that I have ever felt more gratitude for our musical offerings anywhere, and the vulnerability and self-disclosure I observed blew away my preconceptions …quietly, gently, inexorably.

I can’t wait to come back.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Finding Ma in the Water Drop

My mother Nancy Wertheimer (most of us called her “Ma”) was the most kind, loving, generous, perceptive, compassionate and brilliant soul I have ever known.

She was on one hand a Harvard PhD psychologist and internationally renowned epidemiologist who uncovered the link between high-current electric wires and childhood cancer, on another a fantastically gifted painter, stained-glass artist and sculptor, and on yet another, a powerful and fiery woman who built several cabins herself from the ground up in the Colorado mountains.

And, with all this, she was also the very best friend I could ever have prayed for, with a ready ear for anything and everything, with great wisdom to share as life threw all of its crazy twists and turns at me.

About a month and a half after she passed, I felt her spirit come to me one more time to show me the blessing of the Infinite to which she had returned …

February 9, 2008

On a walk in Maricara Park

In the midst of recovering from a nasty bug that ambushed me in much the same way as my grief has in recent weeks, I went to the nearby woods of Maricara Park with Barkley to enjoy an extended “sucker hole” sunbreak (Northwest-speak for a short break in the clouds that lures unsuspecting victims out for a stroll just before the rains start again) in the late morning. As I made my way up the street, I saw that two of my dog-walking friends were also heading toward the park.

We joined each other and, as has so often been the case since Ma passed, our conversation turned toward Ma, what a great being she was, the unfortunate and seemingly unnecessary circumstances of her death from blood sepsis, and more. I noticed with some sadness that sharing my story about Ma’s passing (which I have done on SO many occasions in the past month and a half) has become almost a matter of rote. It was very difficult to see that one of the most significant events of my life seemed to be morphing into a verbatim synopsis of a series of events that had lost its power – at least in my telling of it.

After one quick circuit around the park, the other two humans and their dogs headed out of the park and back to their homes. I was going to head back home as well, but heard a strong voice inside calling me back to the park, even though my “prudent mind” was telling me to go back home and rest. Since I was still feeling uniquely energized and Barkley clearly had a lot more squirrel management on his agenda, I returned to the forest.

Coming back into the family of trees that have become such beloved friends and the clearest sign of being at home in Oregon, I noticed a special sort of inner luminescence in all of my surroundings. Mr. B was running around in his usual unswervingly cute way, and was experiencing a great deal of success in his trolling for squirrels – clearly the sunshine was urging them to engage the brightness of the day as well.

As we came around the bend by the creek running through the center of the park, I was quietly yet clearly called to turn left and back over onto a short trail that I had rarely explored before. Just after jumping over the creek, I saw a clearly lit moss-covered seat (made of a small section of a curled tree trunk) that beckoned me to it … no, it insisted firmly but with the utmost kindness and gentleness (as Ma would have) that I enjoy the sunbeams that warmed and illuminated this green cushion. As I sat down, I looked around and found (much to my joy) that I could not see any of the houses surrounding the park – I was fully absorbed into these natural surroundings, embraced by them and the unaccustomed warmth of the sun.

I fell instantly into one of the most powerful meditative states I can recall, feeling an absolute oneness with the grace, beauty and power of all that enfolded me in that moment. All colors took on a new vibrancy, and, for a moment, Ma’s words about her fascination with the differences in perceived colors following her cataract surgery went through my mind. All this and peace, peace, peace beyond all words, characterizations, concepts …

Slowly and with unprecedented mindfulness, I looked off to my right, with an inner knowing that I was about to drink deeply of unending beauty and love. And in a moment that was not a moment, I saw the glinting of a tiny bead of water in the forest soil – a bead that had within itself all of the colors of the rainbow, all of the depth of the universe, and, most powerful of all, the absolute essence of the light of Ma’s loving smile. In that miniscule jewel of water was the entirety of creation, held gently and sweetly by a Love that could no more be measured, defined or understood than it could be ignored by my heart. The seemingly bottomless blackness of the hole left in my breast since Ma died became an equally limitless vessel for receiving this Love.

As this Love poured into me, a squirrel chattering at the top of a nearby tree called Barkley to his true squirrel-herding purpose, bringing Barkley a level of joy and fulfillment seemingly commensurate with my own. With a smile as big as his face could contain, Barkley ran off to work …and I … I dived ever more deeply into this tiny water universe that continued to shine with the force of a thousand suns from the edge of a blade of grass embedded in the musty humus, mud and leaves.

As I softened my gaze, everything around me moved in closer, holding my shoulders, my feet and hands, ultimately my every cell with a motherly embrace, which I returned with utter surrender. All that ever was, is, or will be was brought together in that endless moment – still clearly totally centered on this immeasurably small rainbow sphere before me in the dirt. I was being pulled inexorably into its core even as my physical boundaries seemed to evaporate outward beyond my forest surroundings, the water in the creek below, the city, state, country, continent, the oceans … all of our world suddenly was no larger than this tiny water gem that had called me into it – all that I could possibly perceive in a lifetime was no different from this one sweet pearl of wisdom, water and Love that endlessly filled my heart and mercifully quieted my mind.

On one level, I thought that this moment too would pass, and that I would again be visited by sorrow, loss, the inevitability of change and endings … but I was able to witness myself clearly and lovingly in the same instant as I had this thought. I had been given the gift of the Timeless even as my mind latched onto the ephemeral. I was home.

I don’t know how long someone watching me would say I sat there … perhaps fifteen minutes, perhaps more. Certainly I was in no position to judge the passage of time. I would play with shifting my focus from my newfound water world to the trail, the trees, the ferns, to Barkley’s blissful countenance as he looked for his next dharma instruction from the surrounding woods. Then I would return to the jeweled globe on the forest floor, reveling in its subtle shifts in color and emphasis as the sun arced above the firs.

A few times I moved closer to this miraculous water orb, trying to measure its size or see how much the color would shift as I moved my head. All of these were as games of a child who feels utterly safe in the loving arms of his Ma – and all would fall back into the microscopic ocean before me, shining with the brightness of Sri that could never be denied, even as I was reunited in an endless instant with that macro ocean of creation that surrounded me, that WAS me …

This was the moment of my first real understanding of the first sutra of the Pratyabhijna Hrdayam (“The Splendor Of Recognition”), an eleventh-century Tantric text:

citih svatantra visva siddhi hetuh

“Absolute consciousness, in her essential nature as blissful freedom, brings about the attainment [existence] of the universe.”
(Note: I have taken some small liberties in my translation, but mostly to expand the literal definitions to clarify the meaning it holds for me)

This aphorism shares its roots with some interpretations that many now say are at the core of quantum physics as well, perhaps most succinctly stated by the sage Abhinavagupta (also of the 10th and 11th century):

“Nothing perceived is independent of perception, and perception differs not from the perceiver; therefore the [perceived] universe is nothing but the perceiver.”

Heavy stuff. Especially when I try to understand it with my mind.

But this is the essence of the gift I received – I FELT it. What happened in my thoughts and mind was only a distraction. And at the heart of all was love … the love of Ma, the love I feel for Heather, the love Barkley showers so abundantly on us, the aching love I feel for all of my family as Ma left our midst … the love that is fueled by no less an energy than that which brought all creation into being – the very Heart of God.

But back to the forest…

After whatever time had passed, I gratefully said goodbye to the tiny water world I’d been in, and Barkley and I joyously made our way around Maricara Park for a short time longer … all the while with a sense of fullness, gratitude, love and connectedness that still shines in me as I write this hours later. I was still feeling a little tired, a little sick from the bug that hammered me just as we returned home – but there was still this incredible luster to everything I was taking in through my senses. What TREMENDOUS joy! I began to believe that I was now coming to know the kind of pleasure that Ma would often get from seeing some small wonder of nature and allowing herself to experience it to her core; AHA! So THAT’S where the incredible light of her smile came from, I said to myself.

As Barkley and I finally reached the exit to the park, I paused for a moment to look around and see if there were more water worlds that would reveal themselves to me. Perhaps because of my expectation of finding such worlds in every branch, leaf, and pine needle around me, I could see none. Clipping Barkley’s leash on his collar seemed emblematic of going back to the world of limitation – a place or maybe a state of mind to which I was choosing to return. Once again, though, I witnessed myself as I made this choice, coming back to the realm that Ma so often would call the “low nirvana” – and a world that she professed was far more nourishing and sustaining in the long run than the “high nirvana” states we tend to yearn for.

As we made our way down the street again on the way home, now firmly re-established in the so-called “real world,” I started feeling sadness that I was no longer swimming in that tiny yet infinite water world. I looked ahead toward the crest of the hill and smiled as a car passed by, and the old woman in the car flashed me a grin that I hoped mirrored my own. It was as bright as this unexpectedly beautiful day in the midst of Oregon’s drippy gray winter. As I turned my head to follow the car as it turned left in front of me, my eyes were greeted by thousands of tiny water worlds glinting in the sunlight on the lawn of a neighbor I don’t yet know. And Ma was dancing with a joy that surpasses all understanding in every single one of them.