White Handkerchief

In the Vedic meditation tradition that I practice, a student makes a simple offering at her/his initiation: a few flowers and a piece of fruit presented on a pure white cloth– for which I chose a handkerchief with a lily embroidered in white thread on one corner.

The offerings are placed on a simple table altar for a brief ceremony which thanks the teachers of the last 8,000 or so years who have passed down the mantras, teacher to student. After this chant, each student goes with his/her teacher to receive privately the mantra chosen for him/her. After the initiation, students meditate together with their teachers. At the end, teachers and students eat the fruit together or each student is given fruit to take home; and students take a flower, not one of their own, but that of another student, home. Each student’s white cloth is returned to its owner.pujatable1 I carried my handkerchief for my marriage ritual– both times. And I brought it for my initiation into a more advanced mantra nearly 30 years later. I carried it again when I received another advanced mantra in 2015.

Symbols are important. Sometimes symbols become more important than that which they symbolize. But if a symbol is a reminder, a prompt for contemplation, gratitude, or forgiveness, then it is valuable.

My white handkerchief is a reminder of the deep spiritual understanding that humans can achieve when an open heart and mind are set toward enlightenment and the doing of good. If I were going to be buried (I’m not; I will be cremated) I would want that handkerchief buried with me. As it is, I will give it to a most loved person before I die, someone who, I hope, will seek the Light that it symbolizes for me.

The Lone Ranger

Just now I serendipitously watched an episode of The Lone Ranger on television. A huge flood of childhood understandings rushed over me.

The good guys not only wore a white hat, but they, at least the Lone Ranger, also rode a stunningly white horse.

The good guys always caught the bad guys.

Not all “Injuns” were the same; they were good and bad, just like the settlers.

The girl doesn’t always get the boy.

Discussion is a better way to settle differences than gunfights.

Friendship and loyalty (Tonto and the Lone Ranger) were the most important things in life.

Would that life were as simple now as it was when I was six.

Atheist Friends – On Further Consideration

True confessions time: After over ten years of searching in England for a Meeting for Worship that gathers fully, where we can hear the buzzing sound of the Spirit, and see the Light flowing from person to person around the circle, I realize that I resent the “non-theists” in the circle, who, I perceive, prevent the Meeting from gathering. In absolute truth, I wish they would take themselves off to the atheist church in London.

When I first entered that Quaker silent meeting in Berkeley, I felt surrounded and cushioned by the silence. I immediately felt a sense of arms encompassing my whole body. The meeting had started, so I sat in the nearest empty chair. The silence was profound, one might even say deafening. I sank into it, felt enveloped and humbled; then elated and energized by an audible buzz that seemed to be moving from person to person around the circle. No one spoke, so the silence was deep and full; but late in the meeting, a heartily suckling baby broke the silence, though not the connection around the circle.

The next week, the experience was completely different. There was a restlessness in the room– much squeaking of chairs , many heavy sighs, many shuffling feet. Half a dozen people stood up to speak, one very profoundly about the war that had just started in Iraq (1990). But there were long periods of silence, with a sense of connection similar to what I’d felt in the first meeting.

In the ladies’ room after my second meeting, a voice from the next stall said, “You got any paper in that stall?”

I said yes, and handed a wad of toilet tissue under the bottom edge of the stall.

As we washed our hands, she said, “You’re new here. Where do you come from?”

“I’m an ex-Catholic.”

“Ah,” she said, “You’d be surprised how many of us there are here.”

When I read the three-panel brochure about Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting, I noted that the description of the meeting was “Christ-centered,” not Christian. I gathered that Worship and Ministry committee, who produced the brochure, thought that “Christian” had been hijacked by fundamentalists; and they didn’t want to discourage any newcomers.

Getting to know people in the meeting, I was fascinated but not surprised that about a third of the members were refugees from the Catholic Church. Say what you want about the dogma, misogyny, paedophilia and other disgusting elements of Catholicism, when the Catholics get you as a child (and they did, then, demanding that even children in mixed marriages be reared Catholic), they give you a thirst for the mystical, the inexpressible. As Howard Brinton points out in 300 Years of Friends, Quakers and Catholics are the only mainstream religions that hold to the actual experience of the presence of Christ during worship. But I’m getting off the track here.

What I’m getting to is that each Meeting for Worship is a unifying experience, connecting those present in a manner that is unique and inexpressibly profound. It is not merely sitting quietly, cogitating or musing, without focus or intention. It is a communal act, a communal calling on the Holy Spirit(or Christ or God) to be present among us, to make that presence known in a way that we humans can recognize.

Silent worship requires devotion, an old-fashioned word, but the truest to my meaning that I can find. It requires us to be devoted to the community through and in Divine Energy or Presence. It requires at minimum the desire to experience God’s presence.

An atheist does not have this desire. An atheist does not focus on the experience of The Devine. An atheist does not wish to connect through the Holy Spirit or any other Divine Entity– because an atheist does not accept the existence of the Divine, does not seek to know God or to participate in a spiritual community. Atheists are simply Not Interested in spiritual connection.

So, yes, I resent their presence in meeting for worship. And my observation, after so many years seeking the kind intense spiritual connection I knew in my first meeting, is that when atheists are present, it is almost impossible for a meeting to gather. Each individual Friend may feel the movement of the Spirit, but it is not possible to gather completely and wholly as a spiritual community because some people in the room do no participate worshipfully. It doesn’t happen because the people sitting in the room are not all focussed on the calling of the Spirit.

Inspired and Inspiring: Thom Knoles

If you ever get a chance to hear Thom Knoles speak, TAKE IT!  I’ve written here before about the quality of the teacher-student relationship in India and the kind of teaching we expect here in the West.

Thom Knoles straddles the boundary between the Indian teacher-to-student relationship and the European classroom lecture method. He is revered in India as a great teacher with comprehensive knowledge of the Vedas; and he is looked to by his students in the West for his direct and gentle style of teaching profound and life-affirming concepts from the Vedas.

Vedic meditation is a simple practice in and of itself. Each student receives a mantra chosen specifically and individually for that student, and the practice is simply to use the mantra twice a day for a brief period, usThomually about twenty minutes. Hundreds of studies show the various positive effects of this daily practice, from such mundane benefits as lowering blood pressure and improving the grades of high school students who practice regularly; to enhanced cognitive functions and spiritual awakening. The practical improvements are the principal reason that most people decide to try it out. The more profound and intangible effects are why most people continue to meditate every day.

Thom teaches the Vedic meditation practice. But his teaching goes far beyond the simple initiation ceremony. He brings concepts and beliefs that are millennia old to his Western students in a way that no other teacher I’ve known or read has done. Thom’s teaching is unique and delightful because of his gift for finding stories and examples to illustrate these complex concepts in terms and situations that are completely and instantly recognizable to his students. He does not reduce profound truths to pithy quotations or a series of steps. Rather, he raises his students’ understanding of a concept with empathetic selection of slices of modern life.

Recently I went to Thom’s talk, “The Conscious Design of Happiness,” in London. The content of the talk was practical and spiritual, delightful and illuminative, all at the same time; but what most inspired me was Thom’s gentleness, directness and simplicity. He needed no fancy “visuals,” no staging, no notes. He sat quietly, comfortably and informally in a chair and spoke for over an hour. I’m sure he had an outline in his mind of what he wanted to cover, but he allowed his intuition to guide his talk and the specific examples he chose. As a teacher myself, I was delighted and encouraged to be assured by example that simply having the knowledge in one’s mind and trusting in the moment to give cues about content can actually work.

Speaking briefly with him afterward, I saw in a personal moment the same simplicity, directness and self-knowledge that comes across publicly. He is, as my California friends say, The Real Deal.

Link: Thom Knoles

The Qualities of Silence

Recently, at Woodbrooke, I had a startling revelation. Quaker silent worship is anything but silent.

I don’t mean only the shuffling feet, rustling papers, coughs and sneezes, or the occasional snoring. I mean that the room is not deeply peaceful or intensely quiet. Rather the space is filled with emotions: uncertainty, expectation, impatience, fatigue, distraction. The concept of waiting or expectancy means that at no time in Meeting for Worship is everyone completely silent within.

This realization struck me during the Woodbrooke course, “Quakers and Modern Spirituality.” During the course, we had periods of Quaker worship and of meditation. It was during a very deep group meditation that I suddenly recognized how full, enclosing and uplifting that silence of meditation is when compared to that of Quaker worship. Meditation is at the same time both the essence of self-awareness and the practice of connecting Self with the Divine Energy.

Quaker worship is assertive, grasping, reaching out. Meditative silence is accepting, open, inviting in.

India: Pictures from Shiva Country

Parmarth Niketan, the ashram where we stayed in March, is in northwest India, where Shiva is the revered local divinity. As Krishna is in Vrindivan, so Shiva is through this region. Here are some pictures of shrines to and images of Shiva.

This is the beautiful face of the Shiva statue that sits on the platform over the Ganges.  It is on this platform that major worship  and celebration events are held.

This is the beautiful face of the Shiva statue that sits on the platform over the Ganges. It is on this platform that major worship and celebration events are held.

Longer view of Shiva on a sunny morning. Sorry for the power lines; I took it from the window in our room.

Longer view of Shiva on a sunny morning. Sorry for the power lines; I took it from the window in our room.

Taken on an overcast afternoon, but it shows the lion and other symbols that usually accompany Shiva.

Taken on an overcast afternoon, but it shows the lion and other symbols that usually accompany Shiva.

Exterior of a small village shirne to Shiva and Shakti.

Exterior of a small village shirne to Shiva and Shakti.

Shiva (left) and, smaller, Shakti inside the shrine. Notice that Shiva is decked in flowers, and Shakti is dressed in silks. She reminded me of the Infant of Prague, who is often  dressed by devoted women in Italian Catholic churches.

Shiva (left) and, smaller, Shakti inside the shrine. Notice that Shiva is decked in flowers, and Shakti is dressed in silks. She reminded me of the Infant of Prague, who is often dressed by devoted women in Italian Catholic churches.

Incredibly, intricated carved Shiva shrine. Very Detailed, very colourful!

Incredibly, intricated carved Shiva shrine. Very Detailed, very colourful!

Close-up of one of the friezes on the shrine. There are hundreds.

Close-up of one of the friezes on the shrine. There are hundreds.

Dancing Shiva, in the garden of Parmarth Niketan

Dancing Shiva, in the garden of Parmarth Niketan