Monthly Archives: March 2012

Sacred Music Works

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If there is anything I have an un-complicated relationship with it’s kirtan, sacred mantra-music. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you might have picked up on my background as a Krisna-kid and my complicated feelings about my upbringing. I’ve definitely had a love-hate relationship with it. But if I had to choose one thing that has kept me bonded to this spiritual tradition, it’s kirtan. I’m sensitive to things being dogmatic, preachy, or overtly religious, but kirtan has seldom pushed my buttons. Quite the opposite, kirtan surprises me every time it carries me away on a wave of sacred sounds.  Consequently, the kirtan experience is something I feel anyone could enjoy, no matter what spiritual faith they practice in their daily lives.

If you have no clue what kirtan is, it can take many forms – popkirtan, rock-kirtan, rap-kirtan, traditional kirtan, world-music kirtan, reggae-kirtan. As different as these sounds are, they have some elements in common that qualify them as kirtan. For one, kirtan has a specific origin and a specific purpose. If you’re interested in the history of kirtan listen to Jai Uttal’s thoughts on the topic or Gaura’s. The ultimate purpose of kirtan is to express the profound spiritual yearning latent within. Kirtan literally means to glorify, in many ways synonymous with Hallelujah! Kirtan is also characterized by antiphony, where the leader calls out and the gathering responds. The chants are mostly in Sanskrit, India’s ancient language, arguably the oldest language in the world. If not in Sanskrit, other Indian languages, like Hindi or Bengali, are used. Kirtan as an experience evades definition but these are some of its main features.

My experiences in kirtan have been transformative for me. “In a simple word,” kirtan-singer Gaura Vani says, “kirtan is relief.” Whether I’m singing with my husband Vish or simply participating, I usually come out feeling refreshed. Recently, Gaura who is both a dear friend and a kirtan-star was in Gainesville to sing at a big Indian wedding. The evening before the wedding, he was singing at Krishna House right next to University of Florida. I’d had a super long day and wasn’t too excited to go; kirtans can get very loud and boisterous. Being in a hot noisy room packed with people was really the last place I wanted to be. I sat down feeling particularly jaded and lost, like I didn’t belong there and didn’t know where I belong. Then Gaura started signing, and from out of nowhere, tears started pouring from eyes. I felt a warm energy enfold me, as if the sound-vibrations were unlocking the mysteries of my soul. I felt God’s love then, and the simple message “you belong to me. I accept you.” reverberated within me.

As a young teenager, I would dance like a mad-woman, forget all my angst, turn red-faced, sweaty and blissful. I still sometimes throw myself into a kirtan with that relentless vigor, but I’ve grown to love the more meditative aspects of kirtan. Like in Gaura’s kirtan that I described, I sit still, listen, respond, sing and simply feel the sound-vibrations, noticing how they feel in my ears, my chest, my heart. Kirtans go from crazy, wild, tribal events where people are jumping up and down, to soft meditative and mellow. Seriously, I’ve had some of my most transcendent moments in kirtan, where the room melts away and time turns eternal.

Having said that, it’s not that every kirtan is transformative or that its effects are predicable, like a magic-trick. I certainly have come out of a kirtan, feeling empty, almost cheated. Also I have to admit that I simplified my feelings in the beginning of the post when I said that kirtan has never pushed my buttons. When I grew up, I was self-conscious about being different, and quite sensitive to any critique. Though it happened far less than I feared, if anyone wanted to crack a joke about me, it would be something like throwing their hands up in the air and singing “Krishna Krishna, Rama Rama, Hare Krishna.” I would react with a feeling of shame and become defensive, like no, I’m not crazy like that! I particularly suffered going out on street-kirtans.  People would plug their ears and ran the other way, and I would feel like they were running from me personally. People might view kirtan as some kind of ritual, fearing it will alter you forever, or create some unwanted change in your life (like joining the Hare-Krishnas!) Now it’s rare that I attend a street-kirtan, but I do feel that if that’s considered crazy, then yes, I am crazy like that. I do throw my hands up in the air; I do sing with all my heart; I do feel free in body and mind.

Kirtan hasn’t, however, been only something the Hare-Krishna’s do. Until my mid-twenties, I might have thought myself well-versed in kirtan; then I began touring with my talented kirtan-friends and realized that there was a whole world of kirtan out there! Alongside the growth of kirtan in my community, yoga had exploded in America, and with it yoga-music, i.e., kirtan. I’ve walked into halls packed with regular looking people with their arms raised singing “Govinda Govinda Gopala!” To my amazement, I’ve realized that people from all sorts of walks are into kirtan. Although kirtan hasn’t quite become a recognized genre of music on its own, the number of kirtan-artists is growing and the number of people interested in kirtan along with it. You can, for example, listen to Krishna Das on any airplane now. People who have no religious affinity with India or Eastern spirituality have found resonance in this genre of music. A very Jewish friend of mine, for example, shared that all she wanted to listen to while giving birth was Krishna Das’s soothing chanting. Although still relatively unknown, kirtan has become more mainstream.

It’s been a journey for kirtan to gain this marginal mainstream acceptance. My father’s guru, Bhaktivedanta Swami, the founder of the Hare-Krishna movement, inaugurated kirtan in America by singing Hare-Krishna under a tree in Tompkins Square Park, New York. That particular tree still stands and has been honored by the city of New York for its significance to Hare-Krishnas. My father and I rather mystically crossed paths in New York last summer; I was in NY with Vish over the weekend and my dad surprised me by flying in from Sweden. My dad wanted to go to Tompkin Square Park.When we got to the tree, he said a little self-consciously, “I’m going to embarrass you now with my fanatic ways.” And just like that, he prostrated fully, falling to the ground in front of the massive Elm tree, mindless of all the New-Yorkers sitting around on the benches talking. He touched the tree reverently and read the plaque with such amazement that I didn’t doubt this was a spiritual site for him, the place where it all began.

Since Bhaktivedanta Swami gathered people to sing in Tompkin Square Park, the kirtan-movement took of on a bumpy journey. The bumps, in my opinion, had nothing to do with kirtan. And I feel that’s what people are realizing now. I’ve experienced that kirtan transcends the boundaries of daily life and takes you to a sacred place. I am 100% convinced that anyone can get value from being in a kirtan, that it can soothe you, energize you, and pretty much give you what you need. People may want to keep religious groups at bay, or stick to their own religious beliefs, but that doesn’t automatically exclude kirtan. Like E.M. Forster wrote, “It’s the starved imagination, not the well-nourished, that is afraid.” Now people are less apt to associate kirtan with something cultish. And like Gaura Vani likes to say, we are all drinking from the same well, the same source, why argue whose water is better?

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The Diet Dilemma – You are what you Eat?

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Whether you are a vegetarian or meat-eater, you are at some point going to be questioned about what you eat. Outside of my immediate circle of family and friends, I’m often the only vegetarian. I grew up with the impression that meat-eating was inevitably linked to cruelty and lack of compassion, an assumption that I’ve had to look at in my interactions with those who eat animals.

The first one who indirectly challenged this assumption was my grandmother, the only meat-eater I knew well as a kid. Not only was she the sweetest person I knew, but she had this keen sense of compassion. For example, she stopped me several times from spitting my gum out the car-window (which I probably shouldn’t have been doing anyhow). Her concern, however, was not littering. Instead, she was worried about ants: “They can get stuck and die a slow horrible death. It’s awful.” She shuddered every time she told me this. The first time it happened, I thought of asking why she cared about the life of an ant? Why didn’t she care about the life of a fish, a cow, or a pig? It seemed so contradictory that I didn’t know how to ask. Also, I didn’t want to remind my grandma about that invisible line between us. It was only at her house that I ever saw meat on the table. In fact, if my parents were there, I wasn’t allowed to dine at the same table as my grandparents, unless the food was 100% veg-friendly. By sitting at the same table, my parents explained, I was indirectly participating in or condoning eating meat. As a kid, I was unhappy about this separation, but as an adult, I tend to agree with my parents. Just recently, I sat down to eat with some friends. When I noticed the big slabs of steak on their plates, I just lost my appetite and felt slightly sick. As a life-long vegetarian I represent a minority, but most people who choose a vegetarian diet will at some point question the ethics and compassion of those who don’t.

Even if I mentally question those who eat animals, I often stay away from that argument. At the surface, I think I’m not militant enough to take on the vegetarian-vs-eating animals fight. But I’m fascinated by the people who do and the different viewpoints they come up with. Michael Pollan, for example, definitely tries to create a synthesis in his book The Omnivores Dilemma arguing for a moderate and mindful consumption of meat. Then there is Jonathan Safran Foer who takes the opposite view in Eating Animals, maintaining that eating animals cannot be justified. Despite my strict upbringing, I feel that it’s possible for me to stand in the middle-ground and look at both sides. I recognize that there are reasons behind a person’s choice to eat animals. Still, when I come across someone who is an uncompromising vegetarian, I admire that. It takes guts to stand up to societal norms; let’s face it, we live in a meat-eating society. In the Sexual Politics of MeatCarol Adams writes  that we are “overwhelmed by an ongoing cultural and political commitment to meat eating.” When I encounter someone like this, I wonder if I’m simply being wimpy in my silence or if I am truly able to hold space for two opposite camps.

When I read Nobel prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s book The Lives of Animals I definitely got the “I’m a wimp” feeling. Despite being a introverted recluse, Coetzee is outspoken about animal rights. His meta-fiction novella looks at meat-eating and its implications from several different angles. Elizabeth Costello, the fictional character in the novella, is a relentless vegetarian. She takes on the giants of Western thinking and criticizes ‘reason’ which has crowned itself above emotion. Reason, indeed, has been used by some of the big names in Western thinking, like Descartes, to argue that animals don’t feel pain, that they are “automata” or machines. It might sound ludicrous to us now and has obviously been disproved, but this kind of investment in logic and reason is still very much at work in our society. Based on questions I’ve personally received, many people don’t even think it’s possible to survive and be healthy on a vegetarian diet! From experience then, I agree with Adams that there is a commitment to eating meat, so much so that people turn a blind eye to how animals are treated in slaughterhouses. When I think about the practical reality of how many animals are killed on factory-farms, I feel like my silence on the topic is like turning a blind eye.

While we may choose to ignore the facts, Foer insists that helplessness or indifference aren’t really options anymore, because “in the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is wrap your fingers around a knife handle.” Coetzee chooses to gloss over the horrors of the slaughterhouse, but Foer meticulously documents it in Eating Animals. What Coetzee does instead is to draw an analogy between the meat-industry and the Holocaust to fully conjure up the horror of the current animal situation. This parallel, also called “the dreaded comparison” by scholar Marjorie Spiegel, looms largely over Coetzee’s ethical argument. Although we as a culture may not believe in sin or pollution, “we do believe in their psychic correlates,” and anyone participating in the meat-industry is tainted. In the very signs of normalcy (healthy appetites, hearty laughter), Coetzee’s character Costello sees “how deeply seated pollution is.” It would be hard to disagree that something foul is going on, when according to Foer, the annual number of animals killed globally is fifty billion (nine of which belong to the United States.) These number are calculated with “the utmost meticulousness,” Foer says, and “are studied, debated, projected, and practically revered like a cult object by the industry. They are no mere facts, but the announcement of a victory.” As for the idea that the animals are slaughtered humanely,  Temple Grandin, the penultimate animal-whisperer, writes in Animals in Translation that cows are the animals she loves best, and she has felt conflicted by her own work in designing “humane slaughter.” As it is today, meat-eating as a dietary choice is one thing, but factory-farming – where animals are raised only to be killed – is quite another. While the former may in some ways find justification, the latter, I’m certain, finds none.

If you are a meat-eater and still reading, I congratulate you; I’m aware that this directness can be off-putting. If you do think that meat-eating and/or factory farming is justifiable, there is actually a great opportunity for you right now to voice your opinion, and I don’t mean as comments to my blog (though those are welcome to, as long as their respectful, as I’m attempting to be). Rather, in a contest asking “Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat” The New York Times wants to hear from carnivores only. Several of the authors mentioned above, like Pollan and Foer are judges: The deadline is April 8, 2012, in case you find that you are sufficiently convinced of your choices to argue for them.

The confusion we humans have about our relationships to animals is never more evident to me than in the case of pets. My grandma’s compassion for ants may seem funny or skewed , but I see this double-standard all the time in people. Cats and dogs are rescued and loved, and pets are pampered to no end. People are disturbed and indignant about the mistreatment of these particular animals. Indeed, for shock-value, Foer suggests: why not eat the millions of stray dogs that are put to sleep every year in the U.S.A? This strange societal double standard was also addressed in The New York Times last year when columnist Mark Bittman remarked, “if I keep a pig as a pet, I can’t kick it. If I keep a pig I intend to sell for food, I can pretty much torture it.” Why is the life of a cat, a dog, or a bunny more valuable than the life of a pig, chicken, or cow?

Although I don’t want to be a fanatic or extremist, I do resonate with the views presented by Foer in Eating Animals and Coetzee’s in The Lives of Animals. As an adult, my reasons for being vegetarian have only cemented for humanitarian, environmental, and ethical reasons. But since I’ve always been vegetarian, I do see that it’s been easy, indeed natural, for me to embrace this lifestyle. So I acknowledge that others with completely different backgrounds would find their way more natural. Really, the contradictory nature of the information out there by doctors and people in general only confuses the issue further. Choosing vegetarianism is almost viewed as a perilous health-hazard these days! We are encouraged not to question the double-standards at work in our cultural sentiments.

While the state of animals today concerns me a great deal, I value my friendships with non-vegetarians  and have in many ways suspended my judgment and allowed the question of diet to slip to the background. I do find it hard to eat in places where meat is conspicuous, but my desire to maintain good friendships has overshadowed my need to speak up. Every so often, however, I do question the integrity of my silence. For now, I choose to be an example of a healthy thriving vegetarian myself; your choice to eat meat is like your choice of spirituality; I am not going to tell you that my God is better than yours.

My Mother and Me

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It’s spring. Pink and white Azalea flowers are blooming all around me, and spring-cleaning is in the air inspiring me to take a deeper look at my life. ‘Growing’ and ‘blossoming’ are two words that I really love. So I want to look at where I am blossoming and where weeds are suffocating new growth. And to take this analogy further, I want to look at the first person who aided my growth from baby to girl to woman: my mother.

Surprisingly, I’ve never done an actual evaluation of my relationship with my mother. I do write regularly in my journal, and I’ve come to think of myself as a deeply introspective person. So I certainly have looked back at my life with the desire to understand it. But what I have not done is look at my parents and make an actual evaluation, a definitive conclusion of things as they were and as they stand. Now that I think about it, I’ve stayed away from this kind of black-and-white evaluation because it can be painful in its stark honesty.

When a friend of mine did an evaluation of her life, I clearly recall the impact it had on me. While she didn’t look at her relationships with her mom as I intend to do, she was brutally honest in all other aspects of her life.  I was amazed at her objectivity, cataloging the dissolution of her marriage, her finances, her school-debts. Although it was heavy stuff, the silver-lining throughout her sharing was this triumphant spirit. Having fully acknowledged what burdened her, my friend stood strong and hopeful about the future. Like I said, I was awestruck. I was in no way ready to be that honest. But as my mother and I are growing closer, I want to understand and accept my feelings for her, complex as they are. I often feel like I’m looking at her through cracked glasses. Are we really seeing each other at all?

Like most children, I spent the first ten years of my life absorbed in my mother’s love. My mom, or mamma, as we say in Sweden was the most important person in my life. I would tell her often that I wanted to stay with her forever, even when I was grown-up. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so worried that she wouldn’t come with me once I was grown up and got married. She continued to be the central person in my life until I became a teenager. When I turned 14, however, everything changed and we became strangers for over ten years. I moved to Florida to attend a boarding school and she stayed in Sweden. When finally she moved to America when I was twenty, I moved to India. Since the age of 14, I’ve seen my mom about once a year, sometimes less. Being a stranger to the person I loved the most, has been a strange, twisted experience, the workings of which I’m only beginning to understand.

Throughout these ten years of estrangement, I’ve unknowingly carried heavy feelings of abandonment, resentment, and a conviction that my mom didn’t care about me. I was bombarded by these subterranean feelings and as a result, I didn’t have space for my mom as a person, her struggles, her thoughts. Whenever I met my mom during this time, I mostly didn’t want to be near her. I was too angry and disappointed without fully knowing why. It was all-too natural to vent my inner feelings by being dismissive, sarcastic, and emotionally unavailable. It was almost a tit-for-tat feeling – you left me when I was a kid so now you don’t deserve my love.

The more I see my mom as just a person, I’ve started realizing that I played a part in our estrangement too. Even though I was “sent away” the fact is that I actually wanted to go. Really, it was my own desire that opened all these doors for me to leave Sweden, ill-equipped as I might have been at 14. Then onward, I decided to hold on to my conviction that I didn’t matter, and I didn’t want my mom’s “empty” apologies or attempts at reconciliation. So my part as a grown woman is that I’m holding on to my anger and pain. As a daughter, I’m constantly aware of everything my mom has done for me, what her sacrifices have been, and so I’m resistant to pointing out where she lacked, where she hurt me, where it wasn’t enough. Because wasn’t she trying her best? I do believe she was. Still, just as I’m eager to be fair to her, I need to be fair to my own feelings and accept that I didn’t feel supported by her.

I’m not actually striving to return to the innocence and sweetness of the mother-daughter love I had as a child, but I do want to have a clean, clear, and open-hearted relationship with my mom. She is a strong presence in my life now, and for that I’m grateful. Yet I sense that I need to accept all my feelings towards her, and I’ve attempted to come closer to such an acceptance in this evaluation. I’m in the process of uprooting the past, clearing out the weeds that she planted within me, and inviting her back into the garden of my heart.

 

Insisting and Resisting with Equal Force

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Recently the thought came to me that I’m a thinker on dance. I do a great deal of thinking about dance and the inner workings of dance. Sometimes, or quite often, I find myself thinking about dance rather than actually dancing. I can’t call myself a scholar, though, and I’ve just begun to formulate my thoughts. Simply put, academic thinking doesn’t feel as personally meaningful to me in my analysis of the world and where I fit into it. In other words, what have I experienced and felt in regards to dance? What have I observed and reacted to?
These thoughts regarding my own experience came up for me very strongly after I sent out the first Newsletter on my dance site. There, I spoke about my struggle with dance as an unattainable goal, a state of perfection. Soon after my longtime friend from India who was my senior at Kalakshetra responded with some discomfort. She felt weird, she said, about what she read as a veiled criticism against our Alma mater. She was shocked that I -who was well-loved by all the teachers and students alike – should come forth with anything but praise and a sense of joy about my experience. She, and other friends in my immediate circle, had been less integrated than I was, less at the inner core of people who had gotten the “stamp of approval” so to say. And yes, her words evoked a flood of lovely memories: dancing, sweating and dancing more. But ultimately, here I am confronted with the dichotomy between my internal experience and the external reality. Externally I was dancing well and receiving approval from my surroundings, internally I was convinced I’m not a dancer.
This has been an ongoing theme in my life, and the very reason why I am increasingly identifying with being a thinker in the field of dance and personal growth; on one hand, I was always in the top-ten amongst my peers and received regular encouragement both through my grades as well as personal words from my teachers and peers; on the other hand, there was this inner conviction, this inner discomfort, stopping me at every move, paralyzing the flow of my heart. I think of this as my inner conviction about myself, which stubbornly remains at the forefront of my beliefs regardless of the feedback I receive from the external world. Indeed, I would often marvel (and still do) at someone’s courage to take on the challenge of the stage with such confidence and zest. Had I been in there place, I knew, I would have gone through the motions, perhaps executed them quite well, but internally I would be battling a silence, a deafening paralysis.
This inner battle has certainly left me with the question, is dance for me? But really, that would be like asking, is LIFE for me? Because this pattern is at work in all the areas of my life, wanting and not wanting with equal force. With dance (life), a part of me is insisting on moving, and another part, equally strong is resisting that very impulse! If you recognize yourself in any of this, I encourage you to join me in my meditation on where both of these impulses are located, where are they coming from? Why this insistence? Why this resistance?

 

Connecting with Your Inner Being

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I cannot broadly define what an Internal Experience is. Going inward and connecting to your core can be anything from profound and cathartic to deeply disturbing. What I do know, however, is that avoiding your internal reality does have consequences.

Not too long ago, I was innocently sitting in an airplane minding my own business when the man directly in front turned around to me. “Yes?” I said politely leaning forward with an open smile. “Stop. Pushing. My. Seat.” he said in an offended tone. I felt confusion cloud my face and glanced at my legs and feet; they were nowhere near his seat. He continued to stare me down with vicious hostility.  All I could do was stutter, “I…I wasn’t even touching your seat.” He snorted, as if I was the biggest liar he’d ever met. He leaned towards me and repeated his demand with more aggression. Woah, I thought, how do I stop doing something that I wasn’t even doing in the first place? Momentarily, I felt bad for his wife and kid sitting next to him; he was clearly ready for a nasty fight. He was just as clearly looking for a space to get some burdensome explosive feelings of his chest. Although unpleasant, being at the receiving end of this man’s aggression reminded me of something: my own need to find a place of expression for my pent-up stuff. Like Carl Jung said, “What You Resist Persists.” If I ignore my emotions, they will not only accumulate and clog my pipes, they will find an outlet. The man seated in front of me, for example, was not just traveling on the airplane, he was on a journey of his own. In truth, he was angry, very angry, but he had not expressed his anger to the right person at the right time. Instead he let it spill onto me, an innocent stranger.

I’m sure each of us can think of someone in our life who is passive-aggressive or who reacts in ways we can’t understand. I’m also sure that each of us can think of an instance (or many) in our own lives where we “over-reacted.” This kind of acting out or over-reacting point towards untended internal business. Ironically though, emotional explosions point to the richness and emotional depth available to us but that we often avoid.

Usually, it’s exactly when we need to turn inward that we seek external distractions. It’s so tempting and easy to surrender to the external world: movies, talking, facebook, eating, friends, arguments – the list is endless. What I’ve experienced, however, is that the more I engage in external things, the less connected I feel to myself. When I’m in that hyperactive external “Doing” mode, my sense of reality and my sense of self becomes warped. The feedback I recieve from the world completely clashes with my own perception of what’s happening. For example, someone will say, “You seem really confidant and strong.” But my heart is pounding so fast in my chest I’m surprised my eyeballs aren’t vibrating. Turning inwards is crucial for me; I feel like I’m constantly processing new information, growing, changing, opening, closing. At my core, I experience a peaceful chaos. When I’m connected to myself, I’m peaceful; when distracted too long, chaos ensues.

If I try to locate where all this inner activity is taking place, where my core is, I actually can’t. You can sit completely immobile, for instance, yet be intensely active in your mind. Where is that mind-action taking place? The closest I’ve come to an answer is in the concept that our bodies have different layers: the body is one layer, the mind another. Both are equally palpable and real, depending on how in-tune you are. I was intrigued to read more about this in Carolyn Myss’s book The Anatomy of Spirit. Here she discusses in detail the energy fields in our bodies, creating a striking synthesis between Christian, Jewish, and Vedic paradigms. In essence, we are more than 3D; we are comprised of complex intertwined layers of being that work together and separately to inform or sometimes confuse us about who we are and what we feel.

As much as we’d like to label the aggressive man on the plane a jerk, I’m quite certain each of us has a version of him within ourselves. What we ignore does not go away. But when are we consciously seeking contact with the emotional being that is right there under the surface of our skin? Having regular contact with ourselves, allowing ourselves to have an Internal Experience, will not only stave of an impending explosion, it will also make you feel more vibrant and alive.