Last Thursday marked a first in my life: I have never missed a flight. I didn’t oversleep or have a breakdown on the way to the airport; there was actually a great deal of forethought and intention behind this. The culprit here (you guessed it) was Amma. I wavered back and forth for a number of days: should I give up the chance to sit a retreat with a great teacher in Bodhgaya (the birthplace of the Buddha)? Or follow that intuition in my heart that said “go back”? I knew it was the right decision when, only an hour after coming back in the ashram, I sat down to watch her give darshan, and broke into tears, overwhelmed by the beauty of this human being. I felt as though I had come running back into the arms of mother.
How in the world could this have happened? I’m really trying not to think too much about that right now, and just go with the process as it unfolds. It’s not important to know why; just to trust that the heart knows what it wants. In the days leading up to coming back, my mind chimed in again and again to try and dissuade and discourage me from forfeiting a non-refundable plane ticket (that’s 150 bucks!) and from pursuing this path of devotion. Turning myself over to this practice is a “betrayal” of your Buddhist training! The “real work” of meditation is done sitting for hours on a cushion, not singing songs and chanting mantras! But just as these doubts began to get really loud, I opened a book and found the following quote from Nisargadatta (another enlightened master):
“Nowadays people are full of intellectual conceit. They have no faith in the ancient traditional practices leading up to Self-knowledge. They want everything served to them on a silver platter. The path of knowledge (jnana) makes sense to them and because of that, they may want to practice it. They will then find that it requires more concentration that they can muster and slowly becoming humble, they will finally take up easier practices like repetitions of a mantra or worship of a form. Slowly the belief in a Power greater than themselves will down on them and a taste for devotion will sprout in their heart. Then only will it be possible for them to attain purity of mind and concentration. The conceited have to go a very roundabout way.”
Thank you universe for delivering up such an apt description of myself! And that was just the last little push I needed to get back here.
If I’m really honest and look at my practice closely, there is indeed a gap between the isolated moments of awareness that often come while sitting (what I called “tapping into pure presence” in an earlier post) and the unruliness of the mind the rest of the day (with judgment, lust, and other less than desirable mental states dominating the day). I hadn’t really admitted that keeping the awareness going the whole day is indeed more concentration than I can muster, likely because I have benefited so much from the little concentration that I did develop. But what’s the next step? How can I expand that awareness to be aware all the time?
My answer came in the form of repeating a mantra that Amma gave me. Now, I realize that chanting it is not a cop-out in any way; in fact, it’s quite difficult. But the continuity of my awareness (I shouldn’t really personalize that, since there’s actually nothing mine about it) has improved as I practice the mantra while I’m walking or waiting or eating or anything else. The simple words always bring me back to awareness, instead of getting lost in thought. The words themselves could be meaningless, and I’m not expecting that some higher power is keeping a mantra counter going (as some devotees here do) just waiting to bestow enlightenment upon me once I hit a magic number (is 1,000,000 enough to do it?). The reward of chanting the mantra, I discovered, is in the chanting of it itself, and the freedom I gain from disentangling myself from the errant wanderings of the monkey mind. If the mantra helps, then great, provided I don’t get attached. Maybe engaging with forms or chanting a mantra, is a bit like training wheels on a bike. A child may attempt to ride the bike straightaway and succeed if lucky, but most of the time, some assistance is necessary. Only a fool would think the child any less for taking some help.
This realization, as well as my deep enjoyment of the chanting throughout the day and the burgeoning feeling of love I feel for Amma, has been tremendously humbling. I would have never thought I’d be spending another month here, and the fact that I am feels like a grace of the highest magnitude. The deeper I’ve gone into uncertainty and unknowing, the more I realizate that I simply cannot do this on my own. The conceited do indeed need a very roundabout way…a bit like stretching your arm around your head to feed yourself instead of putting the food straight in.
I’ve got about a bazzilion other insights to share (my hand is screaming, just put the pen down for a minute!) but those will have to wait till next post. I’ll give Amma a hug for all of you:)