Dakshineswar Ashram

The truth is I come to India for the tea. Just kidding. The real truth is I come to meditate at the Dakshineswar temple of the Yogoda Satsanga ashram, the Indian wing of the Self Realization Fellowship. It’s north of Kolkata along the Ganges. There are about three monks that live here, several brahmacharis (monks in training) and retreatants from all over the world.

The temple faces the Ganges. The marble tiles across the portico remind me of a front porch of a grand Southern mansion. The pillars start out as classic Greek and then explode into ornate Indian carvings at the top. The little blue temple is narrow—only five people across can sit on faded orange wedge pillows laid in orderly rows on the dark blue carpet. The windows go from ceiling to floor. Tiny mahogany meditation chairs (for the foreigners) look a bit austere but are surprisingly comfortable. In the distance a ferry boat put puts across the Ganges taking passengers to and from their work. It has the same sound as the Evinrude motor on my dad’s fishing boat some 40 years ago. I would know that engine anywhere.

Here I can corral my wild stallion of a mind easier than anywhere else. Great souls have meditated here and still do every day. they sprinkle their love and devotion on this temple– not visible, but as real as the scent of river on the breeze. I am deeply content here—not new dress happy, not great restaurant satisfied, but a clarity that truly feeds me.

Last night, all over India, it was Divalli holiday.

DSC05302Everywhere in the city, lights are hanging from the roofs of buildings, paper and fabric temples erected to honor the mother. Divalli celebrates the birth of the Goddess, Kali. That’s about all I know about it. You could feel the excitement building even a week ago in Jaipur where our drivers were talking about the shopping they needed to do. Sound familiar? One more element of Indian holidays that is more over the top than anything else—a love affair with fireworks.

All day long the maintenance crew was spiffing up the ashram and putting candles out– on the fountain, every railing, along the walkways and fish pond. Families began to appear about 5 PM. We did our normal exercises on the portico and went in for meditation. While we were meditating, the children and maintenance men began lighting the candles. When we came out, it was magical. Everyone gathered in the courtyard and soon fireworks were exploding. The monks and adults were as excited as the children. For me, the most outstanding part of the whole event was that the maintenance crew (low members of the social totem pole) were the heroes—managing the fireworks. One of the men even made all the big elaborate ones.DSC05315

Yogananda’s picture was in the center of the fish pond The finale was almost 2 stories high and reflected off the water. Prasad (a special blessed treat) was then passed out. The whole evening had almost a feudal feeling —where people brought their families to share with other like minded people and the ashram provided it all.

PS My camera has a setting for fireworks. This is what turned out,. Interesting huh? Internet is crappy. Even the hotels that say they have good connection, don’t really. Pls excuse the grammatical mischief.

Varanasi Thoughts

Today I walked in cow dung in streets so narrow you could barely get a motorcycle thru and watching a motorcycle get around a cow was quite entertaining. I visited an ashram that existed more than 200 years. I had the best food in all of my time in India and squatted to pee in a bathroom too gross to describe. I bought silk sheets for less money than the one day sale at Macy’s. Old men smiled at me with the red betel juice between their teeth I floated down the Ganges River at sunset while thousands of pilgrims on shore sat on the steps of the ghats and sang “aarti,”  devotional chanting and the lighting of candles.

Varanasi which was previously called Benares and centuries ago was known as Kashi is the oldest city in the world. This city of Light is a vast crowded landscape and at the same time a deeply moving spiritual center– a microcosm of India. It is a shadow play between the  both mundane and sublimes played out at the ghats, stone steps and walkways, along the river.

Along the shores are ancient castles and estates that over centuries the wealthy and privileged have built so that they could come to this most holy of places to die. It is believed that to die in Varanasi greatly improves one’s soul’s progress.

Over centuries India’s great souls have inhabited this city—Ananda Mai Ma, Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Buddha, Trailanga Swami and some say Jesus visited here.

At twilight there ia  moment of complete stillness when the sun sets over the river. Boats are lined up filled with many international tourists but mostly with Indian pilgrims who have come here at great sacrifice. They float  little flower packets down the river to ask the blessings of Mother Ganga.  Light on the temples  domes heart stopping.

Dakshineswar Serenity

I am sitting in the colorful gardens of the Yogoda Satsanga Retreat Center in what used to be the village of Dakshineswar, but today we would probably call it a suburb of Calcutta or, more correctly Kolkata. My spiritual teacher for the past 30 years, Paaramahansa Yogananda, bought this property in 1939 with the help of his disciple, Rajarsi Janakananda. There is a Ramakrishna ashram, Yoga Math, for women just down the road with stunning architecture. Dakshineswar is a pilgrimage site where India’s great Kali temple honoring the Divine Mother is located.

India is always loud and noisy, but there’s a stillness in the ashram so tangible I can almost taste it on my lips.  Several times a day I can hear the Muslim call to prayer from across the river. Dogs in the street bark and horns blare. In the background is the constant putt putting motor of the ferry crossing the Hoogily River leaving the scent of diesel fuel in its wake. It sounds like it’s on its last legs, but it sounded that way three years ago when I was here. I swear it is the same Evinrude motor as my father’s old fishing boat. I would know that sound anywhere.

Like a beautiful southern mansion, the temple building is white with dark blue trim. Marble tiles cover the portico across the front. Pillars have a stately Grecian feel but then explode into exotic Indian carvings at the top. Intricate lattice work make up the railings.

We meditate every morning and evening. All my worldly obligations are put aside for awhile—stealinig time from maya.  I feel I am stashing money in the immortality bank.

 Sitting in the silence,

On the sunny banks of my mind,

Sitting in the silence with the Master by my side.

When my thoughts have gone to rest, that’s the time I see Him best.

The words of this chant keep running through my head. Thirty years of meditation attempting to calm the mind, and here it happens  easily. I am divinely happy –not full stomach satiated–not bought a new dress happy– not in any way sensually satisfied– but a deep, sing for joy contentment.

Serenity

Mother India, January 30

Mother India

January 29

The plane touches down at the dinghy Kolkata airport. We gather our luggage and go through customs standing in line until various uniformed characters study  our passports and visas, grunt and pass us on to the next official who does the same thing. We push our luggage cart to the exit door where a sea of taxi drivers are all eager to drive us into the dark night. A moment of doubt and hesitation– the adventure begins.

India is a difficult place to travel. The pollution is teetering at an edge that’s not sustainable–the impact of a billion and half people and intense growth. The water quality so hard for foreigners, the noise, the traffic, the dusty streets and constant hustle.  With all these challenges, why would anyone in their right mind want to come here? Because Mother  India isn’t about the mind, she tugs at one’s heartstrings  even from 7000 miles away.

India is like a beautiful woman who has a large wart on her nose. In the West, people focus only on the wart and don’t see her greatness. I talked with a young woman at our ashram who is on pilgrimage with her father. We agreed that whenever we tell someone back home we’re going to India they respond with fear, fear, fear, “How can you tolerate the poverty? It’s so dirty.”

I’m not denying that the poverty of India isn’t shocking, pervasive, heart breaking, but I don’t  much focus on that. The people of India are industrious, creative. They come up with the most ingenious solutions to problems that we have long since solved with money and technology. Today I saw a water system work with a couple of bamboo poles and rope.

I love how the people of India, of course not all, have nothing compared to our lifestyles, yet they know how to be  happy and content.  I love how curious and open and ready to break into a smile they are.  I love how proud they are of their country and the progress it is making.  I love how, as older people, we are so honored, respected and actually looked out for. I love how devotional they are and not afraid to share it. Most of all, I love their 5000 year old tradition of yoga and spirituality; the science of going beyond our limited minds to experience what every religion in the world has written about but doesn’t practice much—experiencing the peace that passes all understanding.

And besides, India is never boring. There’s always some surprise around the corner.

Mother India

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Kep, Cambodia

Kep is a quiet seaside retreat not so much discovered, as yet, by the tourists. Its beaches are not that great. The seafood is more than abundant and crab is their specialty. We splurged ($25) on a guesthouse with peach colored bungalows and thatched roofs. A deep blue pool is surrounded by terra cotta tiles. Organza curtains flutter around the bamboo gazebo. It’s hot and humid here, but this was one of our best days in Cambodia.
Lush is an understatement for this tropical region. There are jack fruit and mango trees. The palms fronds flap their leaves together in the ocean breeze. A fragrant six- foot jasmine like bush grows nearby. The mountains inland are a national park.  Cambodia is still more 19th than 21st Century. The young man that lives down the trail beyond our resort passed by this morning on a farm wagon still pulled by oxen.

David and I rented a motorbike this afternoon and cruised the newly resurfaced roads near the ocean. There are many 1-3 acre parcels where once stood  lovely seaside mansions during the French Colonial era—some of them designed by architect, Le Corbusier. They were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s and 80’s. Many peasants have taken over the parts that are livable. Beautifully crafted stone fences and elaborate iron gates still remain. Mature landscapes have returned to their wild and natural inclinations.  Someone or agency is busy clearing the lands and hanging for sale signs so if you know of anyone looking to build their seaside villa on a bargain piece of land, this might be it. Of course, to get here, we endured a two-hour spine jarring tuk tuk ride on a road in process where, when someone passed us, we had a brown out of red dust.

Yesterday we ate Green Papaya Salad and Crab cooked in Coconut and Lemon Grass sauce.

I love the Cambodian people especially in the countryside. They don’t need to meditate—so easy going and ready with smiles. When I ask a driver how much to pay for some extra service he gave us, he smiles and says, “Oh, you decide, madame.” No haggling.

The Khmer women of both Cambodia and Thailand are well, lush, lovely, perhaps the most delicate and graceful creatures we’ve ever seen.  When I think of the history of this country, my mind says, “who could possibly want to hurt these people?” 

Kampot River Ride

DSC00537Les Manguieres is a resort I found on the internet . . .”one of Cambodia’s best kept secrets”. And indeed it is. The resort is on the Kampot River about four miles out of the town of Kampot and about 15 miles from the ocean. It is best known for its red, green, white, and black peppers that grow on nearby plantations in the foothills of the mountains.

The assistant manager of the resort, a Cambodian woman who looks about 16, helped us arrange a biking and kayaking excursion on our first day there. Our plan was that we would ride their bikes about 3-4 miles through the local village; then meet the resort’s boatman who would ferry a kayak up river to us. The bicycles were rusted, one gear Chinese specimens probably manufactured during the Ming Dynasty, but they worked.

With her carefully drawn map in hand, we rode through the village accompanied by curious young boys pointing the way to the confused looking “farangs” or foreigners. We arrived at the local school just as the kindergartners were getting out. It looked much like our schools, but parents waited on motorbikes squeezing up to three little ones on for a ride home. “Hello!” Hello!” they called; little hands waving. It was my movie star moment as the gappy toothed kindergartners gathered around my bike to see themselves in the pictures I took. Their innocence and unadulterated joy was worth the price of the plane ticket.

We rode on to the third bridge where our boatman was waiting. With a chorus of birds to accompany us, we paddled first into the mangrove backwaters that the locals call the Green Cathedral; then out into the open river for a much needed dip. A smiling, toothless grandmother came out to wave at us, and other local children splashed into the water as well. I know I sound a little spoiled but the Cambodian version of a kayak is more like a small bathtub which works if quick turns aren’t required.

The main diet here is fish as well as rice, watermelon, mango, pineapple, and bananas and of course, pepper. The broad, salt water river is teeming with fish of various kinds unlike our own. It is so hopeful to see a river that actually feeds its community.
the green cathedral

Night Market

DSC00499These Chinese grapes were were so voluptuous looking that we had to buy them. Only when we got back to guesthouse to we calculate that 180 Baht was $6. Oh well Also tasted a small, shiny red pepper like fruit–tasted like a cross between a cucumber and rhubarb. It was called som man uoo. Well, something like that. No we did not taste those lovely pricey-looking ones. Patti fruit

Wired and Tired

image016161616After the plane ride and a clean hotel in Bangkok, a long day on the mini bus. I met a German couple who agreed to share the cost of one as the driver promised a shorter ride than the bus. The towns and acres of agriculture fly past the windows faster than my eyes can grasp them—rubber trees, coconut palms, and lush tropical landscapes. Exquisite temples! There are old ladies in big hats with umbrellas on their motorbikes and new subdivisions of narrow two story houses. Bridgestone is everywhere – we assume harvesting rubber. Thailand reminds me of the Midwest in the 50s so much booming economy –more middle class—everywhere motorbikes and cars and all the fixing and tires and hubcap sales that go with them.

The roads are like little roller coasters up and down With all the cramming into small spaces, scrunching and being jolted awake by a bump in the road our incredible bodies hang together—bones still attached to muscles. I am in awe of them.

We are in the S town of Trad on our way to Cambodian border. First stop in this town was our favorite massage therapist who used to know cousin Alden –they were monks together in N. Thailand. And of course a good bowl of Thai soup for breakfast with its many textures and flavors–lemon grass, kaffir lim leaves, chillis, peanuts, lime, fish sauce and many undetermined ingredients.

Baan Jai Dee guesthouse offers no luxury accommodation. Traditional Thai construction with well varnished teak floors and walls so thin we can hear the neighbor sneeze. We come here because the proprietor is such a gem. She has framed many small pieces of Thai weaving and embroidery on the walls. Her husband collects books. There is a central room where people from all over the world congregate. Tomorrow hope to get a bus directly to Kompot, Cambodia.

As We Leave the Ground

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January, 2013

San Francisco, CA

As We Leave the Ground—The Journey Begins

The seat belt clicks and I stash my books into the magazine pouch in the seat in front of me. The luggage compartment squeaks and rattles overhead. Newspapers crackle and I can hear the soft whispers of passengers around me.  Surrounded by strangers, I feel separate and a little scared.

David, my husband, is smiling from across the aisle. We chose to sit separate and have some space alone to unwind, listen to music and read. Already he has his headphones on—no one to disturb him. He is always so in the moment which is both admirable and annoying at times.

I am so glad to be leaving the complications of our stress filled modern lives and the huge expectations of “entitled” offspring. The financial collapse of so many of our friends and relatives in the past few years; the karma we all knew was coming but is not so easy to live with and be around. I feel worn down like my old carpets. There is so little fluff left in me. Both David and I need this rest.

The houses on the ground grow smaller and smaller. The urgency of the leaves that need raking, the dripping faucets that need fixing shrink in importance. The miniature cars below scurry along freeways going somewhere, who knows where. We soar higher and higher into the blue stillness until it all disappears. The details that were so important are either handled or no longer important. I can smell the coffee brewing, and a sigh of relief escapes my lips.

Traveling, to me, is not to escape the world or to indulge in luxury cruises or environments. It is more a way of embracing the world more fully.

The beauty of any flight is that we soon leave behind that sense of who we are—the I, me, mines. Our everyday existence fades as if in a dream– a glimpse of freedom—the adventure begins.

 

I’m a soul in wonder! I’m a soul in wonder!  Van Morrison

To see with new eyes

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“The heart of the question of our reason for a quest is how to renew our vision. To see with the eyes of the heart.”
Phil Cousineau from The Art of Pilgrimage

Most advertised travel in today’s modern world is “more of the same” indulgences in luxuries that make us feel we’ve been pampered enough to return to our stress filled lives. We may travel out of the country to see  the world, but surround ourselves in safe, clean environments and people of our own economic status and cultural persuasion.

I travel not to escape the world but to embrace it more fully. I like to challenge those fears that lie in wait in the back of my brain shouting ( whispering?), “You can’t do that. It’s too dangerous. It’s too expensive and you’re not good enough.”

There is a different relationship to time on the road, a freedom of thought I don’t usually have at home or don’t allow myself–encumbered with obligations, details, expectations, gardens, and relationships. As we get older it’s easy  to think smaller, safer, and our minds shrink in their capacities. I want to break away from stultifying old habits and the addiction to comforts that strangle us “To see with the eyes of the heart.”

Belief and experience are two very different things. A belief comes from something we’ve read in a book or heard on television or radio and accepted as fact. But it’s not enough. Experience is something actually perceived. If you had never tasted an orange, I could fool you about its characteristics; but if you had already eaten one, I could not deceive you. You would know, you would have had the experience of it.

There are those, especially in the West, who are skeptical about anything beyond a full stomach and a balanced checkbook. But there are places on this earth that are power spots, revered temples, places where great souls have walked and their essence remains like the perfume that lingers on a woman’s dress.  I know it’s true because I’ve experienced it.

I’ve always had a longing for that deeper meaning in life I suppose I yearn for a certain transformation by traveling–enlightenment for lack of a better word. Pilgrimage was actually the motivation for travel as early as the 11th Century. Yes, it’s true that one doesn’t need to wander about the world in order to grow and develop his/her deeper spirituality. I don’t expect to achieve enlightenment by any stretch of the imagination, but the effort is still worth it; and besides, the food of Asia is worth every aching muscle, every annoying price negotiation, every hard mattress.

Postcards, receipts, even stories told can only convey an infinitesimal part of what I’ve encountered both in the world and within myself. It is a lonely feeling to come back to the ones I love and respect wanting to share some of that experience, but who has time to stop and listen?  I lie awake at night trying to piece together those memory bits sleeping in the grooves of my brain somewhere beyond understanding and just out of reach of the words to express. Memories that haunt my dreams–the Muslim call to prayer amidst the clamor of traffic and commerce in Kolkata–the ancient jacaranda tree I could see and smell from my hotel balcony-the children splashing and bathing on the ghats of the Ganges that felt strangely familiar.
There is something sacred waiting to be discovered in every journey even a trip to your local market.  If you’d like to travel with me, come on. My husband, David, and I are bound for Southeast Asia and India. I hope to take you along  in these blog posts.