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.

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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.