Friday, August 26, 2011

"Cultivate Grace"

Narada, in his essential, monumental -- are there adjectives for such a thing?-- Bhakti Sutra, after speaking of the immense blessing of "the company of great souls," advises us to, above all, "cultivate grace." 

But, wait. How the heck are we supposed to "cultivate grace"? Isn't grace, by definition, unexpected, unwarranted, and undeserved by worms like you and me? Doesn't grace always already elude our grasp? In mainstream American Christianity it might, but this is bhakti, where we dance with our chosen deity (think about that--) in mutual joy, mutual seduction for some of us, but at the very least: She wants you. She will do anything to get you to Her breast, Her lap, into Her infinite loving arms... but it helps if you're paying attention.

The re-direction of attention is, in fact, the main subject of the Bhakti Sutra; it's a medieval meta-programming manual, as a look at its Spark Notesy Wikipedia entry suggests. Narada depicts the mind as a feedback loop that can either be left alone to spiral ever deeper into obsession with ego and sense objects, or that can be harnessed and repatterned until "God... becomes manifest in the awareness." His formula basically works out to:
  • Spend more time loving God and singing His/Her/Its praises than doing anything else.
  • Put real passion and intense emotion into your worship, and worship as frequently as you can, in whatever ways your circumstances permit. 
  • Stop hanging out with people who are fixated on wealth, status, and negative emotions; start hanging out with people who are high on God. 
  • Get picky about who or what you rent your mind to-- the Hare Krishnas pricelessly translate: "One should not find entertainment in news of women, money, and atheists." (More sensitive translators unpack the metonymic "women" as "sex"; for "atheists" you usually see "worldly people," and I've even seen "celebrities"!)
As people like Aleister Crowley and, well, yours truly have demonstrated, you don't have to believe in a deity for this formula to work. Belief, when it comes down to it, matters very little in most religions outside the Abrahamic bubble. To paraphrase a famous guru: do or do not, there is no believe.  As the Sufis say, "Beat the dog and the lion will obey," or, more prosaically, discipline your body and your habits and your mind will follow along. DIs at Parris Island don't yell at recruits and call them names and wake them up at 4:00 a.m. because they don't like them; the Corps, like military outfits going back before the Iliad, knows that bombarding the senses and moving the body re-shapes the mind.

Religion itself is not immune from Narada's version of "Turn on, tune in, drop out." Narada urges us to "[Renounce] even the scriptures," for, as translator Prem Prakash puts it, "The great lovers of God leap from the edifice of social consensus and religious identity in order to soar in the sky of God's love. They have rendered unto God what belongs to God, and having found that everything belongs to God, they are unfettered in their minds and hearts." Kali wants everything, including your religion. In sum, Narada maps out a way for us to transform ourselves by love and surrender, demonstrating the great Ramprasad Sen's observation that "The substance of your thoughts becomes the reality" that you experience.

Eventually, Narada says, you'll get to a state where God is all you want to think about and talk about. Your body will literally shiver with delight at the thought of your Beloved; you will cry when you think about Her or when you read the scriptures. Giving things up to Her-- sensual delights, success, the esteem of your peers, anything-- will seem sweeter than gaining these things for yourself. Muggledom is now permanently replaced by a new, Her-centered self-organizing system, a love-spiral that sustains and reproduces itself. As Narada says, "Spiritual devotion is its own fruit," or, alternately translated, "Bhakti begets bhakti." This is all true. It works.

In the life of Jadunath Sinha, author of what is still the only complete translation of Ramprasad into English (and thus the source for most 'versions' on the market), we see the fruit of bhakti and of the company of saints. I just stumbled on an excellent, brief biography of Sinha that spoke to me deeply as a Shakta and as someone who, like Sinha, has walked a labyrinthine spiritual path. It's all the more interesting because Sinha didn't put his spiritual experiences out there for public consumption; his son uncovered them in his diary after the older man's death. Sinha's experiences will sound "paranormal" to some, but they are really the result of his shifting his attention to a parallel realm that is just as real and just as "normal" as this one.

Sinha, particularly late in life when he dedicated himself to spiritual practice, lived part in our world and part in Her world. He was a professor, college administrator, and accomplished scholar who was elected President of the Indian Philosophical Congress -- yet he frequently fell into ecstasies and trances, he saw visions and heard voices, and he interpreted every moment of his life as another step in the dance with Kali. As a young man he had the odd experience of being initiated by a guru simply with one glance, that is, he experienced what in the West we would call a "psychic" or "telepathic" initiation. I myself have experienced drik diksha (the technical term for this) and I can tell you it's quite real and quite unsettling. It isn't "supposed to" happen; it seems as though it should be easy to explain away or recover from, yet one's entire life can change from a single glance and one, it seems, is powerless to alter the fact. Sinha didn't even spend that much time with his guru, meeting him only a handful of times, but he knew this man oversaw his spiritual growth. At times Sinha beheld deities as if they stood in front of him and, like Ramakrishna, his visions went beyond the anthropomorphic to a more refined, esoteric plane: "The entire universe," Sinha wrote in his diary, "became a sea of light-- light, light, moving, surging light."

Sometimes Western skeptics single out such blessed individuals as Sinha, oddly, as examples of a putative deity's ill will. "Why them?" the plaint goes. "What makes them so special? I guess God doesn't care about the rest of us schmoes." No, I would hazard the guess that, as in any other field of endeavor, spiritual practice makes perfect, or near so, and Sinha benefited from a combination of practice, natural ability, and persistence-- the same things that made, say, Richard Feynman a math whiz. Imagine saying to a Dawkinsite, "Why Feynman? Why can't I revolutionize physics!? Why is science so unfair?" Any such person with any sense would tell you that maybe you could; you don't know until you sit down with some calculus and physics books and get crackin'. Don't blame Maxwell if you don't get Maxwell's equations; if you don't turn on the radio, you can't hear the music.


don't get me wrong. Grace can just happen, too, of course. It happens all the time, it falls upon us like luminous snowflakes, as Andrew Harvey saw once while wide awake and sober. It feels like stumbling across that Sinha bio was grace, and really it feels like a lot is grace if I just slow down and breathe deep and get my mind off my current wants and ouches. It's all grace, they tell me. Since I couldn't believe this even if I wanted to, I'm going to keep practicing.

Friday, August 12, 2011

From an Assignment I'm Working On

--for my writing students. It's a "technology memoir," about their use of and relationship with technology. I don't know why I'm posting this other than my blogger's license is about to be revoked for inactivity. So here's my filibuster 'gainst dispersion and silence--

For example, I have been a music fan my whole life. When I was a college freshman, I had a collection of vinyl albums (uh, maybe look that up on Wikipedia?) that took up a lot of space and weighed a lot. If I wanted to take that music with me on a trip out of town or even to the grocery store, my best bet was to make a cassette tape of each album (look that up, too!), which took at least 45 minutes per tape. There were albums I searched for, for years, just because I’d read a review of them. I had no real idea what they sounded like, since there was no way to listen to song samples unless—you already had the album. Most of the music I liked wouldn’t have been played on the radio in a thousand years, and there was no way other than albums, tapes, or radio to hear new music. I skimmed obscure catalogues and zines and drove to faraway towns, hoping to find new, interesting music, and often did. But then I had to order it via US Mail or haul it home with me. Once I heard from a guy who knew a guy who had an album I was looking for; a meeting was set up in his dorm (by word of mouth—there was no text messaging, and the guy I knew wasn’t sure of the other guy’s phone number. Plus, he’d have to be in his dorm room at the exact time we called—there were no cell phones). Somehow we met and the album was mine.

Now I have 75.3 days of music on my iPod. That’s 1807 hours. 1807 hours of music, 23,497 songs, more than 2000 albums; it would take up 20 linear feet of shelf space in vinyl form and weigh about half a ton. But with the iPod I can plug my 23,000 songs into my car stereo, I can take all 23,000 of them anywhere I go, I can listen to them as I wash dishes, I can bring them to work, much to some of my co-workers’ chagrin, much to the delight of others. My 75 days of music take up less space in my pocket than my wallet or my phone. I can get new albums in seconds by clicking a mouse. I can listen to snippets of thousands of albums on the Web and decide if I like them or not. I can do more music shopping in one day than I could do in a year in 1985.

I know we're supposed to interrogate late-capitalist narratives of technologically-mediated identity and critique the notion of progress and all that stuff, but I'm damn grateful for my iPod!