This past weekend, I had the great honor of hosting a very special visitor to our humble monastery for our annual Interfaith Peace Ceremony. Her name is Gitanjali and she came a long way from Mumbai, India to visit with us, and also relatives she has not seen in decades. It was her first time in America and her excitement gleamed…..the life and freedom so obvious to us here in the US, was pouring into all her senses.
Gitanjali and I met earlier this year in Ladakh, India…a small Himalayan village that is also a “Protected Area” in India. She was there to assist with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra ceremony and was a part of the translation committee for the United Nations. We seemed to connect immediately.
Gitanjali is an aid worker for UNICEF and works closely with Kailash Satyarthi, child activist and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Her work is inspiring, tireless and truly from the heart.
After yesterday’s Interfaith Ceremony, Gitanjali asked if it would be possible to go to the town. She wished to find a small souvenir of the first place she visited in America. Later in the afternoon her family would take her to their home in New Jersey, so her time in New York was very limited.
As we walked the streets of Cold Spring, NY, she explained that she didn’t get to walk like a New Yorker in Mumbai, striding along fast and free, everyone going everywhere without fear, or so it seemed. People seemed determined…pushy and of course frantically shopping for their upcoming Christmas events. “You don’t need Google Earth to find the way?” I explained there was no need as the town is relatively small and simple, but her perception of this small NY town was that which she sees on TV…Manhattan. As we walked the streets of Cold Spring, Gitanjali seemed to lose some of the excitement in her eyes….she had already been pushed and shoved two to three times and when asked a local vendor a question about pricing, was rudely referred to the back of a line that was about 35 people deep and spilled out onto the sidewalk. She placed the item back on the shelf and we proceeded to leave. As we strolled closer to the center of town, Gitanjali seemed to be drawn in by a shop commemorating the National September 11 Memorial. There were photos and videos of the actual Memorial in Manhattan…..“We were all so scared when it happened,” she said simply. “We thought that if it happened in America, then it could happen to us.” And it did happen there, in Mumbai in 2008.
We lingered at the Memorial Center, watching a video of the water spilling down into the two huge fountain pools that fill the footprints of the twin towers. The pools themselves are dark and still and seemingly bottomless, so that it feels as if the water is spilling down into mystery, into stillness. We stood still for a time. “Now they are all together,” said Gitanjali, opening her fingers in a gesture of release. At that moment, I thought of something I heard in Ladakh, where I first met her. As we learn to practice selflessness, we become empty in a way that is full of life. “We go from emptiness to oneness.”
As we stepped out of the Memorial Center, the noise of bustling shoppers invaded our senses…..people pushed and shoved us out-of-the-way. One woman literally shoved Gitanjali backward as she obliviously made her way to the next boutique. “It seems a busy and anxious time here,” Gitanjali said quietly. “Such busy-ness…..even when one does manage to peel oneself away from the centrifugal force of life and sit to meditate, we can still feel the momentum. It’s as if we are afraid to be alone with ourselves, dreading what we may see.”
Karma literally means deeds, movement and action, and sometimes when we are still we can feel the momentum of it. We can feel like Scrooge’s partner Marley’s ghost, wearing the chains we forged in life…..caught in habits of thought and reactivity that we may not even believe in. Being still is a quietly daring act. “Abandon all hope,” a Teacher of mine once said. When sit down, we abandon the hope that we can escape from our lives. Yet when we dare to do this, we discover a deeper kind of hope or faith or aspiration. It is the hope that we can stop running, that we can be still and know that we are meant to be whole and part of a greater whole. Most of us have felt this at moments. It feels as if we come into a new alignment, as if we put down the chains of what we used to be or think we are and breathe free, in a loving exchange with life.
The ancient word “veda” which was so important in the Buddha’s time (and long before) means both to know and to feel. It is knowledge coupled with the feeling of knowing. Last week in our sangha, someone asked if it was possible to feel rather than think, since thinking is so quick to claim credit for, well, everything. There is a kind of higher feeling that leads to the joy of knowing the truth and more. When we sit down to meditate, sometimes, we can be afraid of what we will feel. We can get caught up in a force field of thinking and inner posturing and reactivity. It can feel as if our ego is defending us to the death. We think important thoughts, engage in impassioned inner arguments, we picture ourselves engaged in urgent tasks. What is it we so desperately don’t want to feel? Vulnerable, perhaps, or helpless or unseen or something without words.
Yet when we dare to be still and let the feelings come, even if we fear they will pounce on us like panthers, we find something surprising. Sometimes it’s easy to see that we are almost always in movement….almost always moving away from what is, always planning, improving, even trying to make what is stay. When we dare to be still, we stop our karma. What does this mean? It means we slow down our actions long enough to be mindful. We can adjust our future karma in this moment. It means that in this moment, we understand what “celebrating a holiday” truly means…..being kind to others, our family, ourselves. It means we understand that there are others in the world who are truly, truly suffering and who are not celebrating. It means we aren’t sentenced to live out the same old thoughts and fears. We discover that there is a force of love and compassion that comes with feeling the pain we fear in the same way a hand flies up to cradle a bumped head. And we discover that things are not as we fear, that we are not alone, that awareness and stillness and compassion are not just a words but forces, that we each have the capacity to hold. As you go through your Holiday week, please try to remember that the world is a big place…a place where many lack the freedoms you and I may take for granted.
This morning, I meditated in silence. The monastery was/is so cold in the winter months that we often wear winter coats. At the end of the meditation, I bowed, including several full bows, head to the floor. There is something about touching your head to the stone floor of a monastery that reminds you that another order exists, that another alignment with the truth of life is possible, one that doesn’t place thinking…or at least our frantic, ego-defending kind of thinking…on top.