Monday, September 14, 2009

Ecology of The Heart

by Palak Shah

It’s the question that drives me. It always has and always will. And it drives me toward true realization of my self. It's a natural calling that I have cultivated ever since I could think. For so long I was confused about who I was and what I was to do in this world.

If I had to pinpoint one moment where this inner journey began, it would be when I tried to convince my grammar school friends that the ant they were about to crush under their feet was ‘God’ or maybe a god or maybe one of God’s blessed creatures.

I didn’t really know and I didn’t have much of a chance to explain my confusion since they were still rolling in laughter. I was embarrassed but amazed that I was bold enough to say what I felt. I inherently believed that the ant had a purpose and that it deserved to see it through. I was a critical player in this ant’s environment and I had a choice to be a constructive or destructive piece in it’s universe.

I wanted to be constructive; a conduit for its journey. This experience gradually opened up in me a yearning to know more and be more than I was. I believed my journey culminated when I came across the deeply profound spiritual teachings of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami in college.From these teachings I felt I got a deeper balance that has endured in my life.

After all, I survived childhood. I overcame the trappings of college life. I made my way into a decent career. I married a good woman. I even found spiritual fulfillment. Not a bad shake out of the quagmire of existence, especially at 31. Sure I could be richer, better looking, taller, more athletic, more popular, and have better digestion. But other than that, things are pretty good.

Yet I am afraid about something. What’s the deal? Why am I so afraid? Where’s the balance I thought I discovered? What is gnawing at my insides? Maybe too many bad headlines. Maybe too many doomsday movies. Maybe the economic pendulum is swinging way too fast. Maybe…I just can’t seem to get a grip on it.

And that is scaring me more than anything else. It’s coming from so many directions. But my thought process refuses to stop there and be satisfied with that. My incessant hunger to get to the root of my pre-midlife crisis melodrama usurps any gravitational pull to stick to the status quo. What is messing with my internal stasis?

I got a clue one fine Monday morning as I was headed to work. Like most mornings, as I was rushing down the stairs, strapping on my shoes, and grabbing the car keys, I hurried out the front door. I opened the back door of my Honda Accord and left my things in the back seat. Settling into the driver’s seat, I realized I still had to wait for my wife to come. I thought to myself, “Ok, you’ve got a few minutes to relax.”

But as I situated myself, I was feeling unusually uneasy. And I was uneasy about feeling uneasy since this was a pretty typical weekday morning. It definitely wasn’t the breakfast because I didn’t have any as I usually don’t so early and I certainly wasn’t feeling sick. So while I was introspecting on the source of my psychological nausea, my attention shifted towards steering wheel. I noticed it was made of leather. I thought, “Hmm, some poor cow probably suffered a lot so that I can have this nice steering wheel.”

My thoughts continued towards the other facets of this contraption. The tires, windows, door knobs, engine, seats. What did it take to make this car? The emissions from the multitude of cloth, steel, glass, plastic, and rubber factories required to produce every inch of this car would be astronomical. I started to feel guilty.

Growing up, I was always taught to have a grateful attitude, as so many are much less fortunate than myself. As I explained before, life is pretty good. But for the last post-college decade, I am observing gradually and increasingly that I am somehow and in some way I am responsible for the lack of good fortune for many of those less fortunates.

How did I come to this? Why is this true? Well, the statistics are out there. Article after article highlighting how our planes, trains and automobiles are killing this planet. How my consumption is unsustainable for billions of its human and non-human citizens. My mind was wandering to every facet of my life – my home, my work, my play.

Ok, I get it. I am becoming an eco-activist. Al Gore is my eco-shepherd and I love to garden. Right. Right? I care about what we have done and are doing to nature for the sake of a ‘better’ life. However I was being nagged by a pain that went deeper than the soil of the Earth. I wasn’t satisfied with just being Green. It somehow seemed to address only the external problem even though it is such a massive one. My intuition told me to dig deeper. I haven’t hit the root yet.

I knew this was getting philosophical. And if you know me, I have a penchant for metaphysical conclusions and assertions. But unlike other times when I try to intellectualize the problem to simply understand it better, this time I was feeling something. My Honda’s steering wheel made me cringe and squirm in my seat. It was an emotional and painful burst that swung through my body. But WHY?

As my wife got into the car, I continued to behave as if it was just another morning and drove off. But my mind was back there, immersed in those few moments of deep contemplation. After some time, prayer and introspection, it hit me that this whole matter was getting awfully personal. And there it was.

It was personal. A clear connection between my needs and the impact those needs were having on every facet of this world illuminated before me. I didn’t want to say it. I didn’t want to think it. I didn’t want to believe it. But, I was responsible. In playing my role as a trusted consumer of all that can be mined, manufactured and consumed, I was an active participant in the transformation of the planet and its citizens.

Now, many would argue that this ‘transformation’ is a good thing. A progressive step in evolutionary chain of being. Survival of the fittest. However, the statistics say otherwise. And so does anyone looking at the reality of it all will say otherwise. While Al Gore and eco-activists make strides to reshape the way we consume, I wonder how I got into this bubble in the first place. How is it that it took so long to notice that my behavior has such a direct and indirect influence on so much of this world?

While on one hand I am quite eager to unravel this mystery right away, I am also quite satisfied. I’ve ventured into myself in a meaningful way to begin mapping out the blockages to deep, spiritual fulfillment. And ultimately that is what I truly want. That is what I am chasing endlessly and sometimes fruitlessly through my TV, my MP3 player, my car, my friends, my family, my life – a communion with creation. Therefore, I am grateful for the introspective question that is like a spotlight on these profound experiences that unveil a beautifully challenging reality. And this is but only the first leg of an exciting journey.

Palak Shah contributes for us as the eco-columnist of the Spirit Matters staff.

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, and currently a recruiter for a major IT consulting firm, Palak is always on the hunt for a good discussion on philosophy, the human condition, and society's spiritual evolution.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Make The Most Of It

by David Jenkins

Sometimes life puts you somewhere you never thought you would be. Sometimes you look back and think, "How did I get all the way over here?" Life has its twists and turns, no doubt, and even a boring guy like me has had his fair share. I'm guessing that it's probably safe to assume that maybe you've had yours. My parents split up when I was young, which was probably unexpected, but being three years old I don't remember much.

The Atlanta Falcons lost in Superbowl 33 to the Denver Broncos, which is something I definitely didn't expect (I lost fifteen bucks on that game). And, for the past four and half months, I've been living in New York City on the top floor of a six-story building in downtown Manhattan next to a tattoo parlor, which I guess on my list of places I thought I would be in life is somewhere near the bottom.

Not that I don't like New York. In fact, I love it. It's just not somewhere that as I looked ahead in life that I was planning to be. And depending how you look at, or rather depending on how I look at it, that can be a good thing or a bad thing.

Throughout my small journey, I've found that simply trying to eliminate all the twists and turns in life is not the key to peace and satisfaction, because life by it's own nature is a windy road. Somehow or other it seems that the joy of life can be found along those twist and turns, and for me, I've found it through the people I've met along the way.

My road starts back in Whittier, California, which is the home city of our former president Richard Nixon. In fact, my high school prom was at the Richard Nixon Library, where his childhood house is still available for tours. Whittier is right on the border line of L.A and Orange County, so technically speaking, I lived in the unincorporated district of L.A. county, which I always translated as "nowhere land."

While growing up, my sister and I lived with our mom who ran a public day-care center from her home, so I was always around other kids and people. I'm not really sure what it would have been like growing up with a dad in the house, but my sister and I got along well enough and our mom loved us enough that I was happy with just the three of us.

I even remember crying once at the thought that my mom would remarry and disturb our little world that I had gotten used to. All the while, the 15-20 other kids in the house definitely gave a bit of life to the whole scene. We lived right next door to the elementary school and only a few blocks from the junior high school, which I walked to and from each day with my best friend Chris Taylor as we carried our tenor saxophones that we borrowed from the school's music department.

Chris's mom actually used to drop him off everyday next door at our neighbor's house, who also ran an at-home day care center, but as we started to become good friends, we convinced his mom to start dropping him off at my house.

Chris and I would have breakfast together, watch an episode of Mighty Max, and then head out the door. Throughout elementary school, we went through phases of pogs (remember pogs?), marbles, Marvel comic cards, Magic the Gathering, and eventually degraded ourselves down to Garbage Pail Kids. Chris didn't get so in to marbles, but everything else we did together.

In junior high, as I mentioned, we both played the tenor sax, which means that every day during fourth period we got to sit next to each other and envy the alto sax players who always got the better parts and and burst up laughing as we compared the trombone player behind us to the sound of Chewy from Start Wars. It wasn't the nicest thing to do, but it was an honest observation of what she sounded like. (If you're reading this Denise, I'm sorry if we ever made you feel bad).

High school came up quickly around the corner for both of us, and as most of us have probably experienced, we don't always keep the same friends throughout our school years. Somehow or other, we had different schedules and started to move on with our own lives. We kept in touch, but not so often, and as far as I know, Chris is still living in Southern California working at a home loan office and making plans for his future dream to host his own late night T.V. show. He would be the perfect guy for the job.

As for me, I've somehow or other found myself clear across the country right in the heart of the big city. I make weekly trips down to Chinatown to buy groceries, stand in line every day to use the bathroom while my other roommates brush their teeth, and utilize the moments I have in between to connect in a personal way with the people around me who make my life meaningful.

If the truth be told, pogs were never really that fun to play with, Magic cards were always too complicated for me, and Garbage Pail Kids weren't really that funny (O.K., maybe some of them were). What made everything worth doing, and still makes it worth remembering, is the fact that it was something I got to do with another person.

My friendship with Chris, as well as many others, have helped me discover that the real reason why something in life becomes meaningful, is because there's someone there to share it with, either big or small. I've never been able to tell myself a good joke, surprise birthday gifts to myself are never the same, and playing a game of solo freeze tag gets boring really fast. Life just isn't the same by yourself. We really need each other to experience it, or at least I do.

The activities themselves can in a way be seen as a medium through which I've gotten to know and spend time with others, and that's where the real meaning, sustenance, and stability of my life can be found. When I look at it through that lens, all the twists and turns of my life just become details to decorate and frame the real painting which is the relationships with all the people I've met along the way.

So I do my best to make the most of it. In a city of over 8 million people where I'm constantly bumping in to, stepping over, and stacking myself on top of everybody else, the more friends the better. Or, at least, the closer I can come to the friends I already have, the better I can ride smoothly throughout each day, and try to live a more meaningful life.

David Jenkins (Doyal Gauranga Dasa) is a monk and vegetarian/vegan chef who runs weekly cooking seminars and meditation classes at Columbia University and New York University

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Welcome To Our Country

By Christopher Timm

It was at the peak of a sweltering-hot summer afternoon when our party of seven arrived at the New Delhi train station, headed north for cooler climates. The heat and humidity was so intense that we all sat down on the platform. Just standing is a work-out in that kind of heat. Added to the temperature was a hefty dose of culture shock for most of our party. I guess I forgot to mention things like stray cows walking down the train platform when I prepared them for the journey.

After a few minutes, our guide came over to me and spoke confidentially in my ear, "We weren't able to get tickets for this train," he said, "so I'm going to go see what I can do. If the train arrives before I return, just get on and get off at the Hardwar station." I looked at him blankly. Our flight had been delayed one day from the States—which is why he had no tickets—but if we missed another day it would upset our entire schedule. We had to catch this train.

He smiled and did the traditional Indian head wag. That's a thoroughly Indian gesture midway between yes and no that is as versatile as it looks: one can use it to mean yes, no, please, thank you, or I'm going out to play cricket now. Then he disappeared into the crowd. I looked at the students who had flown over with me for the excitement of visiting India, their foreheads sweaty and their eyes wide open, as they watched men with piles of luggage stacked on their heads, walking by with half-naked children tugging at their shirts. The adventure had begun.

Fortunately, our guide reappeared just as the train was pulling in. He corralled us into a car and had us stuff our bags into the little space between the train car and the bathroom. "No luck?" I asked, putting two and two together. "No problem," he replied, "I'll find us seats later on." Desperate not to delay our journey any longer, we squeezed tightly together as the other passengers pushed past us into their cars.

When the train departed, our anxiety broke and we began to laugh: At least we're going somewhere! After time, we discovered that our compartment's door could be swung open, giving us a nice breeze and a view of North India's lush landscape. Little by little and one by one, our guide found seats here and there throughout the train.

Still my mind kept churning about those tickets: What will happen when I run into the conductor? What if one of our party, separated from the rest, has a bad experience? I'm supposed to be a monk escorting students on a spiritual journey to India and now look what I've done! I stow away our whole party in a reckless moment for the sake of keeping a lousy schedule? Because a guide who I just met—and who was ready to abandon me a minute ago—says it's ok? They don't throw stowaways in jail, do they? After all, it is a third world country. The mind conjures up all kinds of scenarios when it wants to.

I tried to chill out a bit and just before we reached our destination I got my answer. The conductor came in and sat behind me in an empty seat. He made notations in a large book and conversed with the man next to him. Suddenly he turned to me and said something in Hindi. His manner was grave. Especially grave. Hindi can be a very grave language. "He wants your ticket" a man next to me explained. I thought for a moment and felt around my pockets for a slip of paper I knew I didn't have. "I'm with a group of others," I said, trying to find the American equivalent of that all-purpose Indian head wag. I was getting more concerned by the moment. Especially as I realized that saying "I'm with a group of others," was about to bring our whole party into the mix. I waited anxiously as it was translated back to the conductor.

The conductor blurted something out in a serious voice and then, suddenly, a smile filled his face. A few people around laughed and he turned back to his conversation. Just then the train pulled into our station and I gathered my things gratefully and went to make sure the rest of our little band had made it off the train as well.

When we got into the cab, one of our party, Arthur, shared his experience on the train. For me, his story has become an iconic description of the culture of India. A few minutes after our guide had brought Arthur to his seat, a gentlemanly-looking man came and squeezed in next to him. He spoke English, so they chatted. His new friend welcomed him to India and inquired about his origin. "Welcome to our country," the gentleman said, "You are our guest, If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know."

After fifteen minutes of talk about Arthur's travel plans, the conversation turned to the gentleman's business. Gradually, it was revealed to Arthur that he was sitting in this gentleman's seat! Horribly embarrassed at the mistake, Arthur got up to leave, but the man insisted, "No, I want you to sit there, please!" When Arthur protested, the man persisted, "You are our guest. Please, be comfortable!"

As the rest of our visit unfolded, we were forced to tolerate many of the disturbances all travelers from the West experience in India: Having to argue over the price of everything you buy; enduring the driving etiquette that, when someone goes to pass your car, they hold their horn down constantly from the time they decide to pass you until they are 100 yards ahead of you. I could go on but it would just convince you of how little I've been able to integrate the point I now wish to make.

At such times, I often remembered the incident on the train: The conductor cutting slack to a traveler who was obviously bewildered by the Indian Railway system; the passenger who took pleasure at giving up his seat for a guest. Again and again in India I saw this ethic of selflessness and tolerance manifest in moments where lower responses could easily be defended. I saw that in a land where there is so much potential for disturbance, this society has learned to accept such things graciously.

Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krsna movement, once said that a person's greatness is shown in their ability to tolerate provoking situations. What character it shows when even strangers sacrifice for one another happily! How your heart melts toward such people! And so far as I could see, the deeper the relationship was, the deeper the willingness to sacrifice. And as beautiful as this was to see, it also shed light on a much less palatable truth, as I saw my own short-tempered responses to the little struggles that country threw my way.

If my own trials weren't enough to see the contrast, fate handed me the perfect moment when I returned to the States. Landing in Newark with two overweight bags, I hadn't anticipated the $3 charge for a luggage cart. I had no American cash on me and as a monk I have no credit card. After a few minutes of struggling with my bags, I turned to an attendant who stood nearby, supervising the scene.

I explained to him my plight and with lightning speed he shot back the classic, rhetorical question in his New Jersey accent, "So what do you want me to do about it?" I waited for a moment to see if he followed it with a smile. It would have been so charming, wouldn't it have been? Of course, he didn't. As I tried to absorb the blast of Americana that just hit me, I thought: "Welcome to our country." What an irony. I just left a rich heart in a poor land and found a poor heart in a rich land.

Christopher Timm (Radha Vallabha Dasa) is a monk and filmmaker whose forthcoming documentary "Today We Have The Power" chronicles the spiritual aspects of contemporary activism.