Monday, June 23, 2014

Three and a Half Lessons from a Nine-Day Seclusion

I was really ready to go on seclusion. I’d been looking forward to it for ages. I had my days all planned out: plenty of meditation, extra energization exercises, starting a yoga habit again, spiritual reading, the works. I did that on my seclusion last year, and loved it. So when I arrived at the Ananda Meditation Retreat a week and a half ago, I just hit the ground running. Or so I thought.

I stepped right into my routine on day 1. It feels so easy to arrive at the Retreat and just leave everything else behind. That’s part of the blessing of having meditating devotees on that land for over four decades. But after a few days, I found myself feeling more and more confused. I was doing everything right, but I wasn’t feeling right. And I kept spiraling down into an ever-deepening malaise with no clear cause.

Lesson #1: “It takes money to make money” applies metaphysically. By Wednesday, the exact middle of the trip, I was in such a funk that I spent most of the afternoon just slumping around going “blahhhhh.” I realized I had to do something, but couldn’t think what, since I felt like I was already doing everything I should, or at least could. But if I wasn’t feeling right, I had to somehow fix my mood first. As Swami Kriyananda says, if we want to feel joy in meditation, we should meditate with as much joy as we can muster right from the start. My problem was that what I could muster wasn’t cutting it.

This brings me to Unofficial Lesson #1.5: Never leave home without a book of P.G. Wodehouse stories. Luckily, I keep a well-stocked ereader to aid in all manner of book-related emergencies. But I still struggled with it for a bit. I had specifically wanted to focus on reading spiritual books during my seclusion. But I finally reminded myself that (1) Swamiji also enjoyed Wodehouse, (2) I was coming up with no other options, and (3) if God wanted me to spend my seclusion reading Jeeves and Wooster stories instead of, say, the Bhagavad Gita, then so be it. They were hilarious.

My overall mood started improving from that moment, and my meditations stated getting better that evening. I also cut back on the number of kriyas I was trying to do, skipped a couple rounds of yoga, and just generally relaxed a bit more.

Lesson #2: The attitude of nishkam karma applies even to seclusions. We do our best at all times, but leave the results to God. If I hand over 9 days of my life as a free gift to Him, they are now His to do with as He pleases. As soon as I lightened up about what I thought was supposed to be happening, things started getting better.

This was rubbed in just a bit more a couple days later. The day after my Wodehouse-assisted mood change, water from the hot water taps in my cabin started coming out all brown and icky. I ran lots of water all day to flush it out, with no result. Only the one cold water tap in the kitchen was crystal clear (turns out it’s on a different filter).

I didn’t particularly want to go find someone to notify about this, because it was a seclusion after all, and I was really perfectly happy being alone for a week, not talking to anyone, and I didn’t want to break the thread. I figured I’d just deal with having only cold water for two more days until I left. But the next morning I found myself feeling more and more uncomfortable about it, until I realized something just had to be done. So I flung up my hands, called “nishkam karma” on the whole seclusion again, and went to the office to give them a friendly alert about it. By the time I’d walked back to the cabin, Brannon had already gotten there in his truck and was running the tap saying “it just does this sometimes and goes away if you flush it out enough. Look, it’s clear again already.” And it was.

That was just one of those moments I had to laugh and tell God, “okay, I got the joke.”

Lesson #3: Asking for guidance. While all this was going on, there was a parallel story playing itself out. I like to hike up the Bald Mountain trail in the morning, sit on a rock to eat my breakfast, and get back before the day gets too hot. The first morning there, I went and tried to find my favorite breakfast spot from last year. It had been slightly non-obvious to find, but not that bad, since there’s only so much of the mountain that’s actually accessible, not totally overgrown. But that day I just couldn’t find it for the life of me. So I went down another nice trail and had breakfast there. But it still struck me as very unusual, and very much as though I’d been somehow kept from where I’d wanted to go.

So I made a new habit, which was that every morning, when I reached the first fork in the trail, I’d stop and ask God which way to go. I should really do this more in general, in all contexts, so it was fun just to have a clear practice point. If I didn’t feel any actual guidance to turn right and look for the old spot again, I’d just go off to the left, to my new spot.

It was the day after my mood change that I just knew it was okay now to turn right. And I did, and I found the place I was looking for. I would say “right where I left it,” except that it wasn’t. I had actually written down how to get to it last year, and when I went back and checked what I’d quite clearly written, it was quite clearly wrong.

And I realized that this little theme ties in with all the rest of it. I had jumped into the whole trip with my own plan, which I just assumed was good because, well, it sure seemed good. But what do I know? I never actually stopped to ask God what should actually be happening. Until I came about it all the long way around.

- - - - - -

For those of you who read this all the way to the end, your reward is my favorite passage from that first Jeeves story I read:
"Sir?" said Jeeves, kind of manifesting himself. One of the rummy things about Jeeves is that, unless you watch like a hawk, you very seldom see him come into a room. He's like one of those weird chappies in India who dissolve themselves into thin air and nip through space in a sort of disembodied way and assemble the parts again just where they want them. I've got a cousin who's what they call a Theosophist, and he says he's often nearly worked the thing himself, but couldn't quite bring it off, probably owing to having fed in his boyhood on the flesh of animals slain in anger and pie.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Conversations with Guy, Volume I: Chapter 2

First of all, I have to say that this is really just about one of the best photos ever. Guy looks like he’s regaling me with some of his most humorous anecdotes. As he probably is. When these posts are someday published in an encyclopedic set of books, that photo will be on the cover.

I just spent a few days up in Portland with the Glanvilles, and since Guy’s last visit down to California only a month ago, he’s improved a number of words. “Piaaaaa” has now become more recognizably “fish,” “ngyo” has become “owange,” and he has even graced me with a extra letter in my name: I am now “Tamva.” Perhaps by the next visit I can be up to three syllables. Oh, and he also says “muncle” at me sometimes, which the rest of the family has been doing since he was born, but which I hadn’t heard from him before. (That’s a “monk uncle,” for those of you who haven’t heard.) It’s adorable.

Another thing he’s doing is stringing more words together into proto-sentences, or at least reasonably related groups. So for fun one evening I tried to get him to call me “yellow muncle Tandava.” This is what happened:

(Me:) Can you say “yellow muncle”?

(Guy:) ’ellow!

(Me:) “Yellow muncle”?

(Guy:) ’ellow muncle!

(Me:) Good! Now can you say “yellow muncle Tandava”?

(Guy:) [mischievous grin]

(Me:) You can do it… “yellow muncle Tandava”?

(Guy:) BUM!

He’s also collecting some other interesting new words, like “hummingbird” and “kombucha.” He can mimic pretty well sometimes, too, even if he doesn’t know what we’re talking about. We got him to say reasonably credible versions of “authenticity” and “symmetrical,” for reasons that made some sort of sense at the time. “Euphemism,” however, is still stuck at “eh-VOOM.”

I spent a great deal of the time there reading books with fascinating plots, mostly involving colors and numbers. Guy would often get tired of a book before I was finished, though I would naturally want to see how they ended (not having read these thousands of times like Lacey has). So there would be a little struggle, with Guy saying “no” and “all done” repeatedly, and eventually wresting the book away from me. After which he would say “good job,” in a tone that implied “don’t feel bad, you tried your best.”

Monday, March 10, 2014

Conversations with Guy, Volume I: The Early Years

After spending the last 10 days with my adorable, almost-two-year-old nephew, I'm not always sure whether I'm teaching a language or learning one. It can be quite entertaining, though Lacey still has to translate for us a lot.

Guy has standardized the pronunciation of my name to “Tama.” For a brief period of time a couple months ago, it was “TanBbBbBbBbBb,” but that seems to have been too much work. A great many of our conversations now go something like this:

“Tama?”

“Guy?”

“Tama.”

“Guy.”

“Tama!”

“Guy!”

“Tamaaaaaa :-)”

“Guyyyyyy :-)”

“Tama….”

“Guy….”

“BRAAAAAAIIIIIIINNNNNS!!!!!”

“Yes, that was the train going by. Very good!”

“Tama.”

“Guy.”

And so on. Pure poetry, that. We had similarly scintillating discussions regarding the repeated opening and closing of sliding glass doors, which he was getting very good at operating (given copious amounts of practice).

He does have quite a remarkable number of words at his disposal, though, in spite of what the above may imply. Many of them involve food, including such relatively obscure items as chia seeds, edamame, and quesadillas. Though the first time he used the latter on me, I responded almost automatically with “It’s Saturday.” But then Lacey reminded me that he doesn't speak Spanish, and has trouble with S’s.

We also get to watch him pick up new words even (so to speak) as we speak. We visited Jim in Santa Cruz one day, where he learned the word “ocean” (“otun”). Then as we were trying to get him ready to leave, he wandered into a room where he found a suitcase. As he is inordinately fascinated by suitcases (“too-ca-ca”), Lacey remarked in despair: “Oh no, he found a suitcase. We’re doomed.” Upon which Guy ran from the room waving his arms, crying “Doooooom!” He repeated his trick when we recounted the story for Mom the next day, but we've all been laughing at the word so much that I think it's safe to assume he doesn't know what it means.

Speaking of making us laugh, one of the first things Hugo told me when they all arrived was how Guy has been learning his colors and keeps calling things “yellow” all the time. So naturally we pointed to my shirt and said “Guy! What color is this?”

With a big grin he replied “-ite!”

“No, not white! What color is it?”

More enthusiastic this time: “Boooooo!”

Another try, and now he’s totally laughing at us: “Geeeeen!”

He went through all his colors before finally admitting that it was actually “-ellow.”

Another time, we took a break from the playground to go inside and get a drink of water (“ca-ca” — yes, we’ll need to do something about that particular pronunciation). After we were done at the sink, we made it as far back as the door before he wanted water again. So we went back, got another drink, got back to the door… and then had to go back for yet another drink. By this time he was grinning mischievously, and also rather giving himself away by asking for “door” after water, rather than “playground.” So I eventually escaped that cycle.

So anyway, this has been excellent communication practice for both of us, I think. They're heading home today, but I'll get to see them again in about a month, when I'll probably get to learn a whole new batch of Guy vocabulary.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The (Old) New New Guitar

So. I know I was all excited about my new guitar, and even gave her a name and everything. But sometimes you just have to suck it up, admit you’ve made a mistake, and do a complete about-face.

After spending a little while in the honeymoon phase, then a little while in buyer’s remorse, and off-and-on convincing myself that I should just get over it, I finally went and had a talk with Karen, friend and choir director extraordinaire. She confirmed that, yes, perhaps I had bought a guitar that matched me pretty well, but did not necessarily best match what I was trying to do.

Well, when you put it like that… okay, back to square one. Practice spiritual qualities like non-attachment and non-embarrassment. (Is that one? It should be.) Karen was kind enough to come with me this time, and was an immense help in being an extra pair of ears and getting me to spend more time on guitars I would have overlooked.

Seraphina was a Taylor, and I liked a lot of the Taylors — they have a bright, clear sound, feel lovely to play, and many of them are just beautiful to look at at well. Most of the other contenders were Martins, and I like their sound too, though in a completely different way — more resonant, and just plain yummy. But most of the smaller selection at Gryphon didn’t feel as nice under the fingers as the Taylors did, and were simply unattractive, so I tended to pass over them. But Karen kept dragging them back out.

Finally, after about an hour, she found a surprise: a used Martin D1, not particularly noticeable, not very expensive, but with a simple fascinating sound. The low strings are so mellow that at first I thought they had just been left on too long (though all the guitars there have bright new strings). But then when you start playing it you find that it has just a huge dynamic range. The higher strings sound brighter, and here my first feeling was that it just wouldn’t blend well, but in some miraculous way it does. I almost didn’t like it at first simply because I was so distracted mentally trying to figure out what was going on.


I also have to admit that I just dislike the look of the dreadnaught body shape, and it’s a bit much to get my arms around sometimes, though it really does the trick with the sound. Karen told me to play with my eyes closed for a bit, and that helped. It felt okay to play — better than the other Martins, if not as lovely as the Taylors. But it’s the sound that sold me. Karen remarked that being used is a plus: it sounds like it’s been played and loved.

So the new guitar came home, and needed a name. It popped up in meditation that night: Neville. I almost couldn’t bear to name it “Neville” after giving up a “Seraphina,” but there’s really nothing else for it. It’s a good name, and one that will be forever associated with the Harry Potter books in my mind. Neville is the one of the most humble characters, but in the end also one of the most heroic. He does what you need him to do with courage, compassion, and faith. You could do a lot worse.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Meet Seraphina, the New Guitar

For the last 18 years or so, I’ve been playing Mom’s guitar that she bought in high school with her babysitting money. I’ve really been quite fond of it, if more for sentimental reasons than for any musical qualities. But over the last couple months, a few people have been floating the idea at me of getting a new guitar. The fact that two of our primary guitarists at Ananda Palo Alto recently moved away probably has something to do with it — I’m on accompaniment duty much more these days. So, while I can muddle along on my own alright for quite a while, the fact that other people have to listen to me finally got me out shopping.

Gryphon Stringed Instruments is like Ollivander’s Wand Shop for guitarists. I spent about 3 hours there yesterday, looking for one that would shoot red and gold sparks when I picked it up (the wand chooses the wizard, after all). None of them quite did in the literal sense, but I came away quite happy in the end anyway.

I surprised myself a little with how important the visual appearance turned out to be for me, but really, if I’m going to spend actual money on a new instrument, I’d like it to be beautiful in every dimension possible. One of my favorites had simply gorgeous koa wood back and sides, but an overly bright sound that was a bit too much against my singing voice. Probably the best-sounding one of my short list was mellower and smoother, but had other points against it. First, it was just a standard brown-and-black ugly. And second, I felt an odd sort of resistance from it when I played it. It took me a little while to notice the pattern (I was playing so many guitars that day), but I felt that I kept making unusual mistakes, and that the guitar in some sense didn’t want to cooperate with me.


Which leads us to the final winner, a Taylor 412-ce limited edition with granadillo back and sides, a simple but beautiful front, and fretboard dots that somehow remind me more of the chakras than other ones do. The body is a little more petite than most, which I rather appreciate. You can check it out on Gryphon’s site, or on Taylor’s.

The tone is brighter than the previous one mentioned, which I like, without being as overpowering as the first, and it works well for fingerpicking (something this model was particularly designed for). The strings don’t all blend quite as well for some kinds of strumming, but I think some of that will smooth out as we get used to each other. And most importantly, this guitar felt like it wanted to play with me. One of what you might call the “red and gold sparks” was the moment I did a double-take: “Did I really just play a barre chord? That was too easy!” I got the distinct impression that the instrument was trying to help.

The other thing guitar shopping reminds me of, besides wand shopping, is an afternoon of speed-dating, followed by a wedding. There’ll be some amount of trepidation no matter who you go home with, but the one that wants to help make the relationship work is pretty likely to be the best choice.

Oddly enough, considering how much I tend to anthropomorphize things, I don’t usually name my instruments. But this one seemed like she needed a name, and this evening I decided on Seraphina, after the dragon-girl musician from the eponymous and excellent book by Rachel Hartman. I also like the association with seraphim — angelic but fiery. (See also, for instance, here.)

Today is the anniversary of Yogananda’s birth, and so Seraphina got to jump right into the middle of things, playing with me both for the birthday celebration last night and for Sunday service this morning. Very appropriate, as I consider her to be both Master’s birthday gift to me and my birthday gift to Master.