Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Messy Poem

When I posted recently about starting to read poetry, Lacey naturally asked if I was writing any yet. Well, it was bound to happen eventually. Interestingly, Lacey and I both had poems attacking us in the night and keeping us awake last week. Since she was generous enough to share hers, here’s mine.

O Lord, I Have Made a Mess
October 10, 2012

O Lord, I have made a mess.
It is for You.
Or so I assume,
given no apparent earthly purpose.

O Lord, I have made a mess.
If You inspire each devotee
according to his nature, his art,
then You must see in me a vast,
untapped potential for disarray,
for dashingly disordered disasters and missed marks.

A mellifluous messiferousness made manifest—
O Lord, I couldn’t have done it on my own.
You were helping, not just looking on,
so am I incompetent? Or blessed?

O Lord, we made a mess here, You and I,
for truly, among messes Thou Art this.
And even rubble hums with hidden life,
when You slip in and touch it with Your bliss.

So here I sit — in shambles — free from sorrow,
knowing You’ll help me clean it up tomorrow.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Recommend Me Some Poems

I've found myself becoming much more interested in poetry this year than I ever have been previously. I'm finding the process fascinating not only in and of itself, but also from a one-step-back perspective of watching another world of art and richness open up in front of me.

It was the Hafiz play back in March that really got me started, and then following that up with reading so much more of his work in Daniel Ladinsky's lovely translations. That's what got the heart hooked. But my mind always likes to go along for the ride too, and I have Stephen Fry to thank for helping with that. His book, The Ode Less Travelled, is an absolute delight. He teaches poetry for the benefit of someone who just wants to understand a bit about how it all works so as to enjoy it more, and he does so by writing some of the most amusing and entertaining non-fiction I've read in ages.

I'm still, of course, a complete novice in this whole area, but it's shifted into a different gear for me now. I'm approaching it more like music: actually learning (memorizing) poems and watching how they develop as I get to know them better, how sometimes an odd or confusing line will turn into a favorite, the way a tricky dissonant note can become the key color in the enjoyment of a harmony. And it can be as fun to have a poem in your head as a piece of music, to recite it in the shower or on a walk, like you'd whistle a tune.

Here are a few of the poems I've enjoyed recently:
  • Samadhi, by Paramhansa Yogananda, I actually memorized a while ago, but have recently brought it back more actively into my mind and my meditations.
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins seems like someone who's poetry I want to explore more of. So far I've encountered Pied Beauty and God's Grandeur
  • I think I'd always had an impression of e. e. cummings as being rather too far off the weird end of the banana for my taste (perhaps because of things like this), so I was rather delighted when I discovered the lovely i thank You God for most this amazing. Another sort of fun one is anyone lived in a pretty how town, though the recording of him reading it bugs the heck out of me. 
  • In this case, I was just pleased to find a poem about banjos: The Grain of Sound, by Robert Morgan.
  • Here's an interesting question: What's the difference between a poem and song lyrics sans music? For some reason, Dave Carter's When I Go — though it's a gorgeous song — somehow particularly strikes me as a poem. His The River Where She Sleeps has some of that quality as well, though others, like Gentle Arms of Eden for instance, do not. I don't know what it is. Could just be my own random brain thing. 
  • And, of course, I always have a particular fondness for the silly and playful stuff. Two amusements of late have been The Sniffle, by Ogden Nash, and Knight-in-Armour, by A. A. Milne.
So, that's my little starter list there. Have anything to add? What's your favorite poem that I should know about? 

Saturday, June 02, 2012


I took monastic vows today, accompanied by the assumption of my new spiritual name: Tandava. Neither of these events requires the other, but they go well together. A spiritually meaningful name can act as a beneficial focal point or affirmation, and the change itself is an interesting exercise in non-identification with one of our most identifying aspects: our names. I have to admit also that I simply thought “Brahmachari Graham” sounded a bit dumb, and so if I were ever going to get a spiritual name, it might as well be now. So, with that bit out of the way, there are a lot of interesting things to say about the process and reasoning behind the specific choice.

I first encountered the term “Tandava” earlier this year, when I was learning a chant for the Shivaratri kirtan. The chant goes “Jaya Shiva Shankara, Voom! Voom! Hara Hara / Hara Hara Hara Hara, Voom! Voom! Hara Hara.” I was just absolutely delighted and tickled by the voom-vooms, and mentioned so to Dambara, who informed me that this is the sound made by Shiva’s dance, which is known by the name Tandava.

Fade that into the background, and fast-forward to the night I decided to look for a new name for myself. I went by the library and checked out a dictionary of Sanskrit names. I flipped through it a little bit that night, noticing how it was arranged alphabetically and also in thematic groups. I planned on making a systematic search through it, writing down potential candidates to review later, gradually narrowing down the list, etc. Then I woke up the next morning and had a name. So much for plans. I looked it up to make sure I’d remembered correctly, then the book just sat around on my table for a few weeks until I returned it. I told Asha about the name, and she liked it enough to pass on to Swami Kriyananda, who said it was a beautiful choice and gave it his blessing.

The association with Shiva appeals to me because Shiva is the Mahayogi, the great meditator, but is also active in the world -- it’s his dance that creates, sustains, and finally dissolves all of creation. He dances his Ananda Tandava, a dance of joy, to celebrate and enjoy creation, but he is detached enough even to destroy it all (with the Rudra Tandava) when the time comes. That wholehearted joy and enthusiasm, combined with inner detachment and freedom, is very much what we’re trying to embody at Ananda, and in the Nayaswami order.

The dancing aspect of Shiva is known as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance. I had to laugh when I realized that connection. Several years ago, I was given the name Anachoron by Eric, who always assigned new names to friends he referred to on his blog. He explained that it was from the Greek: anax (lord) + choros (dance). He didn’t even know at the time that the melody to “Lord of the Dance” (a.k.a. “Simple Gifts”) had been my personal theme music for years.

And this brings me to why I like the specific connection with dance, which I expand to include all of music, since dancing for me was always just another way of being a musician. I’m not drawn to actually get out and dance much anymore, but it feels right for my name to commemorate the transmutation of it into spiritual qualities. Dance and music gave me a lot of my early experiences with spiritual principles and attitudes, before I even knew I was on the spiritual path.

Attunement is one of the most significant of these principles. I’m reminded of Richard’s “what can you dance to this?” exercise that he would often do at the end of a Social Dance course. He would play a wide variety of music in quick succession, switching from style to style, and from simpler to trickier tempos and rhythms, challenging us to find the right dance for each one. Every time the music tripped us up unexpectedly he would call out “What’s wrong with the music?” to which the correct and resounding answer was always “Nothing!” The music is simply something to attune ourselves to, letting go of whatever we were just doing a moment before, letting go of our expectations, and finding the right way to move our bodies with what’s trying to happen around us. Similarly, the Tandava dance I want to do is not a dance of my own creation, but movement in attunement with God and Guru, whatever music they may play for my life.

In dancing, of course, you don’t have only the music to consider, but your partner and the other dancers on the floor as well. Though trying to express the ideals of the music, you have to bring them into physical manifestation in a practical way. What is your partner’s level of ability, and how can you work with it? How much space do you have to maneuver? How can you adapt creatively to sudden changes and unexpected obstacles on the dance floor? And through all that, how do you maintain your connection to the source of the inspiration? Inspiration naturally changes to a certain extent as it gets “translated” into a physical manifestation, so you have to stay open to seeing how it will work out, and not get fixated on one particular idea.

Dancing this way is an expansion of consciousness. You become intimately aware not only of your partner’s every movement and momentum, but also the enjoyment and ease with which she’s dancing. You get a sense of the dance from her center as well as from yours. Leading and following happen as much by magnetism as by physical movements. Along with the focus on the partner connection, your awareness also spreads out across the dance floor (especially in a traveling dance, like a waltz), to the other dancers, to the musicians. When you have all of this in a perfect flow, the self-consciousness just drops away into a pure, joyful experience.

Dance can also embody the quality of calmness in the midst of even intense activity. Many times in fast waltzes and especially polkas I’ve deliberately slowed and deepened my breathing, centering myself in the spine, even as my feet moved faster and faster. This was a way, I realize now, of focusing and directing my energy precisely where I needed it, as we do in meditation, in the Energization Exercises, and eventually in all of life.

And so that’s some of what I had in mind in choosing “Tandava” as a name and an affirmation for how I’d like to develop: focused energy in meditation and activity, expanded awareness, compassion for others, and a joyfully engaged enthusiasm combined with the ability to let everything go when needed.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Brahmacharya Vows

On June 2nd I will take the Renunciate Vow of Brahmacharya, joining the Nayaswami Order, and receiving the new spiritual name and title of Brahmachari Tandava. For those of you who read that sentence as complete gibberish I shall attempt to explain.

The Nayaswami Order is a new expression of the ancient Swami monastic order (“naya” means “new”), and was started a few years ago by (Naya)Swami Kriyananda. The purpose is to retain the original ideals, but in a way that is both more appropriate for the current age and interdenominational, open to people on any flavor of the spiritual path. Some qualities you would traditionally expect of a monk -- e.g. celibacy and devotion to God -- still apply, while others do not (I will not be locking myself away in a monastery, for instance). If you want to dive into the details, there’s lots to read on the website, including Swamiji’s entire book, A Renunciate Order for the New Age.

I won’t be a swami in this order, but a brahmachari, which you can think of as a novice swami, or simply as a monk. Brahmachari means “one who flows with Brahma,” and also has connotations of self-control, and the “Brahmachari” part of my name is kind of like calling a Western monk “Brother,” but you don’t have to say it when you’re talking to me. My actual name will be Tandava, which means “the dance of Shiva,” and which has enough interesting things to say about it that it merits its own blog post. For now I’ll just say that it’s common to assume a new name at a time like this, accentuating the transition from one’s former life to the spiritual life.

So what is this all about? The spiritual path is a journey towards finding ultimate bliss in God, which is easier said than done. Even if you’re already on the spiritual path, there may come a time at which it can be very helpful to formalize this goal with a vow, much like two people who have been dating might decide to get married. You don’t have to, but there’s more of a structure there, and community support, and powerful symbolism, all of which can help keep you going for a serious, long-term commitment.

This is an important point, so I want to highlight it: What we tend to notice most about a monastic vow is what is being given up, but what it’s really about is where we’re going.

Here’s a simple example, one of my favorites because it’s one I often find myself needing to work on. Nobody gives up eating dessert purely in order to make themselves miserable (at least, I sure hope not). But people do it all the time because they want to lose weight, or so they can get in shape to run a marathon, or for similar reasons. The goal they aspire to is worth giving up smaller pleasures for. It may be challenging, but they want to do it. If the goal is important enough to you, the challenging part doesn’t even feel like “renunciation,” but rather just sweetens (ha!) your ultimate victory.

Gandhi advised that you should never give up a pleasure until you’ve replaced it with a higher pleasure. Otherwise, you’re just making things difficult for yourself. The search for pleasure leads to the search for happiness, then on to bliss, and thus to God, so you’ll get there in the end, regardless. And the spiritual path -- little though I would have guessed a few years ago -- has joy strewn all along it, so it’s worth the trip however long it takes.

Still, the celibacy aspect of renunciation alarms a lot of people. Let me address it by starting off with some thoughts about families in general.

I was very lucky to be born into a very good family, with deep, loving, spiritual connections. And I hope never to take that for granted, because there are many, many people who don’t get along with their birth families at all. On the other hand, there are people like Quena and Cass who are family to me in every way but blood. There are the enormous Dickerson (step-)family reunions I used to go to, with as many “outlaws” as in-laws. And numerous other people in my life have shown me that, regardless of who you’re born with, your true family will come to you one way or another. The spiritual family of Ananda is another prime example.

This is why I’m not at all concerned about having children. I love children, and I love my new nephew, but I don’t feel the need to personally create any. If I have karma with someone, we’ll find each other.

The question of having a partner is a trickier issue, since that’s been much more of an explicit desire and goal for so much of my life. Some of the same thinking applies, though. Having a partnership as a way to develop love in a deep, focused way can be a very good and necessary thing. But there’s also a time when it’s more appropriate to expand one’s feelings outward, and feel more impersonal love and compassion for humanity as a whole. This is the stage I feel like I’m in these days. My job exemplifies it well -- I’m managing relationships with and among 27 different people, and I can’t even imagine hauling my consciousness over to focus specifically on just one relationship, the way I would if a romantic situation were to develop. I’d rather keep expanding it outward.

It’s also just as simple as the fact that I’m currently single and quite happy to be so. I work and serve and meditate as much as I’m able, and I come back inside myself to recharge my batteries. It’s a good arrangement for me right now, but there’s not really any spare energy lying around that I want to direct to a relationship.

But still, one’s relationship with God is always personal and independent of outwards vows and symbols. So why actually bother to do this, when I can still be single, meditate, serve, etc., even without it? I’d been thinking about it for a while, but it was my brahmachari brother Amit who pushed me over that particular fence on New Year’s Eve. That’s when he took his vow, and that’s when it finally clicked for me. We have a lot of Nayaswamis here in the Palo Alto community, but there were only two Brahmacharinis, and both were older women -- not really my demographic. So I never really had much of an image in my mind of someone more like me doing this. As soon as Amit provided that, I realized I was ready.

The inspiration that night was palpable, and that’s something I too want to be able to provide for others who are ready to receive it. I want to be an example of how you can dedicate your life to God, even as a young ex-Stanford, ex-Googler in the middle of Silicon Valley. So for me, that’s a huge reason for adding an external form to something that’s already going on inwardly.

So that’s the news on the life-changes going on over here. I just wanted you all to know about it so if you see someone who looks an awful lot like Graham but is wearing yellow and called Tandava, it’s still me.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Experiments: Food, Sleep, and Energy

A few months ago a new book in the Wisdom of Yogananda series was published: How to Achieve Glowing Health and Vitality. It’s packed with useful tips and ideas, enough to seem overwhelming until you remember to just relax, find the ones that seem relevant to what you need right now, and focus on those. I’m not often one to drastically tweak my daily habits, but this book got me inspired into a few interesting experiments.

In the food department, the idea that most intrigued me was that of eating monomeals. In spite of my spell-checker’s insistence, these are not one-term algebraic expressions, but rather meals in which you eat only a single (raw, natural) food, and as much of it as you like until you feel satiated. It’s actually much easier for your digestive system to handle a consistent batch of a single food than to deal with a mix of many different ingredients that digest at different rates and in different ways. It takes less energy for your body to process the food, and you’re also better able to tell when you’ve actually eaten an appropriate amount.

I’ve always liked the idea of fasting as a cleansing “vacation” for the digestive system, but I really don’t like fasting itself at all. Monomeals seem like a good compromise to me. I’m currently doing one or two a day, most often with apples, bananas, melons, or other fruit. I’ll usually throw in a “monosnack” of almonds or something similar in between, too. If I save a full “regular” meal for the evening, I manage to skip most of the afternoon energy slump.

Also in support of the energy levels, I’ve been increasing my the Energization Exercises two or three times a day. In addition to the book inspiring renewed will power and concentration, I also discovered an interesting refinement to the mental technique. Instead of visualizing the energy flowing to the various body parts as I activated them, I imagined it moving just ahead of what my body was doing. If you can get into that flow, it becomes much more an experience of tapping into existing energy rather than generating it all from your own little self. Fun to play with.

The final area I’ve been experimenting in is sleep. I don’t think it was in this book, but I’ve read elsewhere Yogananda’s comment that six hours of sleep a night is plenty for most people, and you don’t want to spend more time subconscious than you need to. I’ve always felt very attached to my 7.5-8 hours a night, ever since Dr. Dement’s Sleep & Dreams class in college, but by the time I got through this book I felt like I might actually be able to change that habit.

So I’ve been gradually trimming down the amount I sleep, and have gotten to the point where I can do 6.5 hours a night pretty regularly without any trouble. Still working on the last half hour, but I feel like I’m almost there. And interestingly, even though I often took short afternoon naps before I had a full-time job, now I find that even if I try to nap on a weekend, I often can’t. It’s a little harder sometimes to get up in the mornings on weekends, but once I am up, I’m fine. And I can sense a difference now between needing sleep and merely wanting sleep, which I never particularly noticed before.

The concurrence of the food experiment has actually helped the sleep part a great deal. For instance, if someone brings cookies to work and I eat them (because I can’t help myself, even though I usually try to avoid sweets until the weekend) I can much more dramatically feel the sag in my energy level. But I can tell that it’s not due to lack of sleep (which might otherwise be my first assumption) because if I sleep the same 6.5 hours that night, without any extra, I still feel fine the next day. So I can tell the amount of sleep is sustainable in and of itself, but other factors can try to fool me into thinking its not.

It’s nice to have the extra couple of hours in the day, though I’m still getting used to being awake that much. I’m using some of the time for extra sadhana, including getting myself to a couple of the hour and a half morning meditations in the community temple, and doing some yoga on other mornings. I’m also spending a little more time reading just for fun, so it’s not all “virtuous and productive” as Mom would say, but it’s an okay balance at this point.

[Another intriguing sleep concept I came across recently is segmented sleep. Sounded to me a little trickier to make useful, though, and one sleep experiment at a time is enough.]

An interesting facet to everything in this post, aside from just the fun of experimenting with how human bodies work, is the sense of attunement. Taking instructions from my guru into the most basic aspects of my everyday life -- food and sleep -- is a good way to practice feeling the discipleship connection at all times. So it’s all worth it just for that perspective, even if nothing else.