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.