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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Reverence & the Raw Materials of Infinite Possibility: Rajanaka Yoga with Dr. Douglas Brooks

This fantastic interview by Priya Thomas was originally published in Shivers Up The Spine:  The Yoga Examiner.   Shivers Up The Spine is an online journal for yoga practitioners, teachers and writers that features their peers and friends voicing their ideas and illuminations about personal practice, as well as their teaching lives.  I've no doubt that you'll want to go check it out after reading this.  Enjoy:

Douglas Brooks was en route home when I rang in for our scheduled phone chat. It was my first time speaking with Douglas.  And while it might be that it was the muddy rumble of the engine humming underneath our conversation that was responsible for his emphatic speech, I'll hazard a guess that Douglas is an animated conversationalist by nature; with an exclamatory voice, forceful and anecdotally rich. Harder to mistake, however, is the quality of reverence with which Douglas speaks about his chosen orbit, the cultivation of his broad base of knowledge in Shrividya Tantra, and his pivotal relationship with his mentor and teacher, Dr. Gopala Aiyer Sundaramoorthy whom he affectionately calls "Appa" - or the equivalent of "Dad"....

(Dr. Douglas Brooks)
Douglas Brooks has been a leading figure in the academic study and the practice of Shrividya Shakta Tantrism for more than twenty-five years. Beginning his formal studies in the Sanskrit and Tamil languages as well as the study of Hinduism and the history of religions in 1977, Douglas lived and worked in the home of his teacher Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy in south India for more than six years and has spent these many years since evolving the practices and teachings of the Auspicious Wisdom, the goddess-centered Tantric tradition of Shrividya that he learned from his masterful teacher.

Douglas Brooks completed Masters and Doctorate degrees from Harvard University and today is recognized as both an eminent scholar and master practitioner of Shakta Tantrism. He has been invited to teach and offer the vast wealth of his experience in seminars, gatherings, and retreats all over the world. His special relationship with John Friend, founder of Anusara Yoga, has been an important part of Douglas' public offerings. Since 1986, Douglas has held a full time appointment in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester where he holds a senior chair as Professor of Religion.

Since I had first come across Douglas' subtle and moving blog entries at Rajanaka Sammelana, I had gathered up a few nagging questions; and I was glad to finally have my moment. The many questions that had rattled around in my mind over a period of a few weeks had created hairline cracks; fissures that I was hoping would eventually crack something open, and teach me something new. And as it turns out, I was speaking to just the right man about such a thing. Douglas knows a thing or two about cultivating the raw materials of "infinite possibility".  And in our interview, Douglas Brooks touches on more than a few of these remarkable ideas. Our interview captures Douglas' thoughts on the importance of "conversations with greatness", on why remaining unnoticed is one of the best ways to learn, and how to step into anusara, or the ocean of grace.

"Where do you think I am going?" he asked. "Honestly, I don't know." "What do you think eternity is like?"
"I think it is silent and I will have to live here with that silence.  I will miss our conversations."
"Then to be with me," Appa said, "you will have to go to that silence inside yourself.  You will have to go more deeply into your own heart.  And there you'll find me too, in that place where our conversations will continue."
I can remember still sitting there beside him, crying as quietly as I could.  I couldn't yet imagine how I might bear this silence when it seemed only to be loss.  (Douglas Brooks, Rajanaka Sammelana, from On This Day, about "Appa")

Priya Thomas Interview with Douglas Brooks: January 2011

Priya: I'll just start with asking you how you became interested in the practice of Tantra. I know you have a long and broad history with the scholarly study of Tantra, but just in your own words if you could orient us to your own personal story with how you came to study the practice.

Douglas: Well I came to Tantra as a way of exploring the depth of human possibilities, because Tantra begins with the affirmation of the gift of being human. In every possible way; as a physical being, as an emotional and intellectual being and as a spiritual being. Tantra begins with affirmation of everything it means to be human and that was appealing to me. It was appealing to me in a way other kinds of practices were less appealing. Other traditions of yoga were promising me serenity, or transcendence or mystical identification with the self... pick your choice...But tantra was beginning with the idea that embodied life is itself the gift and the point the universe is trying to make as an expression of possibility.

Priya: Would you say your practice was preceded by a scholarly interest in the material? Because obviously you're a scholar, but you are also a practitioner. Some people tend to separate those areas. A scholastic interest in something doesn't necessarily lead to an actual practice.

Douglas: Not in India. There are scholastics in India who are practitioners. First of all everything we know about Tantra comes from scholastics. It took people of intellectual committment and curiosity to create the sources that we have. India never separated scholasticism from practice so neither did I. Actually I'll go further and I'll put myself on the line here. I think any endeavor that takes you seriously through a process of curiosity and committment and learning will by definition require some kind of study...serious study... and that the intellectual endeavour is just a facet of the process.

Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy.  Never fancied himself a guru, much less enlightened being.  Had no desire for the limelight or even those attentions and honors received that were so richly his due.  But I should like to remember him today in these few words, for his was a life truly made of compassion and learning, of generosity and genius.  His life has made so many lives the richer.  He would never have presumed himself flawless and neither shall I.  What I can say is that he was a man and Nature, the Auspicious One Herself, gave him to us as a gift, a life so precious in value, so ferocious in goodness, and so gentle in light that I believe he will never be forgotten but rather always heard clearly, in hearts, in the silence. (Dr. Douglas Brooks, Rajanaka Sammelana, from On This Day)

(Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy)

Priya: At what point did you meet your teacher Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy?

Douglas: Oh Appa? I was on the University of Wisconsin's College Year in India program. So I was a nineteen year old, rising junior in college. And I went to India because I wanted to experience the only ancient, continuous civilization in the world. And I wanted to study living religion and I wanted to study the texts, and I wanted to study Sanskrit.

Priya: So when you met your teacher, did you know that you were intending to study with him for as long as you did? You spent sixteen years with him is that right?

Douglas: Yeah. I'm an inveterate skeptic. And I think my teacher was too. And so I wasn't testing him anymore than he was testing me. I will tell you that I did feel right away, from our first meeting, that I was with a man of depth, and integrity and erudition and genius. And he was a very gentle and sweet-hearted and dear man, but he was also someone I was immediately sure had the intellectual and personal experience that I thought was interesting. Every day was like an invitation. And he ended every day the same way. He said, "If you like, we can continue tomorrow".

Priya: (laughing) That's wonderful!

Douglas: (laughing) I mean, even after I was living in his house for many years, at the end of every day, Priya, he would say the same thing!!

Priya: (laughing) yeah that's great... I'm increasingly interested in teachers and their relationships with their students these days...Can you pinpoint in a few words what you think made your relationship special? And what made your teacher special? That's a tall order I'm sure....

Douglas: (long pause) This is a man who had cultivated his gift with great care and temerity and intensity. So I was in the presence of a person who had all of the ability and had made the most of it. As far as the relationship goes, I think I was lucky. I think I showed up at the right time, at the right age. I was young and curious and I realized right away that you weren't every going to accomplish anything worthwhile in life without it being difficult and without it involving an enormous amount of committment and just pure temerity.

Priya: Why and how did you know that at that age?

Douglas: First of all, I'd grown up surrounded by greatness. Great musicians were my neighbours, my friends...My parents were self-made; my dad was self-made, and he was accomplished in his subject. And I realized that he had enough ability but I realized that you didn't have to be a genius, you just had to be smart enough. No matter what it was you were pursuing. You had to have enough ability. I realized pretty early that I wasn't tall enough for the NBA, but I was smart enough to do this. We each have our own gifts. So you have to recognize your abilities. Then the next thing you have to do is you gotta want it. You gotta want it so bad that you'll do anything to have it. You know people talk about how Mozart was a genius. But I'll tell you that he was genius enough, but that he sat at the piano for tens of thousands of hours. or the violin or god knows what else the man could any gifted person that applies himself really really hard. And I think everyone is gifted.

Priya: Do you think the way you learned with your teacher had a specific impact in terms of being able to harness those innate abilities? Was that context more beneficial than say studying in a different learning environment? How much of what you learned had to do with how you learned?

Well, I think it was a nurturing and healthy environment. I was never asked to do anything I didn't really want to do. There was no submission there was none of that sort of silly slap-you-on-your-hand guru stuff. It was like living with a really warm, healthy, nurturing family. And I had an immersion experience in language and in education.
It was also the 70's right; there were no distractions. There were no telephones. I would get the radio at night but I had no access to the outside world.

Priya: Wow...yeah that is different.

Douglas: You learn a lot when you don't have anything else to do.

Priya: Yes sure. of course..

Douglas: It's not like you're checking in on your facebook!! It was a different world. No internet and no communication with the outside world meant a lot of communication inside that world you lived in. But, in a certain way, when I went to graduate school it wasn't any different. It was a lot less friendly. And it was a lot less healthy because it was really competitive. But you know there were only a few choices, you could go out with your friends or you could go out to the library.

Priya: So why would you say the environment here at the university was far more competitive and less healthy than the learning environment you experienced with your teacher in India?

Douglas: Well there was no second piece of the puzzle. It's not like my graduate mentors were looking out for my emotional health or what I was eating. You weren't taken care of...

Priya: Right. Whereas that was happening with your teacher in India...

Douglas: Yeah that was happening. And it was uncompetitive because I didn't have any competition. In a certain way, I look back and I think it would have been better if I had...

Priya: Why so?

(Vedic recitation,
Douglas: Well, because you learn to chant veda when the kid sitting next to you is starting to do it better than you. That's a fact. That's in fact how they learn to chant veda in India. They do it in groups not to be warm and fuzzy, but because they push each other. Because two people always know more than one. Competition was either something that was good to you or it was stressful to you. If you think competition is part of the process of rising to the challenge, then you stand a chance for greatness. There's no greatness without a challenge. And challenges happen in great conversation.

Priya: And so would you say you had great conversations with your teacher?
Douglas: Oh yeah. fantastic! Because I was sitting with someone who...well, I had to hold onto every word just to keep up! This was the kindest, sweetest, gentlest man you could have ever met. I mean he was really a great, darling soul. Everybody loved him. He had a soft, wonderful heart and a gentle demeanor. But he was a taskmaster. So if you wanted to learn, it was like well, step up.

Priya: So would you have called him a disciplinarian...gentle as he was?
Douglas: I don't think he was a disciplinarian. He never told me to do anything. He invited me. He'd say if you'd like to read this, this is what we're going to do...This is what it's going to take. He never disciplined.
Priya: So when you say taskmaster??
Douglas: I'm sorry I meant like there are tasks and you have to master them! (laughing) 

Priya: (laughing) Right. I see you were being literal! 

Douglas: But you know, it was always just an invitation...literally, Priya, every day he said: "If you like, we can do this". But then if you wanted to do it, it was like standing at the bottom of K2 saying, "If you like, we can climb the mountain".  And you're not going to climb the mountain being warm and fuzzy.
Priya: You coined the use of the word asusara (from the Kularnava Tantra) which is translated as "stepping into the ocean of grace". In fact, you suggested the word to John Friend who picked it up when he was looking for a name for what we now call Anusara Yoga. I grew up hearing that word from my parents, but it was used in the vernacular sense of "you need more anusara.." or "you need to pay be aligned with how things need to listen". I guess if you extrapolate a bit, you can see how staying aligned could mean the same thing as being graceful. I wondered what "stepping into the ocean of grace" means to you?
Douglas: Well I think that grace means different things in different traditions. And as a concept it works differently depending on who you ask, and what they expect. For a true theist, grace are those gifts you can't give yourself because only God can give them to you. So grace is always an extrinsic factor because you ask for it and you receive it. And it is dispensed. There is an agent or dispenser of grace whether it's god or a guru. And if grace is extrinsic, then it's something that you think that someone else gives to you. So grace is that capacity to receive what the world is really offering. So grace is that powerful, receptive affirmation of saying "yes" to the opportunities and the circumstances you've been given. And, when you do, you find out that there's always more. Grace is like a gift Priya. You can't earn it, you can't deserve it and you can't pay it back. What you can learn to do is understand that when you are receptive to greater possibility, grace allows those possibilities to serve and empower you. We're not captives of a world that's holding us back any more than we are dependent upon a God or an entity to give us what we don't need. Grace is the idea that everything you could need or want, is in some sense, a process of opening to possibility. It doesn't mean you're going to get those things; but, grace is receiving the wonder that the universe is offering.
Priya: I was reading an entry on your blog about enlightenment. And one of the quotes in it was, "the idea of a singular or unique state just hands us back a duality which we're trying to get rid of". So from that it's clear that enlightenment is not the ultimate goal. And in it you say, as you just did, that with Tantra you're invited to "more", to "comparison" and to "entanglement".
So would you say that there is a goal at all with Rajanaka Tantra?
Douglas: I think Rajanaka tells you that the goal of life is to love life. But I think that that's a process. I think that every accomplishment offers the opportunity for more accomplishment. So no matter how you define success, I think that there's more. So I don't think of enlightenment as a state achieved or a finality. That would also suggest that when you got it you would be certain. And I think that the greatest certainty is only the most certain possibility, so I think of enlightenment as an open process rather than as a final attainment.

Priya: But you don't have an actual problem with the word "enlightenment" as such...
Douglas: Well, I'm happy to argue with those who use the word enlightenment as if it meant a final, or finished or realized state. Like if they go, "Oh he was a realized being"
Well my thought is I hope he just keeps realizing. I think that anything that comes to finality strikes me as problematic. But if people want to think that there's enlightenment and that makes them aspire, then I'm willing to talk about that even though I don't actually believe in it. If that helps people figure out their lives, and it makes them happy, and it gets them through their day, then I'm ok with that you know?

Priya: So you're ok with using the goal of enlightenment for its psychological benefits...
Douglas: Totally!

Priya: You have talked about how Tantrikas find it problematic to relate to Sruti (sacred texts comprising the central canon) as revelation....preferring instead "conversations with greatness" or a dialogue with the text. So I'm wondering how your teacher would have encouraged that kind of relationship with the text? How did he orient you towards direct experience?

Douglas: He did it all the time. He never let me quote the text to prove something. It was all about making it real for you. It was all about drawing that into an experience and into an example. It was always an experiment. You know I think the sruti idea really comes from the ethos of certainty. That there are things about the world that are absolutely true. And absolutes are dangerous things to think. Nothing is more dangerous than a person who is certain.

Priya: So are we talking about not having any fixed points of view?
Douglas: Well I think I'm pretty fixed in the idea that compassion is a good idea and a wonderful expression of human possibility. I think I'm pretty fixed that there are things in the world that are evil. I'm pretty sure of those things but I think there's always room for growth and experimentation.
(Charles Darwin)
Priya: But I came across this idea on your blog that there is a consonance between Darwin's views and those of the Tantric yogin...Didn't you quote Darwin as having said there was a "blind pitiless indifference"  in the way the world operates? And that this view is very much in keeping with the Tantric view?
Douglas: Oh yes, why would we expect the world to be any other way than it is? blind, pitiless and indifferent?? Oh yeah I think that's brilliant! Because it invites you to the idea that if there really is something like sweet goodness in the world, you can make it.
Priya: But then, if there's no purpose or design in how the world functions, how do you reconcile that with the fact that you feel some things in the world are evil?
Douglas: Well, because good and evil are qualities of relationships and their value to the world. 
But there is, as I see it, a real consonance between Darwin’s views and those of the Tantric yogin committed to the concept of a truly free and powerful universe. Darwin once wrote, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” I confess, I find the strident clarity of this observation not only intellectually compelling but deeply moving. And rather than feel at an existential loss for meaning because the universe has none, I am reminded of the day my teacher so casually, in that calm, gentle voice that could disarm the most adamant in argument, said to me, “Your life has no purpose, no meaning, and no goal. And that is all very, very good news. The rest is up to you.” (Dr. Douglas Brooks, Rajanaka Sammelana, from Because Anything Can Happen)
Priya: I design we are neither good nor evil, but by relationship...

We don't need a design to tell us the world is good, to be good.
In fact, it's way more impressive that people are good because they can be. You know, there's something interesting about humans. They can act against their own interests. If you think about other beings, at least the ones we know, like the things we see in nature, almost no other being acts contrary to its interests. And what's interesting about acting contrary to your interests is that you can act contrary to your interests and do awful things, and you can act contrary to your interests and do the most magnificent, magnanimous, altruistic things. So human beings aren't confined by their nature.

Priya: Right. That's interesting...
Douglas: They are free. And they are free to create as much goodness as there is in the world. The world is power. It is not morally designed.
Priya: Right...Sakti (feminine principle of creative force/power)

(Ravana with Sita, Raja Ravi Varma)

Douglas: The world is Sakti. And even if you look at the mythology of the Hindus and the Buddhists, you find out that the demons get powers. They don't get powerful by being good or evil, they get powerful because they do tapas...because they have discipline. They're successful. So nature rewards success; it doesn't reward goodness.

Priya: And so what's the value of goodness then?
Douglas: The value of goodness is that, in an interesting way, it transcends success. You get to have it whether or not you succeed. It's a magnificent accomplishment of human possibility. It's not that we're walking into a good universe. Nothing in its design tells me that that's true. Not one thing.

(the walking stick insect, "the phasmid")
But the creature Appa most admired was a rare phasmid, a kind of walking stick sometimes called the ghost insect.  The phasmid hides itself in plain sight--- it looks more like a stick than most sticks and can wave gently back and form, perhaps for crypsis, that's its power to avoid observation, and perhaps because it just does.  The phasmid is itself the crypsis-- it doesn't adopt a camouflage, it is its camouflage--- and uses this advantage both actively as a predator and receptively to avoid its predators.  "Something like the Tantrika," Appa quipped. It's not uncommon that Tantrics create their own crypsis, sometimes to mask secrets, at other times to procure some other advantage.  Every creature seeks its own advantage.  Why should yogins be different?  But the Tantrika needn't adopt a camouflage or put on a cloak to conceal what is underneath.  Rather, we can wear our true nature and that provides the crypsis...So it is, Appa said, for all yogins and seekers truly, not just for Tantrikas.  The powers of awareness continue to reveal our search on the inside even as our outer form creates its natural crypsis.  
So we go unnoticed.  Well, with any luck.  Like the phasmid. 
You will notice, Appa said, that the phasmid follows its nature and pursues its interests without enmity, without anger, without pride.  Yet it flourishes because it has adapted and its success speaks clearly for itself.  So too the Tantric seeker...crafts arguments to hone insights, and never eschews the company of those who possess contrary views.  You must become, as it were, natural in all company.  Without enmity there is no adversary, without anger there is no place for pride to take root, and then no need to persuade, to prove, or offer reproof. (Dr. Douglas Brooks, Rajanaka Sammelana, from A Rare Phasmid)
Priya: I really liked the entry on "A Rare Phasmid" on your blog...It was really quite interesting...stayed with me for weeks after I read it.

(gabriel moreno
Douglas: Aw thanks....that's really nice actually.

Priya: Why do you think for the Tantrika, for the yogi, being hidden is of spiritual value? Why would we "with any luck go unnoticed?" 

Douglas: Sometimes not drawing attention to yourself is an opportunity to learn more, to experience more...When appa and I went out and met other scholars who were Tantrikas and practitioners, and we met dozens of these people. Some were probably the great living beings of that period. But you always had the experience when you were with appa, that he pretty much knew more than anybody in the room all the time. He was really that good. He was just amazing in his understanding of the canon, of history and of the tradition, of practice. But he often was the rare phasmid. He would sit there quietly because he knew that he could learn something from somebody if he just didn't make himself the centre of attention. So taking the attention away from yourself is the way to learn something.

Priya: Do you think that runs contrary to the ideals of a media-driven, celebrity culture? Do you have any tips on how to remain hidden? That almost seems like a challenge given the impact of social networking sites or google ...

Douglas: You know, if you stay in the authenticity and integrity of who you are, then you're usually quite happy to say "I know and I don't know".  What I think is that everyone in the room likely has an "I don't know" that they would love to learn.

Priya: What do you make of the postural side of yoga practice. By that I'm referring to asana...

Douglas: You mean what we call asana today?

Priya: Exactly the thing I mean...

Douglas: It's sure done a lot of people an awful lot of good. When you look at it historically, there are three reasons for asana. Do you want me to talk about that?

Priya: Sure!

Douglas: Alright. Asana came about for three reasons. So that you could sit well enough to do the rituals - the outward reasons. It came about so that you could sit long enough to meditate - the inward reasons. And the third was so that you could impress your friends and scare your enemies. That is tapas. So what we do today in asana, is not really any of those things. What we really see more commonly in asana is an expression of celebration.

Priya: hmm...that's interesting. so you don't think we do it to impress our friends and scare our enemies! Number three must be more common than that! (laughing)

Douglas: I think as a means to an end, it's pretty mundane. I'm not impressed.
I think a lot of people are impressed. You know, like if you can put your feet behind your ears, people are impressed!

Priya: (laughing) Yes, that is a big deal for people!
(Spock, the ideal yogi)

Douglas: And you know, a lot of people can do a lot of weird things.

Priya: In an old issue of Yoga Journal you had said your half-ideal yogi would be Star Trek's Dr. Spock. Have I got that right?

Douglas: Yeah...

Priya: Are you still standing behind that?

Douglas: Sure, Why not! I probably wrote it because there's an ethos of anti-intellectualism and anti-logic in the yoga community. And I think not only is that not true in the history of yoga, I also think it doesn't do anybody any good. I think being a thoughtful, reflective, rational being is a really important thing to be. It's also really important to raise emotional and intuitive qualities and abilities and raise your spiritual IQ in every possible way. What I'm saying is go with the whole of yourself. Go with the whole package! I don't think I see yogis doing irrational things. I see them doing non-rational things...and that can be great! You can do a lot of good things where reason doesn't apply. But you can also do a lot of good things by applying your reason.

Priya: You describe yourself as a spiritual seeker. Now, why would you describe yourself that way? And have you always described yourself in those terms?

Douglas: If I had had that vocabulary at seven or eight I probably would have said the same thing. 

Priya: So seven or eight huh? Do you know why?
Douglas: Lucky? But also because I was lucky to be reared in a relatively healthy, relatively safe family environment. My parents weren't religious in any way. But they were quite content to let me figure out the world for myself without imposing much upon me. They were pretty good at showing me the difference between right and wrong which I don't think is all that much of a challenge. Do you remember that New Yorker cartoon where two monks are sitting on the floor? One monk is looking at the other and the caption reads: "Nothing happens. This is it." But I always wanted to know what more there was...I was just as interested in physics and math and art as I am in Tantra.
Priya: Now over the years, Tantra has developed a bad reputation on this side of the pond, and continues to be misunderstood or derided. Why do you think that is?
Douglas: Well, it's got a worse reputation in India! And the vast majority of Tantra that has a bad reputation in India, just like the vast majority of Tantra, deserves its bad reputation. It's promising things that can't be delivered. It's magical, manipulative, charlatanistic nonsense.
Priya: And so how do you go about discerning what is nonsense?
Douglas: We have to learn all of it to know that there is still so much to love. Let's just say 99% of it is nonsense and is not worth your time...So what? If ten percent of it is amazing, interesting, valuable, life-changing, enriching, compelling, filled with serious curiosity and opportunity, then how good is that? If you can love even 1% of anything then it's worth your time and you've found a goldmine.

S o it appears we have to run the gamut of what's out there before we can discern the 1% that's good as gold. And perhaps it's the extensive searching that leads to a reverence for what treasures we find. An expression of free choice, this kind of reverence is not one that humans are built for; at least not according to Rajanaka Tantra. The manifest world is indifferent to moral purpose. We find reverence simply because we so choose. And, if I had not previously read Douglas' blog entry "Dust Into Gold" which closes this post, I would have said, "You know Douglas, I don't know...10% sounds like the odds are dodge... I don't know if I'd take a long trek out to the Klondike and call it a gold rush".  But I had read it; and there was no mistaking the lucid and discerning reverence for infinite possibility, for endless learning, and for his teacher. So I'll leave you with his words:
Appa would not have liked any fuss if it were over him. He might not even have liked me talking about him half as much as I do: he always said that the teachings of Rajanaka were never about him or anyone who might teach them but rather about the ways others’ receive their value and make them their own. I’m sure he’s right about that. A great teaching of yoga will change lives because it goes far past the person who teaches it, even if it has come through that person. Truths are never tied to individuals; everyone knows that or needs to. But nothing that I have ever learned from yoga will ever matter as much to me as Appa did. Things that matter are also like that. And I don’t think I’m contradicting my teacher or his teachings here. Loving him doesn’t create a conflict in me. Instead it compels the embrace of another paradox. I know that the most valuable things I have ever learned are not only about him, even if it’s also true that those things have entered my life because of him. And still there’s something far more than that going on.
It’s hard not to think of Appa’s passing so young even on this day I celebrate his birth--- he was only about fifty-seven when he succumbed to cancer. What I really wanted to say about him here has already been said countless times before, far better than I can hope to express. Here’s one, a verse by another guy from Jersey who has a way of saying things. It captures everything I’d like you who’ve read this far to know about how I feel this day about my teacher, my Appa, Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy.
 "Now the world is filled with many wonders under the passing sun. And sometimes something comes along and you know it's for sure the only one.
The Mona Lisa, the David, the Sistine Chapel, Jesus, Mary, and Joe. And when they built you, brother, they broke the mold. 

When they built you, brother, they turned dust into gold. When they built you, brother, they broke the mold.

 They say you can't take it with you, but I think that they're wrong.

'Cause all I know is I woke up this morning, and something big was gone… But love is a power greater than death, just like the songs and stories told 
And when she built you, brother, she broke the mold." ---Bruce Springsteen, Terry’s Song.
• Add yourself as a follower of Dr. Douglas Brooks' blog, Rajanaka Sammelana
• Consult the full list of upcoming workshops and retreats with Dr. Douglas Brooks on Rajanaka Yoga 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pilgrimage to Chidambram

Go read pal Jordan Mallah's article in The Huffington Post to see what he has to say about his pilgrimage to Chidambram with the gang. 


Go now.  

Monday, January 3, 2011

Greater For Each Other

This article on Sustainable Marriage from Friday's NY Times is an interesting read.

A recent study shows that people are now more interested in partnership, and the quality of that partnership, than in the mere longevity of a marriage.

The most happily married are those whose partners make life more interesting, and facilitate the process of self-expansion.  The happier and more fulfilled the individuals are, the more satisfied and committed to the marriage they are.

"Duh," says my inner tantrika.

My understanding is that we can never hope to serve something greater than ourselves without being true to ourselves.  Why wouldn't this apply to love relationships?  It makes sense, right, that in choosing a partner who nurtures and facilitates our own growth, we increase our ability to be fulfilled in relationship, and so, too, to help our partner grow?  That would be a pretty good reason to stick around, wouldn't it?

It's an inspiring way to approach partnerships of intimacy--as a gateway into interesting and fulfilling experience, fun, satisfaction and growth. I think it's very much something to aspire to--to love and be loved, to nurture and be nurtured, to grow and nurture growth.

The study goes on to demonstrate that partners eventually adopt the traits of the other.  This, also, comes as no surprise.  My teacher taught me, years ago, that "we become the company we keep."  So, for me, there's an urgency, of sorts, to keep great company.

For example, depending on my partner, my relationship may accentuate my tendencies toward generosity or stinginess, toward creativity or resignation, toward communication or suppression.  Who will I become over the years?  A good look at the person waking up on the other side of the bed offers insight. It's a powerful incentive to choose well.

Although love is like nothing else, it's also exactly like anything else--love proffers the invitation to recognize our gifts, generously give them, bask in the gifts and growth of another, and become greater for them.

Does your relationship sustain you and make you feel good about yourself?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Second Time Around

Do you remember college?

I do.

(Sort of.)

As a youngster I was shy.  The only child of parents who mostly kept to themselves, other kids were something of a mystery to me.  I didn't want to play tag; I wanted to play, "I'll be Dorothy and wear the shiny red shoes and you can be a monkey, or something". 

In grade school, I couldn't fathom the skill, or the appeal, in attempting to swing at, kick, punch, or dodge a ball of any kind, particularly one that was speeding straight toward me at 60 mph.  I was a lot like Hermione:  I endured gym and loved book reports.  To this day my wrist still aches with the tendinitis that first appeared in grade school where I perpetually held a book too heavy for my little hand. 

I was a pretty tautly wound little nerd.  

Fast forward to college, where, unsurprisingly, I went a bit wild.  I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I did a bunch of stupid, boundary-testing stuff, all of which was interesting, and most of which I don't regret.  It wasn't the sort of education my parents had in mind but it was good for me, nonetheless.  I learned a lot; I just didn't learn any of it in a classroom. 

Today, my inner geek and my inner troublemaker are no longer at odds, and cheerily co-exist.  I don't undervalue the experiences I had in college but I do wish I'd immersed myself in study when I had the chance.  For most of us, the opportunity for undivided focus upon education is a luxury we won't have again. 

I like learning.  I have, at times, wistfully considered going back to school.  Several years ago, in a fit of longing to deepen my studies, I confided that sense of missed opportunity to Douglas, who reminded me that there is opportunity still.

In that spirit, I'm very much looking forward to beginning the Srividyalaya courses.  In recent correspondence, Douglas and some of the team chatted about the vision:  SV shall truly be an educational project.  While the Rajanaka view will be included, this isn't about signing on, or signing up for, the Rajanaka lineage.

As a spiritual university, SV classes will shine a light upon many of the great traditions and their substance:  we'll hold the great traditions side by side, and look at texts, practices, and histories. 

I've been studying ten years, which is long enough to know that, while I've been fortunate to have access to more teachings than the average yogin, there's still an ocean of yoga tradition left to drink from.

As my smartypants friend Harrison Williams says:
"The way to deepen the conversation of yoga is not to merely tow a party line or hold only one point of view, but rather to step gently and self-consciously into the stream of yoga:  to learn to detect a hidden current of history or theology, to subltly feel beneath the surface for the line of an argument or for an elusive pattern of deepening insight.
A lineage does not emerge from nowhere.  Without soil no tree will take root.  Without roots no tree will blossom.  Without blossoms no tree will fruit.  Without fruit no new roots will descend back into the fecund soil of history to sprout again anew—distinct but not different."
For me, Srividyalaya represents a second chance at a formal course of study.  My inner nerd couldn't be more thrilled that, after all these years, I finally know exactly what I want to major in.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Goddess Envy

Once upon a time... a young woman wandered through a forest and came upon a house in a clearing.  Inside that house lived a great teacher.  Students traveled great distances from far off places to learn from him.  The young woman left her shoes on the porch and went inside.  She had read Hansel and Gretel and knew all about cottages in the woods but she took a chance.  Inside, sat about twenty or so students with open notebooks. The young woman sat down with them and listened.  She listened and listened.  She made the friends she would keep for a lifetime.  Every year, year after year, she returned, with the others, to the little house in the clearing to study.  Life was good.

The End.  

That's sort of how it really was.  I remember looking at the website, after my first year of weekend lectures with Douglas, and deciding that I was going to do one of those five day sessions of summer camp study with him.  I was a little nervous.  Everyone else seemed to have been through Teacher Training together.  Everyone know everyone.  Except for me.  It was like grade school all over again.  What if nobody sat with me at lunch?  Also, how would I make up my mind whether to sign up for Hanuman or Kundalini? (Seriously, how does one make a choice like that?)

I signed up for both and didn't have to sit alone at lunch.

At some point that summer I had the realization that this was the real deal.  It actually took me that long.  For over twenty years I'd been searching for...I wasn't even sure what but for something and this was that something.  I hadn't even known for certain that it existed.  In fact, I'd actively doubted it and, yet, somehow I had been fortunate enough to find my way to the woods of Bristol. 

I've never looked back.  

First, we filled notebooks.  Then came the era of the i-pod.  We all bought microphones and began recording lectures.  The sound quality of those early recordings was awful.  Each recording preserved three or four hours of lecture as one long track, so if you lost your place as you were listening you'd have to start over.

It wasn't a super efficient system but that didn't stop us from eagerly collecting lectures as though they were bootleg live recordings of Grateful Dead shows.  "I'll trade you Ganapati for Hanuman...," went the private joke. 

I began to understand, to really understand, that in many ways, Douglas is the last in a line.  He had lived in his teacher's home, and had made a life's study of original Sanskrit texts.  There are notebooks upon notebooks filled with notes to himself in a combination of Sanskrit, Tamil and English.  Without his help, not one among us would be able to make sense of even one of those notebooks.  No matter how generously he teaches us, and the man is generous, we shall not learn everything he knows in this lifetime.

He is the last.

Then there's, well, us.  The tradition will live on through those who love it and through those who pass it down.  We are the hope of this tradition.  It will morph but live on.

Douglas insisted, and I dutifully repeated it to myself, that in a tradition that honors the creativity, efficiency, efficacy and resourcefulness of a consciousness that evolves itself, change is inevitable and not a problem.

And yet...

I developed an unquenchable thirst to preserve what I could, as much as I could.  In the jungle of Costa Rica, I carefully salvaged scraps of paper upon which he'd written down dharanas, or practices, for us.  I persistently held out microphones to record Appa stories told after dinner on curry night.  In ten years, I have never once deleted any email the man has ever written me.  I did, once, delete an email I sent to him on a subject about which I was not proud.  Just the one.

Friends began calling me the archivist.  They were poking fun, a little, but it was loving and true.  With Douglas traveling to teach almost every weekend, it gnawed at me that there wasn't a central archive that preserved the great body of teachings.  It, like, really gnawed at me.

I hatched all kinds of schemes to send recording equipment with Douglas in his travels but they've not panned out.

When longtime friend, Amy Ippoliti posted on Facebook earlier this week that Douglas would be in Colorado, speaking about The Ten Great Wisdom Goddesses, I felt a small pang.  "Oh, The Dashamahavidyas...," I thought.  "I love those teachings."

Douglas had given them exactly once before, in 2004.  I learned these goddesses sitting on the floor of the original Virayoga.  This particular teaching was evocative, and foundational for me, and I often reference it still, six years later, in my teaching. 

I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a wistful moment or two. 

I really wanted to be there.

Then, instead of crying over missed lectures, I remembered that, come February, we'll have Srividyalaya as a central sort of library.  Here, these profound, powerful and exquisite teachings shall be both given and archived.  Here, we will preserve the teachings and the tradition and carry them forward.

It is here, right here, through us, that the current of a lineage pools, turns and begins to flow in a new direction. 

Also, you better believe we are getting those goddesses on the official syllabus.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Little Navaratri Musing

It's kind of silly when Westerners try to be Easterners.  I mean, I'm a white chick from Connecticut.  I get that.  It doesn't for one minute prevent me from being entranced by Navaratri, though, which is an Indian festival that celebrates nine (nava) nights (ratri) of the goddess.  It didn't prevent me from getting fully decked out in a sari while I was in India, either.

It be a little silly but I'm not hurting anyone and I like goddesses and saris.

So there.

There are probably as many Navaratri traditions in India as there are deities (three hundred and thirty-three million at a minimum) so bear with me, okay?  These are my own brief musings and certainly not definitive.  Everything I know about these goddesses I've learned from Douglas, and he is the authority, but I've grouped them slightly differently than he normally does so be sure you catch one of his lectures on the subject. 

Navaratri began in the darkness of Friday's new moon. Those first three nights are dedicated to Kali (or Durga but for our purposes let's say Kali), who is always the darkness of potency and all that is possible.  Just as the dark night sky allows us to see by starlight, it is the darkness behind closed eyelids that empowers the yogin to discern a light that shines from within.

As yogins might liken Kali to an opening energy, for it is from within her infinite potency that the universe expands into every form that is possible.  I've already written about Kali here and here, so I'm not going to say more than that today.  
The middle three nights of Navaratri are devoted to Lakshmi, goddess of abundance.  Lakshmi is the the goddess who rises from a lotus flower in a red sari, and who spills from her palms an endless, flowing river of gold coins.  She signifies abundance, value and beneficence.

Although the festival lasts only nine days and doesn't actually fall over the full moon, I would liken Lakshmi to the full moon anyway.  Bear with me.  Lakshmi shines generously; it's what she does.  She doesn't keep a tally.  She's simply generous.  Without fail, she gives the best of herself.  She gives and gives and gives without ever being diminished.  It's her nature.

These final three nights are devoted to Sarasvati.  Saras means essence, or flow.  Sarasvati is the goddess who is the essence or flow.   It's no surprise, then, that she is a river goddess.

She is the one who sips from the inexhaustible resource of her own eternally flowing wellspring.  She is the one whose stream of consciousness bubbles up spontaneously from within.

Sarasvati is a goddess of refinement, of literature and poetry, and of mantra and japa (the repetition of mantra.)  In one hand she holds a mala of prayer beads which is none other than the very garland of letters of the sanskrit alphabet.  One who holds the alphabet in the palm her hand is the mistress of language.  She may wield the words of her own choosing.

She is a keeper of wisdom.  In her left hand she holds the book of sacred teachings known as The Veda.   Sometimes, at this time of year, books are placed upon the altar to be worshipped.

(Seriously, how can I not adore a culture that knows how to properly worship books?)

Artistic by nature, Sarasvati is also a muscian and holds a vina, which is a stinged instrument sort of like a lute.

(I have often mused that it's people who love music, and words, and the musicality of words, who are drawn to love this particular yoga of ours.  I mean, I haven't conducted an actual formal study, or anything, but I'm pretty sure I'm right.)

She is garbed in white and keeps a swan for a companion.  (The swan is significant.  Note to self:  write a post about that sometime soon.)

Clad in white, she shimmers like moonlight upon the surface of night water.  As such, she is the goddess who reflects upon her own deep waters, and recognizes herself as a revelation, and thus she is the patron of the arts.  What is art but an offering of inspiration and deep recognition that arises from self-reflection?

As the goddess of artistic refinement, I'm going to liken her to the waning moon, which pares and whittles itself away during the second half of the month.  The artistic editorial process belongs to her.  She prunes back everything that's unnecessary, leaving only what is essential.

She is the essential self that seeks infinite expression but has cultivated technique and skill enough to know that great art doesn't happen any old way but must happen in a certain way. She contracts to create something that is ultimately more because it is less.

The point is not to be rigid, though.  These goddesses mean to give us glimpses of insight into ourselves and so, when we know how to do it skillfully, we may move them around the board to suit ourselves.  Dogma is anethma.

So, Happy Navaratri.  Celebrate however you like.  If you want to wrap yourself in a sari, stack gold bangles up your arms and light lamps in the dark then your secret is safe with me, even if you live in Connecticut.

I'm certainly not going to tell.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lunch Upon A Time...

I've always been a sucker for a good story.

More than anything, it was the legends and lore of yoga that originally lured me in.  I wanted to know everything about the unfamiliar, multiple-armed gods and goddesses who lived on mountain peaks or in forests.  That feels like a long time ago.

Somewhere along the way I became a teller of these stories.  It's possible that teaching is actually an excuse to tell stories.  I love that moment where there's a natural pause, and a hushed anticipation, when I look around the room and smile, and everyone leans a bit forward, eager to know happens and what it means. 

I can't tell you how many times I've been pulled aside after class , and asked to recommend a good book.  I always say, sadly, "well, you can find most of these stories online just by googling but the thing I think you're really asking for is the book that offers the tantric interpretations and that doesn't exist.  It hasn't been written yet." 

Now, I'm no Douglas (that would be like comparing a 40 watt bulb to, like, um, the sun) but I'm going to take a crack at this Ganesha story anyway. With Ganesha on the upcoming SV course catalogue I must have him on the brain, or something.

Once upon a time...

(as I heard it)

...lived a Yakshasa king named Kubera.  Yakshasas are semi-divine types who are sometimes associated with nature but who may also have a demonic side.  This particular one, Kubera, was a particularly nasty, greedy specimen.  He had an insatiable lust for avarice and acquisition.

It's no stretch that Kubera became the wealthiest of the Yakshasas.  He enjoyed the finest things.  He lived in a palace with seemingly endless treasure houses brimming with gold and with jewels.  He was the proud owner of the pushpaka, which was a flying machine that was sort of like an airplane.  Consider it a prototype, if you like.  This particular airplane required the ashes of three burned forests in order to fly for even a second.  Cavalier and destructive, it suited Kubera just fine; he wasn't particularly concerned about being green.

In his obsessive quest to possess things he was even rumored to have devoured people.   I can neither confirm not deny this as I wasn't there.  The thing was, and there's always a thing, no amount of acquisition ever really satisfied Kubera.  No sooner did he obtain one thing for his collection than he wanted something else.  Sound like anyone you know?

The only thing he had failed to acquire, and so the one thing he desired above all others, was Parvati, the mountain goddess and wife of Siva.

He cluttered up Parvati's inbox with email after email inviting her to his palace for "lunch."  If he could only get her to accept his invitation, she would certainly be seduced by his great wealth and leave Siva, who didn't keep her in nearly the fashion that a princess such as Parvati would enjoy, right?  What could an unconventional, edgy, dreadlocked mendicant like Siva provide?  Surely, she would have only to see Kubera's palace to come to her senses.

Like, duh, right?

The problem with his plan was that Siva and Parvati were always making love.  Seriously, they'd be at it for eons at a time.  At this rate, Parvati would never check her email!  Kubera would have to deliver his invitation in person.  When he arrived at Mt. Kailash, Parvati and Siva were tangled in each other's arms and instructed their son, Ganesha, to answer the knock at the door.

(Where else would we find Ganesha but in the doorway, standing on the threshold of experience, right?)

"Your invitation to lunch has been accepted..." Ganesha announced.

Kubera could hardly believe his good luck.

" me", concluded the immortal with the head of an elephant, the body of a boy and a very, very big belly. 

This was not at all what Kubera had in mind but what can you do except politely smile when an elephant-headed deity decides to accompany you home for lunch?

Fast forward to the lunch table, which was as long as a barn and piled high with every kind of delicacy you can dream of, sort of like in the first Harry Potter movie.  (Kubera, naturally, had the entire box set of Harry Potter DVDs in his palace movie theater.)

The meal began.  Ganesha swallowed down everything on his plate and asked for seconds and then thirds.  He was insatiable.  With his trunk, he tipped down his gullet every serving bowl that was brought.  He devoured the contents of the palace kitchen, everything in the larder, in the cabinets and in the Sub-Zero.  Then, in a frenzy, the golden goblets and plates and the pots and the pans and the table and still he demanded more.   He could not be sated.

In a dismayed attempt to signal that the meal was over, Kubera offered a tour of his treasure chambers.  Bad move; you see where this is going, right?  In the blink of an eye, Ganesha swallowed down every chest in the treasury, all the gold and all the jewels.  He even ate Kubera's new MacBook Pro, which Kubera thought was really going too far.  With nothing left to eat, Ganesha cagily and hungrily began to eye Kubera.

He licked his chops.

Kubera turned on his heel and ran for his life.

He jumped aboard his fancy, forest-guzzling flying machine and set the navigation for Mt. Kailash (to do this he had only to think it,) in hopes that Siva and Parvati would call down Ganesha, soothe him, and convince him to stop eating everything in sight.  Just as he was making his escape, though, Ganesha in 007 fashion pursuit, reached up with his trunk, grabbed hold, and went along for the ride.

Kubera appealed to Parvati, who disappeared into the kitchen and returned carrying a bowl of simple rice pudding that she'd made with her own hands.

"Feed it to him lovingly," she instructed. 

He did exactly that and, finally, Ganesha was satiated. 

Remember, now, that your job as listener is to be every character in the story--not simply Ganesha, but Siva, Parvati, and, yes, even Kubera, too.

I don't see this story as a warning against the evils of a material world.  I'm a tantrika so I don't think the material world is evil or problematic.  I would far rather enjoy it than repudiate it.

I think this story wants us to endeavor to know the true value of things.  I feel sorry for Kubera.  I know he's a greedy, rapacious, irresponsible, Hummer-driving schmuck but that's what happens when we get so disconnected from what genuinely nurtures our soul that we wouldn't recognize it if it knocked on our door and invited us to lunch.

The demonic always stands for disconnection, whether deliberate or unintentional.  While we can never truly be disconnected from the universe, so long as we're living inside it (and where else could we go?) we can still act, and feel, as though we are.  We can, through this feeling of disconnection, treat the world, and even other people, as though it's all just fodder for consumption.

It's very unlikely, though, that living in this way can ever deeply satisfy.

Ganesha acts as a mirror for Kubera, and for each of us, to remind us to enjoy life's riches and not to be confused about what really feeds our soul. 

So, what is it that genuinely satisfies your soul?

If you are a yogin then you endeavor to know.