Who’s your guru?

In my last post I wrote that nothing is all that different about life as a Hindu. But that’s not entirely true. Yes, I have early morning devotions (I read some where that devotions at sunrise were customary). At their core they are not all that different from what I’ve done in the past. There a few other minor things that are different. My altar is different. I don’t let my son touch anything on the altar if he hasn’t washed his face and hands (low level purification standards, but very taxing for a three year old).

One outward thing that has changed is my diet. I’ve been wrestling with whether or not to adopt a vegetarian diet while practicing Hinduism. I have given up eating beef, as the cow is sacred. The cow is a giver of life, providing milk for its young and for humans. As a nursing mother, I can relate! I feel like honoring the cow is honoring the work I am currently doing as a mother of an infant. But what of other forms of meat? And what about other dietary restrictions?

I’ve read that vegetarianism varies in India depending on location and culture. But all the literature I’ve read insists that a yogi/ni or serious spiritual practitioner cannot eat meat and expect to progress on the path to enlightenment. Various Ayurvedic sites suggest giving up this or that (like garlic and onions) according to whether a person is one dosha type or another (vatta, kapha, pitha). Alcohol is often considered a no-no. Some sources for tantra yoga say that meat and wine are acceptable in ritual meals. What’s more confusing is that some gurus expect this and other don’t. But I don’t have a guru. After all, as a friend pointed out last week, this is my own ashram. Therefore, I am my own guru.

That’s an interesting point. Many years ago I used to joke that I was going to baptize myself. Now I’m building my own ashram. Oh Niki, forever doing it on your own! And yet – if I am not my own guru, if I don’t internalize and take ownership of my own spiritual core, no external guru’s wisdom will ever take root within.

But how do I find a guru? In Wales? There is a Hare Krishna community nearby, and while I hope to check it out in the next few months, I have no desire to be dedicated to Krishna. I’m more of a Shakta I’m discovering. Do I really need a guru?

Until recently I didn’t realize that yoga, and many paths of Hinduism, was an initiatory tradition. The guru passes his or her ‘spiritual energy’ to the practitioner through touch, a glance, a word, and sometimes even via distance. This is known as shaktipat. I think most Western yoga enthusiasts just think we follow our favorite yoga teacher to retreats and that’s that. Without the ‘activation’ of a guru, mantras, even Om, are worthless. Reading online I found a couple of discussion boards with people suggesting that we just need to cultivate the guru within. I have several thoughts about this.

Firstly, I think this is true. We do need to cultivate our inner guru. Off the top of my head I can think of many qualities that I would like a guru to have: discernment, brutal honesty, patience, humor, skill, knowledge, wisdom, love and that…. that intangible something that when you meet a wise person you walk away thinking ‘Wow! I want what they’ve got!’ Those are all qualities I’d like to develop in myself.

Secondly, I think a guru is important for beginners. Being our own guru is advanced work. I liken it to writing music: you can’t break the tonal rules if you don’t know what they are! If ‘rules’ is too much of an authoritarian word for you (it is for me), then thinking of the guru as a trusted, honored guide may help. We want some one who has traveled the path, can alert us to possible pitfalls and obstacles, help us through those troubling spots and share the wisdom of the journey.

Thirdly, gurus are a big part of the greater Hindu tradition. This highlights my previous questions: do I need a guru (yes) and where do I find one (I have no idea). Since I’m only doing this for three months it seems a little silly to hunt one down. Many traditions, yoga included, have some form of the aphorism ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear.’ Perhaps I shall find a guide for my journey this summer. Perhaps I won’t. But I do know that one would be welcome and helpful.

For the time being I shall continue to develop my own inner guru. And I’ll also go vegetarian. I think to fall back on the ‘some gurus don’t require it’ is lazy, and I’m already struggling with laziness in other ways. I admit I don’t want to be vegetarian. I’ve been veggie before, but I don’t wanna be one now, I pout. So until a guru tells me otherwise vegetarian I will be.

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Theory vs Practice

When it comes to religion and/or spirituality (take your pick) I’ve been struggling between theory and practice. These two poles seem to exist as twinned but opposite towers. One is removed and cerebral (theory), the other messy and personal (practice). Both are informative and educational in their own ways. In the best of all possible worlds, a person is informed of their tradition, perhaps informed of others’ traditions too, but also experiencing what they talk about and connected into something larger than themselves.

For too long I’ve privileged theory over practice. For me, it’s been the safe route and the path to a couple of degrees. I love the theory; I love the knowledge I’ve gained about the rich and bizarre world of religions. But practice is scarier. I’ve long kept my practice to myself. Practice involves commitment. It allows space for disappointment, embarrassment, perhaps even ridicule. But by keeping it to myself I lose out on community, depth of understanding, experience of and relationship with the Divine.

I’m hoping to break this pattern of duality between theory and practice. By diving into practice I am going beyond my theoretical knowledge of my chosen traditions. I’m going to find out how the practice feels. How does it affect my perception of the world, the Divine, myself?

I admit that it feels rather…foolish, fake, silly, to think of myself as Hindu. I know that Hinduism isn’t just about being South Asian, though it is the main religion of India. Hinduism considers itself, like all major religions do, a source of universal wisdom. But unlike the Western world’s big three (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) Hinduism is far more flexible about truth, gods, and belief. One can fold in much that is not explicitly Hindu or Indian. But still. I’m as Western world, white British Isles descended as they come.

Which raises another interesting point for me. All the traditions I’ve been engaged with, with the exception of Judaism (which I’ve never practiced, but worked for several years in the larger Jewish world), have been focused on the mystical, more inwardly turned aspects of those traditions. To see me on the street is to see just any other average white Westerner. You cannot identify my faith or practice by anything external.

I respect those who wear their religion openly. I’m thinking of Orthodox Jews, whether it’s the beards or hats or the large amounts of black or the women’s skirts and all around look. I’m thinking of Muslim women and the many ways they cover their heads. I’m thinking of Sikhs with their turbans. Every day they leave the house and people can identify their faith. Sure, Christians might wear a cross around their neck, but that’s much more subtle (most of the time) and easy to miss. I notice that I’ve not chosen any tradition that requires me to look any different than I normally do. Unless some one reads this blog or asks me what I’m up to these days, there’s no way to know that anything is different with me.

So far I don’t think there is anything discernably different about my life, other than my morning devotions.

A Hindu. A yogini. For now, that’s me.

Day the first

4.55 AMĀ  – The alarm sounds.

I struggle to open my eyes. It wasn’t the best night of sleep and I’d finally settled into a comfortable position. But I’m excited and I get out of bed. The baby doesn’t stir. I put on a clean white shirt, comfortable trousers. Yoga ideally starts with cleansing, so I use the toilet, wash my hands and face, brush my teeth. Down stairs I go.

I enter the dining room/my study/altar room and begin cleaning it up. I move the baby gym to the living room. I sweep. I clean a few little finger prints from the glass doors. I unroll the yoga mat. Gather my supplies. Clip some herbs from the pots on the back porch and cut off a rose bud from the rose bush.

I stand before the altar and recite a prayer I found, supposedly one recited before schooling commences. It’s a prayer I make for this project, in general:

Let the studies that we together undertake be effulgent;

Let there be no animosity amongst us;

Om Shanti shanti shanti (peace, peace, peace)

Then I light the votive candle, praying:

From ignorance, lead me to truth

From darkness, lead me to light

From death, lead me to immortality

Om Shanti shanti shanti

I light incense, offer a cup of water and on a red glass plate I place the herbs and rose. I chant something I’m not sure I’m pronouncing correctly – Om Kalikayai Namah. Then I begin doing yoga postures. I am stiff. I begin with sun salutations and proceed to warrior poses. My right hand has been sore lately so I’m conscious of the tenderness.

Just as I move to seated poses the baby cries. It’s 5.33. I go upstairs and nurse the baby. She horks mightily all over me. We both require a full change of clothes. I put the baby back to sleep and go back downstairs. I do a few more poses and then fold into sitting meditation.

I decide just to breathe. I’ve learned a few different meditation techniques over the years, never mastering any of them. I decide to go back to basics. Thoughts arise…. am I doing this right? Thoughts settle….. I breathe….. the baby wakes again.

I bow and head upstairs. Hey, I’ve figured out what we’re going to have for dinner.

The ashram opens

You may be wondering what this blog is all about. Do I really have an ashram? It’s called a ‘spiritual field guide’ – where are you going? The answers, in order, are: No, but maybe? And, I don’t know. This blog is the outer face of a personal project I’ll be starting on 21 June, 2011. My goals are to see just what my own ashram might look like, to explore the spiritual traditions that have informed me thus far in my life, and to see what my internal and personal spiritual shape looks like this time next year.

Earlier this year I gave birth to my second child. I was blindsided by just how much more difficult it is to parent two kids, rather than just one. In addition to parenting I am also a PhD student in theology. I’m supposed to be reading and writing for my dissertation. I thought surely I would be able to do some work – after all a new baby mostly just eats and sleeps. However, I had forgotten to factor in that first child, or take into consideration that just as having my first child changed me in ways I had not expected, my second child might do the same. I find I am currently uninterested in my academic topic (feminist Virgin Mary stuff and co/redemption). However, I want to continue to use the skills and knowledge I’ve gained over the years, as well as get more involved in what I see as a burgeoning and maturing online community of seekers and minority religious/spiritual practitioners. At the same time, I miss my daily spiritual practice. How do I weave this all together?

For the last two months I’ve been working with Karina B Heart, a spiritual teacher and life coach, to help me get back on track, in hope that outside feedback might provide some clarity that is often hard to find when I’m neck deep in laundry and children. During one of our calls I said that I missed the quiet and flexibility that the child-free life provided for my old spiritual practice. I can’t just run off to a yoga retreat or an ashram or a convent now. ‘Well,’ Karina said, ‘what would your own ashram look like?’ A simple question that hit me like a ton of bricks. What would my own ashram look like?

So that’s what I’m going to find out. Inspired by Andrew Bowen at Project Conversion, a man who is diving into twelve major religions, one for each month of the year, in order to promote religious tolerance, I decided to do something similar. I am going to take the traditions that have informed my spiritual views and practices and dive into them for the next 12 months, 3 months each.

First up, yoga. Before the birth of my first child three years ago I was doing 60-90 minutes of yoga and meditation every morning. At 7 months pregnant I went on a yoga retreat. I’ve even contemplated getting certified as a yoga instructor. I love yoga. Now, that’s mostly hatha yoga I’m talking about, the physical branch of yoga that people recognize from their gym or studio or workout videos. But there’s so much more to yoga. I’ve slowly been getting to know the tantric, ecstatic branches of yoga, which also leads me to the colorful and vibrant Hindu tradition. So that’s what I’m going to start with: tantric Hinduism. I’m going to live like I’m a Hindu yogini for the next three months. What does this look like? What will this mean for my daily life? For my family? I don’t know, and I hope you’ll come along with me and find out as it unfolds.

From the end of September to nearly Christmas I’ll be diving into the Feri tradition. The Anderson Feri tradition is an American-grown form of witchcraft that I’ve been involved with for the last five years. I’m not an initiate, but again, I’m going to be living as if to the best of my ability.

From Christmas through the end of March I’ll be back living as a Christian. For 20 years I identified more or less as a Christian. For eight of those years I worshiped with the Orthodox Chrurch (when I did actually go to church). What will it be like to go back to a tradition I thought I had made my peace with by saying goodbye? Will I make it through Lent? I don’t know, but we’ll find out.

From right around Easter until this time next year I’ll be exploring Place. I grew up in South East Alaska and the people there are fiercely in love with their land. Juneau, Alaska, and it’s environs are still the home of my heart. A sense of place is something I’ve taken with me wherever I’ve lived. Right now I live in rural Wales, a truly beautiful, magical place, rich in mythology and history, with a strong identity of its own. What will I learn about this place?

My goals for this blog are: *to establish a place to track my growth, practice and insights *by writing publicly to keep myself accountable to the practice *and to contribute to the online community and discussion of like-minded seekers.

I hope you’ll join me on my journey.