Monthly Archives: October 2011

How to Make a Mountain

It’s that time of year again. Today is Govardhan Puja, when we remember Sri Krishna’s incredible lifting of a sacred mountain in Vrindavan. In the Vaishnava calendar there are so many festivals and as the years go by they stack on top of one another like layers of sediment. I imagine my life so far as a rock – each layer a testament to the moments that I spent thinking about Krishna – the thick, densely packed areas,  or not – those are the crumbling parts.

I can remember so many distinct Govardhan pujas – many spent in the soggy English October, inside a white marquee, huddling in front of blow heaters while we listened to narrations of the amazing story. As children one of our favourite parts of the day was the creation of ‘the hill’. This is a giant mound of sweets, dressed to mimic Govardhan Hill – usually complete with ponds of honey, boulders made of milk sweets and bright green shredded coconut for grass. The hill would be covered with plastic animals – deer, birds and lots of cows. After everyone had performed the puja of walking around the hill three times, the sweets would start to be handed out, and along with them, the plastic animals. My toy cupboards at home were full of the most prized- the cows. My small herd grew each year, and I would eagerly look forward to each year’s festival, when I would wait with hands outstretched as a priest plucked animals off the mound and dropped them into the reaching palms of all the kids.

So why build a hill of sweets? It’s definitely fun, but deeper than that, it’s just one way to remember the miraculous activities of Krishna, and help our love for him to grow. It’s also a beautiful way to celebrate Govardhan Hill, also known as Giriraj – the king of mountains. In Krishna’s world, everyone has personality – nothing is just stone, or just a tree. Everything is full of life, full of love, full of desire to serve. Giriraj is considered to be one of the greatest servants of Krishna, since he limitlessly gives the bounty of his forests, waterfalls, minerals and more to the villagers of Vrindavan.

Last year I spent Govardhan Puja in Vrindavan, where it is extra special, since the real Govardhan Hill is only miles away. In the central courtyard of the Krishna Balaram temple, I stood on a raised platform with six other girls, scooping handfuls of scorching, fragrant halava and pressing them onto the plastic covered frame of the hill. Our hands quickly became tender, burnt by the steam, and we slid about as the hot ghee oozed from the mound around our feet. In the meantime, raucous, joyful kirtan thundered away. The following week, I was staying at the foot of Govardhan itself. It was one of the most sacred, deep experiences of my life. Each day I would wake and watch the sun light pass over the rocky face of the hill, and after a day absorbed in chanting and hearing about Krishna, I would sit in a small grove of trees and listen to the night songs of the crickets. I never believed I would really feel that a hill was a person, but after seven days, I felt his deep presence, blessing all who came near him to pray.

At the end of my time there, I built a tiny house of stones. Some people do this to pray to Giriraj for a safe, happy home to live in, but I prayed that however long it took, I may one day live there in that sacred place. These days I stay in Manhattan on the 21st floor. Outside my windows the tops of towering buildings remind me of his ridges and peaks, and I realise that whether here or there, his blessings are near.

 

 

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Symphony.

I am writing without really knowing why. Sometimes writing is motivated by a new understanding, a ‘realisation’. But what realisation do I have? You can realise something, as in understand it, but surely to truly realise something means to ‘bring it into reality’, to live it. So to truly have a realisation means to understand something and then apply it every day.

So what have I realised lately? In small ways, like gathering scraps and snippets and threads, I have begun to understand that the things I thought were important – security, companionship, money – are not as important as they seem. Sometimes it seems like we are all living a great misunderstanding. We need so little, and the smallest things are the greatest treasures. To sing, to love, to dance. To smile as we fall asleep and as we wake. We can choose to do these things, or choose not to.

I have begun to glimpse that life is like a symphony of beauty and pain in equal measures. The music plays on, and each of us must decide how to play. We can choose to play with grace and humility. We can choose to play in such a way as to always push ourselves beyond our perceived limits. We can choose that if we trip up on a few notes, we smile and play on, no problem. We can choose to look up from the safety of our sheet music at the conductor, and feel safety and guidance in the movement of his hands. We can choose to play alone, and sometimes that is how the music is supposed to go. But at other times we are surrounded by a full orchestra, and we can feel the joy of harmony, the thrill of delicious syncopation.

Or if we are feeling insecure, we can watch the hands and faces of our fellow musicians and feel strength in togetherness. We can sing a painful song together. Or we can even fall silent. In times when our voices will not sing and our hands will not play, we can just listen to the music that washes within and without, steady like a timeless tide.

This beautiful lino cut was recently created by one of my old teachers, Nicola Barsaleau, a true inspiration.

 

 

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Got Soul?

I went to a talk today at the Lincoln Center called Soul Music – a discussion on the nature of the soul, and how it relates to the experience of music. What makes music soulful, and what transforms an ‘ordinary’ musical experience into something transcendent?

The panelists were mostly unknown to me – a well known archaeologist -Alison Brooks, and a philosopher – David Chalmers. The one I did know was Philip Glass, whose career as a composer has been quite prolific and varied.

The talk began with a performance of shape note singing by a group called Sacred Harp. I had never heard of it before, and was surprised twice – when my first reaction to the sound was not so positive – there was an earthiness, a very human imperfection in their harmonies and exuberance which felt somehow jarring for a moment. Then all of a sudden the sound hit my heart and tears sprang to my eyes. It was quite powerfully beautiful. The songs they sang were composed in the 17th and 18th centuries by American Christian settlers and were designed to be sung by everyone in a congregation, whether musically literate or not – hence the term ‘shape note’ – the notation was written in shapes like squares and triangles instead of in the more traditional way,to make it all the more easy for anyone to read the music by sight. Listening, I suddenly got goosebumps all over – there was such joy and devotion in their song, and their harmonies were unusual and almost otherwordly. Here’s an example.

There is just something so deeply moving about unaccompanied voices. In that moment the body is used an instrument, literally and figuratively, and when done in community, I think it has the power to change the world, from the inside, out. I could see this yesterday during the monthly 6 hour kirtan at the Bhakti Center. Such a diversity of people came – it was incredible. At one point I was dancing and noticed a young woman who had just come in mouth incredulously to her friend, ‘Everyone looks so happy!’ She nodded, amazed. It’s true, we were. Though we all have a myriad of trialling circumstances to return to when it’s all over, kirtan, sacred call and response singing, connects us deeply with one another and with a timeless divinity that brings a feeling of profound happiness. The leader of the Sacred Harp group today said something beautiful about the spirituality of their music, that the singing is ‘communal property – people are drawn to it because the sound of these voices together is not ours, just as our soul is not ours.’

So it was quite interesting to hear the panelists grappling with the deeper philosophy behind why we feel this way. Of course for me, coming from a spiritual tradition that can totally explain the nature of the soul and the context that it sits within, it is always fascinating to hear others working over the discussion. Each of them stated that they had little insight into it, but attempted to examine it from different angles. Philip Glass talked about his experience of composing, being totally mysterious. He said that he can never actually remember composing anything, and feels the sense of ‘a witness’ who watches and remembers what he does, who takes over in those moments, leaving him unable to explain why he created in the way he did. It sounds to me like ‘Paramatma’ the divine within who witnesses our every moment, but of course it can be justified in many ways.

So much to write about on this topic – so much to explore! For now, here’s a logo I’ve been designing for the newly founded Call and Response Foundation – set up to bring kirtan and creative communal experiences into schools, prisons, hospitals and more. It’s a work in progress.

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River Devi

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Your broad face
ribbed with waves
silently watching
absorbing
we forget to bow to you
O devi of the city
jogging past your body
admiring your beauty
feeding you our daily remains.
We forget to pray.
No flowers sit atop the zig zags
carved by tourist boats at dusk.
You reach your fingers beneath the gum covered concrete
touching iron and earth and forgotten prayers
buried deep
below
the
rumbling
office
blocks

O devi, forgive us as we tut and call you dirty.
Your wide banks reflect the span of your compassion.

Tonight at sunset,
you sing a quiet song
as the trees around you sleep
you sing of your far away sisters
of sandy banks
where blessed feet stand
offering evening prayers.

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Live in Love.

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Sometimes I feel like such a classic preacher’s daughter. I saw this ad in the street and instantly started pontificating in my mind. ‘Be quiet!,’ the other, humbler side of me hissed. ‘You don’t have to give a running commentary on everything.’ But – it’s too hard to resist. So forgive me.

This reminded me of how much we all want love. We want it so much that we drive ourselves crazy, filling life with things that like a bad boyfriend, promise so much and deliver so little. Whether the sugar that we crave in search of real sweetness, or the the things we buy to attract more love, more beauty, more security. I know I’m not saying anything new. When the Beatles sang ‘Money can’t buy me love,’ the whole world nodded (and sang) along. I know it, so why does real love still seem so elusive?

The missing piece is service. In almost every spiritual tradition this conclusion is defined – to love another truly is to serve, expecting nothing in return.

It’s been a powerful realisation for me lately. I have been blessed to receive appreciation and admiration from so many, but it doesn’t satisfy my heart unless I feel that I am sincerely trying to serve others. Easy to say, hard to remember.

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Lady of the Lake

After the Kirtan festival ended I got to stay an extra day at Ananda ashram. I grabbed the opportunity for some extra lake time. To sit, to chant, to think, to play violin, to sail across – there’s nothing like a good lake!

Every time I come to one, all my lake memories float up – fishing for tadpoles after school at Bhaktivedanta Manor; skimming flat stones across Bala Lake in north Wales as bats screeched overhead; swimming in lily filled Canadian ones on the Krishna youth summer tour; early morning talks with dear friends before the water, blanketed with summer mist in upstate NY.

The one here took me back to Vrindavan – to Govinda Kund, the sacred lake where Sri Gopal would visit Madhavendra Puri, a great saint. Acting like a normal village boy, he would bring him nourishing pots of milk, saying ‘No one goes hungry in my village!’ It’s a story I have always loved – so sweetly illustrating Krishna’s loving kindness and totally personal care.

I experience that care every day. Somehow no matter how confused I get about whether I’m doing the right thing in the right way, I continue to learn and be blessed. I spoke to a new friend about this today who shared with me that she has learned to appreciate those blessings especially which come in the form of the hardest life lessons – those which strip you from your husk and mash you, because as she put it – ‘You are worthy – you are meant for something great so your struggles must be great. Krishna only sends you what he knows you can handle.’ Knowing the life she’s had, it was humbling to hear and I can only hope that I can reach a similar point of gravity and gratitude as I traverse my own path.

This is my new lake meditation.

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Ananda in Autumn

Summer reappeared here at Ananda Ashram in upstate NY. I can smell fresh cut grass and the crickets are basking in the early evening sunshine. Scarlet and gold trees transform the forest and create incredible impressionist designs on the surface of the lake.

We’re up here for the first ever Kirtan festival at this well known spiritual centre. My parent’s guru, Srila Prabhupada stayed here when he first came to the west, and I feel his presence here. It’s been a great way to reflect on how his actions have given me life, and how I hope to share those gifts, as sincerely as possible.

Today I led my own ‘slot’ for the first time at a festival like this. I was sort of strong armed into it. A few years ago I was too shy to even sing in front of my parents, let alone in a microphone, but today I found myself surrounded by the sweetest group of devotional musicians, all helping me to make this offering. I was scared but it was fun. We made up a little arrangement for the bhajan – Sri Kevalashtakam, just before we began. Richard Davis, a film scoring professor from Berklee college played banjo as we sang the chorus – harer nama eva kevalam – there is nothing else but the name of Hari.

These kind of festivals can be simultaneously energizing and exhausting, but it’s always encouraging to see more and more faces of people who lead other wise ‘normal lives’, blissfully singing sacred mantras at the top of their lungs. This, and so many other events make up small pieces of the big picture – the mantra revolution that is catching fire like dry grass under a magnifying glass.

Over the weekend I’ve met artists and musicians, psychotherapists and lawyers, hippies and straight-laced housewives – all drawn to this joyful practice from an understanding that there is more to life than possessions, status and career.

I could go on and on, but blogging by iPhone encourages you to keep it short. God bless you Mr Jobs – Hare Krishna!

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