Of all the ways to study Siddha Yoga, I've always loved listening to Gurumayi's talks the most. I bought each one on CD or video as soon as it was available, and listened to it over and over again with rapt attention. It got to be that I had so memorized the rhythm and cadence of her speech, so internalized the darkly lush intonations of her voice, the plum-like fullness of her syllables, the exquisite clarity of her enunciation and, of course, the warm springs of her laughter that I could hear her reciting her talks even when I'd read them in books.
When the tradition of the annual Siddha Yoga message was established, what had been a glorious, overgrown profusion of Gurumayi's talks each year was tamed into a single coherent focus of study. Most years I made the pilgrimage to South Fallsburg to listen to the New Year's Message at her feet. And over the years I began to develop a curious ability. I knew that there would be a delay of at least two months before the recorded version of the talk would be available and, not wanting to miss practicing the full import of the message during those important first weeks of the year, I found a way to memorize whole passages of the talk. It didn't involve note-taking, a practice which I discovered early on divided my attention and reduced the talk to discrete fragments of whatever seemed important in the moment, leaving large gaps and destroying the coherence of the message.
Instead, I would sit comfortably and pay extremely close attention to every word, not allowing my attention to wander for even a moment to think about what Gurumayi had just said, but rather let her words sink into me like water running into a bed of hot sand. It didn't matter that the words would vanish from my short term memory almost as quickly as she spoke them. If I listened in this way and allowed the message to permeate me, then there was a good chance I could race away the moment the talk was over and write most of it down in my journal. In this way, I was able to capture whole segments of the talk, and even direct quotes of the points Gurumayi had stressed through repetition or particular emphasis. Nowadays I look on this ability as something of a parlor trick, but at the time I was proud of it, and when I'd gather with friends afterwards at amrit to compare mental notes on what Gurumayi had said and exactly how she said it, I was happy to be able to remember so much, in so much detail.
I approached this New Year's Message broadcast in the same way, hoping to recapture the same depth of attention and focus and retention. Consider this my experience talk of that effort.
My concentration was tested from the start when the broadcast began with the MC, Navritti Gillet, introducing himself as "a long term retreat participant" at South Fallsburg. Full disclosure; I've always disliked Navritti Gillet. He's never done anything to me; I've never even had a private conversation with the man, but he has always struck me as unctuous and transparently false. His voice has the self-satisfied tone of someone who has spent a great deal of time listening to himself speak, and is in love with what he's heard. But, it was that term: "long term retreat participant" that set my teeth on edge. Really? Are we really still talking about So Fallsburg in this way? What retreat is going on there?
OK, breathe. Shake it off. It isn't him you've come to hear, I reminded myself. Banish the image of his absurd little moustache from your mind and concentrate on the message that is coming. After all, you've waited so long for this. You're expecting so much. There are so many questions you have that you're certain will be answered. You're going to hear Gurumayi!
And, I remembered, I did have such high hopes for this talk. I felt sure that the Guru who had admonished us over and again "Never break another human heart, because it is in the heart that God dwells" would surely have something to say to those whose hearts have been broken after four years without any word from their Beloved. The teacher who had stressed that the ashram is the extended body of the Guru, and who had once asked everyone in the worldwide sangham to write an essay about what the ashram meant to them, would doubtless speak about the state of our beloved South Fallsburg ashram and the plans for its future. The Disciple who had shared so much of her own sadhana to illustrate the teachings would certainly have something to say about her experiences of the last four years, and how they have colored and shaped her understanding of the Truth.
And then Navritti was introducing the speaker by saying that "Our teacher today for the New Year's Message will be none other than our beloved Guru, Gurumayi!" I wished then that I hadn't read the comment from the devotee in Australia who had spilled the beans on the "sweet surprise" on New Year's eve (already New Year's Day down under). I imagined the wave of excitement that must have swept across the globe when the introductory mantras began and it was Gurumayi's unmistakable voice leading the chant. And then:
With great respect and love, I welcome you all with all my heart.
Hearing her pronounce those words, something felt...missing. Perhaps, I told myself, it's just that I'm not in the hall seeing her, truly being with her. But it wasn't that. I've heard Gurumayi's voice over broadcasts, both live and taped, many times before but it was always with the awareness that she was speaking in a hall filled with people. You could hear the rustling and coughing and laughing of the devotees fortunate enough to be there with her, and it helped to crystallize the scene. This always left me with a sense of longing and envy and even with the delicious feeling of eavesdropping on history in the making. But her voice now was shrouded by a mysterious silence. I had the uncomfortable sense that she was alone and speaking into a telephone line that communicated only one way.
My unease only increased when Gurumayi wished everyone a happy new year, by saying:"You've all come together in your satasang halls to hear the "sweet surprise"! So, please take a minute to wish each other a happy new year, and if you happen to be by yourself, wish yourself a very happy new year." She lifted her voice to emphasize the second syllable of 'surprise' in a way that made the word sound like baby-talk, and then the music began-- a jaunty up and down melody like the one on that game show Jeopardy, that is meant to count down a short passage of time.
When the music ended a gong sounded three or four times to signal us to return to our seats. Gurumayi then explained "when you hear the gong, it means the sharing session is complete. Everytime you hear the gong it means we are wrapping up a session of the satsang." This was so unnecessary and forced that it threw the rhythm off and only underscored the fact that we weren't in contact with her, no one was in contact with her, she was delivering the message into a sound-proof booth.
But, I reminded myself, haven't we been conditioned in SY to things changing all the time? Isn't that part of the practice of sadhana, doesn't it help us to let go of preconditioned ideas and be in the moment? I refocused on Gurumayi's words just as she was beginning to tell a story....
"Once upon a time there lived a great being. He was a great Guru. He had attained liberation. He was well known for his divine ability to give shaktipat, the awakening of kundalini shakti. In our time it was he who made shaktipat known to the whole world. HIs name was Swami Muktananda. We called him Baba. He was born in 1908 and now 100 years later in 2008 we are celebrating Baba's 100th birthday. 100 years! Happy birthday Baba! Do you want to wish him happy birthday? Go ahead! Happy birthday Baba!"
Gurumayi began to repeat her happy birthday salutations in Hindi as I somewhat nervously wondered if we were all supposed to join in. But before anyone could, Gurumayi continued:
"Without the number one, zeroes add up to nothing, Baba would say. Everything is zero, indicating it is meaningless, without...without what exactly?"
Suddenly a sweep of musical chimes, like the one used to signify pixie dust being sprinkled in the telling of fairy tales, marked the beginning of a story. Gurumayi then told the tale of the ten pilgrims who were crossing a river. When they made it to the other side they counted up to be sure no one was missing. But to their horror there were only nine of them! The story continued as one after another seeker completed the count and found only nine, until they all were weeping. A farmer heard them, asked what was wrong and then suggested they count again. In the middle of the recount he stopped them and suggested they they begin the count with themselves. Lo an behold there were ten of them after all! Each had forgotten to count himself!
Gurumayi continued by saying that Baba would tell this story to illustrate that without the number one, everything is zero. "What do you habitually leave out of account when you take stock of your own world? Your own self, your own consciousness. That is the one that must be added to all the zeros, the one of the Self. That gives life its rasa."
Again, for me, something wasn't quite right. I soon realized what it was. In the past when I would listen to Gurumayi's recorded talks over and over there were always passages that I inevitably began to skip over. These were almost always the stories. After repeated listenings the stories always seemed drawn out, way too long to justify the point they were meant to illustrate. Sure, when I first heard each story I LOVED it. And when I listened on tape everyone was laughing along with Gurumayi as she narrated with exaggerated silliness the folly of whoever was being taught a lesson because of their obstinacy or blindness. But it was clear to me that the magic of a Gurumayi story didn't translate as well to a recording as the rest of her talk. It was a meant for a live audience, a chance for Gurumayi to really roll up her sleeves and put on a performance that would delight her listeners. And that was the trouble here. There was no crowd to react to the story, no roar of laughter to punctuate the punch lines, no interaction at all. And yet, the story was written as if it was going to be performed before a live audience of thousands.
In the absence of feedback from an audience the story of the ten pilgrims seemed terribly belabored. Perhaps to compensate, Gurumayi raised the volume on her theatrics until they seemed shrill and histrionic. For me, the story didn't serve to set up the Baba quote at all. It was like trying to extract a personal lesson from the misunderstandings of a gathering of idiots.
to be continued