Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lucid Memories, Chapter One, 2

My BART train stops at 19th Street in Oakland, a block away from The Paramount Theater. As I come up out of the station, I’m stunned to see a long line of hundreds, maybe thousands, snaking out the clogged lobby doors. My eyes follow the line, all the way down to the corner and around the block. The crowd must be quadruple the size of the one that attended the Oakland Ashram programs in 1989. Clearly the word had spread.

Heading down the street and tacking myself on to the end of the line I feel suddenly empty-handed. Almost everyone else is holding something. Many carry tote bags packed with small cushions, shawls and bottled water. Others clutch bouquets of flowers or cup whole coconuts in their hands. A few even appear to be prepared with all of the above.

Once inside the opulent, Art Deco Paramount, I snag one of the last empty seats along a back row and sit. I’m early, but apparently lucky to have this spot. Glancing toward the stage I notice several rows up front are still vacant, blocked off by white computer printed signs with bold black letters that say RESERVED. I exchange a small, polite smiles with the older women seated on either side of me, then sink back into my plush green velvet chair and take the eye-popping Paramount in.

An hour later the program begins. I fidget through a long series of announcements: Where to register for the upcoming weekend Intensive; information on the new chanting tape that just became available in the bookstore; directions to the temporary Amrit Café that’s been set up across the street and will open for dinner after the program; and, finally, a flight-attendant style walk through of post-program logistics that informs us how and when the hall monitors will assist each individual row in exiting the theater prior to darshan.  After Gurumayi’s talk we all need to leave our hard-won spots and then line up again outside before coming back in to see her.

This tedious list of “business items” is followed by several testimonials from well-dressed devotees whose lives have been transformed in subtle and dramatic ways since they stepped onto the Siddha path. One woman in a tailored blue dress suit shares that while deliberating over an important career move, Gurumayi appeared to her in a dream and said, “Do what you love.” Upon hearing her testimony, several pockets of the congregation let out long, audible sighs. Next, a bit of an aw-shucks but still earnest college-age guy steps up to the mike and starts by sharing that he lives near the Ashram in Oakland. He then recounts how chanting the mantra saved him from getting mugged at his local Laundromat. He’s sincere, but his reverent mention of the guru in the context of a story about a near-crime comes over a bit awkward. He receives a somewhat non-response from the hall, then sits back down.

Where is Gurumayi?

My mind wanders. My eyes wander too – along the sensuous carvings of the heavens that ascend the Paramount’s gilded walls, all the way up to the ceiling, to the Art Deco angel hovering over the proceedings, his enormous ornate wings outstretched above us all. When I return my attention to center stage, to Gurumayi’s elegant, empty chair, I realize: four years later and here I am, moments away from seeing her again. I have no idea what to expect.

The MC for the night steps up to the microphone and makes a final announcement in a low, devotional hush, “Gurumayi will be joining us soon . . . ” then sits down. Although I came here alone, I now feel my anticipation pulsing in the air, in synch with everyone else’s.

The lights illuminating The Paramount’s stenciled, cookie-cutter style ceiling, three balconies up, dim from a brilliant magenta to a soft blue. A musician near Gurumayi’s empty chair strums his tamboura and the vibrations echo through the crystalline acoustics of the hall. Another musician joins in on her harmonium, and a small group of lead chanters begins softly, “Oh-oh-om, Nah-mah, Shi-va-ah-ah-ah-ah-ayah . . .”

Little by little, each one of us lends our voice to this tender call and response, as if joining in on a cherished refrain. Within a few rounds, I feel the focus of our collective attention slowly submerge into the sweeping majesty of the mantra.

“Oh-oh-om, Nah-mah, Shi-va-ah-ah-ah-ah-ayah . . .”

I’ve been listening to this particular version of the mantra on an old cassette player in my bedroom for years. Tonight, brought to life by thousands of harmonious voices and amplified up into the rafters of this grand old theater, it has to be the most glorious music I’ve ever heard.

Time suspends. Nothing exists prior to or outside of this moment. Here we are.

I close my eyes for a moment and drift.

When I open them again I do it just in time to see her, gliding in through the wings beneath the dim blue lights. The moment feels private, intimate, like it’s just us.

Everything about Gurumayi is graceful and delicate. Gliding across the stage, her billowing silk robes appear to be as thin and soft as rose petals. She seems almost weightless. As she approaches her chair and turns towards the hall, her hand floats up in a silent, slow motion wave. Almost on cue, as if my heart has been punctured by her gesture, I burst into tears. And, just as instantaneously as when I first saw her four years ago, my tears soon become sobs. It’s as if all the self-doubt and loathing, all the anxiety and depression, all the emotional rot I’ve been stuffing away inside since I saw her last is being pumped right out of me. Feelings I didn’t consciously know I’d buried – regrets, mistakes, all the times I’d bullied myself over another failure – are being pumped in a fury to the surface and bailed away.

Gurumayi pauses before ascending the carpeted steps that lead up to her chair and bows before the giant floodlit photograph of her teacher, Baba Muktananda, suspended from the ceiling. She takes her elegant poised position on her armless, low-backed chair and folds her hands delicately in her lap. Once she is situated, a young, thin, dark-haired man in a black suit and dress socks inches in on his knees to adjust the long arm of her microphone, carefully positioning it near her mouth. As he does all his eyes remain fixed on Gurumayi, who looks past him as if he’s not there and continues her unbroken gaze toward the hall.

As the young man retreats backwards and away from her chair, Gurumayi joins us in the chant.

Her voice adds the quality of longing to our chorus and pierces some untouched place deep inside me. She chants with us briefly, maybe ten minutes, but those ten minutes feel expansive and rich. By the time the chant subsides, my sobbing has calmed.

We all sit together in silence.

After what feels like exactly a beat, the young man in the suit and dress socks inches again back up toward Gurumayi’s chair, this time to place before her a Plexiglas lectern containing her talk. Gurumayi then sings the opening invocation – a dedication to her Guru, I think. It’s a sing-songy Sanskrit tongue-twister of sorts I usually fast-forward through whenever I listen to my mom’s cassette recordings of Gurumayi’s talks. Most of those seated around me know the words and join in. I don’t know the words, or even what the song means. I just want to get to the talk. I sink back again into my green velvet seat and listen, and wait.

The invocation concludes, the final tamboura vibrations dissolve, and for a moment the entire hall feels held in a state of heightened, alert silence.

Making a slow sweeping survey of the crowd, Gurumayi seems to take each one of us in before opening her talk with her familiar and warm, “With great respect and love, I welcome you all, with all my heart.”

Her resonant voice fills the hall; no sound outside it is heard.

“It’s so perfect,” she begins, blasting us with the evening’s first blast of her mile-wide smile, “That we embark on this month of programs here, at The Paramount. Because, as you know, as Baba always said in all of his talks: The practice of Meditation is paramount!

She laughs, we laugh, and here we are – reunited with the one who holds a place in our hearts so dear it feels like it’s exclusively hers.

I’m so glad I’m here. I'm so glad I came. It feels so good to be with her like this again. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Continuing on, her voice turns tender as she adds, “One of The Paramount’s staff members shared with us that this theater was built during The Depression. In fact, we learned that this theater was actually created as a retreat from the sadness that existed just outside its front doors. And so, as we begin this month together, what a wonderful reminder The Paramount Theater will provide us that what is inside is far more magnificent than anything we could ever find out in the world.”

I feel the whole hall smile.

Immediately after Gurumayi’s talk, I’m outside the front doors of the theater again, shifting my weight back and forth as my legs fall asleep in a darshan line that won’t budge. Four years ago, during the Oakland Ashram programs, my mom and I lined up for darshan inside the meditation hall, fifty feet from Gurumayi's chair. Back then we were whisked through the ceremony in twenty minutes. Tonight, even though I rush to claim a place in line inside the lobby, it’s all for naught. Within seconds I’m promptly herded along with the masses by a small army of efficient women plying clipboards and wearing nametags covered in color-coded stickers, back out onto the street.

I can’t believe how many people are here. But I also can’t imagine why the line isn’t moving. Maybe after going four years without seeing Gurumayi everyone has a lot to say. I stand in the same spot for two hours.


Anonymous said...

Hi gang. Apologies for the unintended "spacey" formatting. Apparently there's no love lost between my version of Word and Blogger's idea of appropriate pagination. That or it's just my ego – still tested after all these years!


SeekHer said...

Lucid---Blogger screws with pagination and font size under the best of circumstances, but I kinda like the breathing room this gives your prose, which is evocative on the order of wizardry:

"Everything about Gurumayi is graceful and delicate. Gliding across the stage, her billowing silk robes appear to be as thin and soft as rose petals. She seems almost weightless. As she approaches her chair and turns towards the hall, her hand floats up in a silent, slow motion wave."

And I love the concision of a sentence like "I feel the whole hall smile," which is packed with shared experience.

Anonymous said...

Our sense if events while they are happening is so different when looked at later. Here Lucid is sharing a time capsule if his understanding of previous events that is itself dated and no longer exactly how Lucid would describe his thoughts, feelings about sy now. This fascinates me this meaning making by telling a story about it. No matter how much fact checking you do you never have thé whitehorse story about anything. Life is mysterious. We ard mysteries to ourselves. Opaque in places. We really need each othervtonhelp make sense of existence. Or it is a tale told by an idiot. That idiot is us when we think we are a law unto ourselves. That is snare for gurus the get trapped in their story and believe it. All gurus are idiots!!!!

Please forgive not only typos but the autofill in the above cuz by the time I go back kn there and try to edit on this phone I could be 5 miles down the road!

Anonymous said...

The 5:10 am comment was by

Anonymous said...

The description of the scene was quite incredible, Lucid. It really took me back in time, to so many similar circumstances in so many similar venues, during my 25 years "in".

Back to a time when, still innocent and well-intentioned, I still believed.

Part of me longs for those days of innocent belief, for the happiness I felt to be part of something that seemed so beautiful, so wonderful.

And yet another part of me wonders how I ever let myself get "taken in".

Going on 8 years after quitting, I still view the whole thing as a mystery. So many of us went through similar experiences during our time "in", and have gone through similar disenchantment and "leaving" processes as well.

It makes me wonder: Do those still "in", still hanging on, still grasping at some microscopic shred of hope, of seeing her again, of things ever being the way they once were, they feel deep pain at the way things actually are inside SY nowadays? Do they ignore and deny it in order to keep hanging on to that hope?

I really have very little window on what their inner experience is. At least, not anymore.

Anonymous said...

Glad the "rose petal" simile didn't make you gag, SeekHer. For me was right on the edge. But when I replayed the tape in my head and watched Gurumayi enter the hall, that was the description that captured it best.

Speaking of over-the-top visuals, I'd like to offer some "Show" with the "Tell." In the links below please find several assorted pieces of eye candy -- some of the best pics I could locate of The Paramount, though of course none do her justice. I've always thought of this Oakland landmark as Radio City Music Hall's west coast arch diva rival. Or slightly younger, more garishly accessorized sister.

Just imagine attending consecutive weeks of back-to-back programs with GM, once upon a time, in this opulent palace of enchantment. "The following kundalini awakening is brought to you in living Technicolor!"

The theater on it's own is enough to knock you flat. Add to it the nightly blasts of shakti and "Poof!" (As someone who could resist anything but temptation, there was nothing I could do but surrender.)

Guru's-eye view from the stage:


Anonymous said...

My earliest impressions of GM were so different from what you describe, Lucid. Nothing rose-petal-y about them at all....a sense of solidity, strong personality, purpose. My first darshan, she hit me on the head so hard with those feathers. She seemed very solid.

Later in my involvement there were times when she did seem almost transparent, but then, so did everything else around me. People looked blue, had lights around their heads, etc.

I miss none of that. What comes up when I remember those times that seemed so magical at the time is the memory of the desire that was always present in me when she was close by--the desire to be singled out, appreciated, seen as valuable, as special. Narcissistic desires, you might say. Childish desires born of not having been seen and valued as a child. Classic! She asked for that kind of desire to be projected onto her, and she got it.

The whole culture of SY was designed to increase that kind of childish desire, all pious mouthings of swamis and others to the contrary notwithstanding. At some point, she got very sick of it, and she's been trying to get rid of it ever since, IMO. But they have not managed to find anything to replace it. Certainly not "the teachings," which always were and still remain secondary to the cult of personality.


Anonymous said...

Calling her guru mother should have been a clue about what was operating but I had already been ''shaktified' and just accepted that I should pour every deep longing onto the babe in the orange silk with the flashing smile. Once the fix was in I clung like a monkey to her and it is through strong healthy people posting their truth about getting out of SY saved me. Thank you SeekHer, Lucid, OS, OBW, MBG, Dan, Marta, Howie, all the others. Stimulating these feelings then abandoning people, then blaming them for their clinging. Cruel. But when I look at the group shot on the SY website of the people who although they have been with her for decades had to take a course, (for a year!) to deepen their commitment, I see that she has her hands full. I saw a room full of aging unhealthy looking people in plastic chairs. No yogis on the floor just a rising health care bill.

Anonymous said...

>>" miss none of that... Childish desires born of not having been seen and valued as a child. Classic! She asked for that kind of desire to be projected onto her, and she got it."<<

Exactly, OBW!
that "needing to be seen as special". There is always the inkling that what we imagine ourselces to be is unreal so we are attracted to discover the Truth: (that what we imagine ourselves to be IS unreal). But our Mind spends its time looking for affirmation of what we're not...and some teachers (many, many teachers) encourage this in one way or another.One of the hardest things to let go of is the spiritual ego that gets constructed around this idea of being "special" and "significant" in some way..mainly, I think, becasue every single person (no matter how idiotic they might appear to be)is the center of his/her own universe. Having "god's" approval to separate yourself out from the mass of humanity as one of the one's who "gets it" is very seductive.
Devotional paths can be really insidious because they trigger the deepest part of the brain, where the original confusion began.
I wonder just how many of us are part of the "not seen and valued as a child" demographic: probably the majority.


Anonymous said...

>>" I saw a room full of aging unhealthy looking people in plastic chairs. No yogis on the floor just a rising health care bill."<<

Dear Anon: 6:16,
yes! and when you hit your late 50s, there comes a time where you are forced to look at what your life has been about. Some people simply can't accept that, perhaps, they may have "wasted" 10,20, 30 or more years following a "bogus" path. It can generate a tremendous amount of self-hatred, self-disgust, fear, despair, confusion and sadness since you don't get to live those years over again. It takes tremendous courage to simply look at the Truth of it and where it has taken you. To me, this is the beginning of spiritual maturity for so many of us who gorged ourselves on the banquet of teachers and teachings that began in the 1960s. I have watched some folks I knew back when really doing the work of looking closely and winnowing out what was helpful and what was not. I have tremendous respect for those folks, knowing how difficult it is to face the reality of the choices one has made and to let go of the bitterness of disappointment. Many others don't make that choice and just cling onto what is familiar. It's really a very sad and totally unnecessary thing to go down with a sinking ship when the "ocean of truth" is all around you.


SeekHer said...

"...there comes a time where you are forced to look at what your life has been about. Some people simply can't accept that, perhaps, they may have "wasted" 10,20, 30 or more years following a "bogus" path. It can generate a tremendous amount of self-hatred, self-disgust, fear, despair, confusion and sadness since you don't get to live those years over again."


I think the people most in danger of this species of despair must be the ones who gave the most--especially ashramites who invested their most productive years 24/7 and then were left with nothing in return. I ache for all those who were on staff or otherwise serving full time. In my case, I "only" invested the equivalent of years of time in seva and intensives and courses and summer after summer in Fallsburg and touring around the world--not to mention countless hours doing the practices--as well as a tidy portion of what could have been savings for retirement on all the above and books and tapes and magazines and asanas and shawls and incense and photographs (archival! guaranteed not to fade for 100 years!) and signature rings and jeweled malas and let's not forget the small fortune sunk into dakshina. But I had a "life" outside in the world and all the above seemed an investment that was already paying dividends in the bliss if the path. In the end, that's what I was buying--bliss on the installment plan. I don't regret those years as much as try to learn why I needed to spend them in this way. There were other "spiritual" paths I tried before SY (I'm looking at you "rebirthing") that left me decidedly cold. Why was this trap so alluring? I do remember the moment I decided to go see G for the first time, and it was a friend who told me "come just once, and you will have her protection forever..." Maybe it all boils down to that for me, probably. And what an illusion that turned out to be.

The best gift any of us who question those "lost" and "wasted" years can give ourselves is to realize this: we woke up, we left, we survived and we learned what it means to find security not in any outside force or person or saint or divinity, but in the strength of character that enabled us to do all these.

Anonymous said...

That was a great post, SeekHer...
exhilarating!!! and yes...syda was particularly "alluring"...well, that's what they say about Maya...the whole point is that it's "irresistable", otherwise the whole machine wouldn't


Anonymous said...

Perhaps evolving out of the traps from alluring illusions (looking at you teachers/gurus/masters) is the liberation we all seek.

Anonymous said...

Re: Anon, January 28, 2013 at 9:48 AM: “It makes me wonder: Do those still “in”, still hanging on, still grasping at some microscopic shred of hope, of seeing her again, of things ever being the way they once were, they feel deep pain at the way things actually are inside SY nowadays? Do they ignore and deny it in order to keep hanging on to that hope?”

Given that so many of us here have reacted to SY's more recent incarnations in astonished disbelief, I can't help wonder what the reactions would be from those who’ve "recently joined" – and by recent I mean anyone who became involved post-2004 – if they read the description of SY contained in this story.

Viewed from where they stand does the former SY appear just as foreign to them as the current SY appears to us?

Regardless, it seems that although the SY externals have changed the core has not. So what perplexes me is this: I can look back and create a long list of all the dazzling elements that kept me distracted by and hooked into SY – so now, in the absence of all those thick layers of allure, what would keep someone from seeing right through the mirage? What is the hook?

Apologies if this comes over sounding "us" vs. "them." Not my intent. I know several of us likely still have people we love and care about involved. Just wondering how it would register with me – the stark contrast between SY now vs. SY then – if I were a devotee today. Maybe people who were with Muk in the 70s then left when or before he died wondered the same thing about those who stuck it out and hung on into the 80s. Maybe as each new drove has made its mass exit they too have wondered. And on and on and on . . .

Several years ago I would have marked the start of the decline of SY somewhere around the early 2000s. After reading Marta’s book, that date moved back in my mind to the publication of the New Yorker article in 1994. Today it seems that SY's decline may have actually begun long before many of us even knew what SY was. Still, if you walked into a public program anytime between 1990-1996 you found the place hopping. You felt part of something big, transformative, alive and thriving.

I had my last darshan with GM on the last day of my one and only visit to Fallsburg in July of 1996, just a few months before the practice was "withdrawn." I remained a participant for nearly a decade thereafter but in retrospect, the volume started dropping then – from that final darshan forward. By the last time I saw GM in person, in 2003, any strong energetic connection between us was just about gone. All those early mind-blowing blasts of shakti reduced down to a faint fizz. By then, for whatever reason – my own maturity, her lack of interest, or both – the thrill was gone.


Anonymous said...

Re: it was a friend who told me "come just once, and you will have her protection forever..."

OMG, SeekHer. Talk about an offer you can’t refuse. The “culture” of SY was so full of those.


SeekHer said...


I don't believe that there are significant numbers of new devotees in SY. Anyone who has come in after 2004 likely has the money or fame or specific talent to be worth recruiting. The vast majority of the small minority who still practice are old timers who are hanging on because their memories sustain them. There are many, many others who have all but dropped away and are devotees in name only--they no longer attend the moribund center satsangs or shakti-less intensives, they may sustain a private practice of sorts, but they haven't yet even realized how far they have drifted away. I have some friends who fall into the latter category. When I see them they mention SY as a common reference point, they might throw out some of the old jargon, but they don't speak about commitment or the future.

Maybe some devotees have actually had the courage to do what was never allowed before, and that is to meet and practice privately, and share their understanding of the path, and their frustration with its present state, with one another absent an "official" monitor. There are so few of these monitors left the cage door has all but been left open. It would be fascinating to hear from someone like that--I'd want to know if the momentum of their practice can be sustained that way, or if communal sharing of real pain and disappointment wouldn't naturally lead to disenchantment.

Anonymous said...

I am not a SYDA survivor. I was only tempted by the beauty, the music, the shiny guru, but never tasted that fruit.

My story is different but compels me to read stories and discussions such as these. My story has roots in a man who was with Baba at Fallsburg in the 70's, and the narcissist he became. And what that did when he chose to shaktipat me with the same tricks and verbal twists and turns discussed here. A personal thing.

But I thank you for your brave stories, and I am warmed and heartened by your gentle and intelligent discussion of these challenging things.

I look forward to reading more.