Sunday, February 17, 2013
Lucid Memories, Chapter 2, Part 2
That evening during her talk, Gurumayi speaks at length about the importance of what she calls “welcoming others.” She tells us that welcoming others is not only the foundation of Baba’s teachings, but also a powerful tradition and spiritual practice found in all cultures.
She suggests that one of the ways we can welcome others is by “seeing beyond people’s shortcomings.” She urges us to avoid getting “stuck in our judgments.” She encourages us to always strive to see the highest and presume the best in everyone we encounter.
“Treat people,” she says, “as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”
How beautifully put. It makes absolute sense.
After her talk and a brief meditation session, the Emcee for this evening’s program, Cosby Show actress Phylicia Rashad, steps up to the mike to make the closing announcements before the aisle monitors dismiss each of our rows for darshan. No fanfare was made earlier about her appearance as tonight’s hostess. None was needed. Everyone knows who she is. She’s just one of several semi-B-list celebrities who dot the crowd throughout Gurumayi’s Oakland visit. One night the former Mod Squad star Peggy Lipton motions me up to Gurmayi’s chair during darshan; I’m too young to remember the show, but Kathleen points her out. She looks thin and pale under the bright stage lights and appears self-conscious about being assigned the very visible role of Darshan Usher. Another night I see actor Gary Busey wandering around the lobby, looking disoriented. When I first notice him I can’t think of his name, but it comes to me later. I wonder if he’s struggling in his career and seeking a new direction. Maybe that’s why he’s here.
Projected across the giant jumbotron screen suspended above the stage, Phylicia Rashad's glossy smile is as big as a Cheshire cat's. Her pupils, black billiard balls, roll back and forth in her dewy eyes as she slowly scans the crowd.
Everyone in the hall sits there staring up at her, as if stoned in a collective post-meditation stupor. Leaning into the mike and tilting her head to the side she says with a wink, “Now that you’ve tasted an exquisite drop of this nectar, don’t you just want to dive in?"
In response to her little flirtation many in the hall laugh, as if in on a joke, and several erupt in applause. But something about her delivery strikes me as over the top.
“Take the intensive,” she continues, pausing with intent. “Take the intensive,” she says again, adding another intentional pause. “Take the intensive.”
I squirm a little inside each time she repeats her pitch, relieved when she stops at three.
The program concludes and the moment our row is dismissed Kathleen perks forward in her chair and grips my hand. “Darshan will be going on for hours – let’s go eat and come back.”
As we exit the theater and cross the street to the Amrit, Kathleen loops her arm though mine. She’s strolling along in a post-program reverie but I’ve still got Phylicia Rashad’s refrain stuck in my head – and my mind is trying to stave of her repeated pitch with a mounting list of questions. Why the hard sell? Was that necessary? What goes on in the Intensive? And why would anyone need, or for that matter be able to withstand, more than what’s offered in these programs?
I don’t want to offend Kathleen; she’s been a devotee for over a decade. But I’d like some answers and I figure she’s as reliable a resource as I’m apt to find.
When I ask her a carefully phrased question about the Intensive and the way it's being promoted at the programs she sighs, “Sometimes the people who would benefit from the Intensive the most also tend to be the people won't attend unless they're specifically told they need to go!"
“But,” I ask, “Isn't what takes place in these programs enough?"
She sighs again. My sense isn’t that she’s tiring of my questions; my sense is she doesn’t think the answers pertain to us.
"Some of these people need to be hit over the head in order to ‘get it,’” she explains. “The Intensive is for them. You’re not like that. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Trust me,” she adds, smiling up into my eyes, “You’ve already received shaktipat.”
After dinner, as we make our way back to our seats, we're halted at the top of our aisle by a brusque woman with shoulder pads and a clipboard whose clear mission is to redirect us.
When we explain we’re merely returning to our seats via the exact path by which we left them, her face flattens, as if stunned we’re challenging her. Our aisle is closed, she informs us, and we need to go out and come back in another way. It makes no sense but she’s got a laminated name badge and a clipboard and we don’t. She extends her arm and makes an opened-palmed but firm gesture back in the direction of the lobby doors.
As we turn to head back up the aisle, Kathleen quips under her breath, referring to the main message in that night's talk, “Well, I guess she’s practicing welcoming others.” We share a muffled laugh, exit into the lobby and take the long way back to our seats.
After we sit down I ask Kathleen, “Why did she speak to us like that?” – given where we are and why we are here, the interaction seemed jarring, so out of place.
“Oh,” she says, letting out a deep breath, “Some of these sevites are just so full self-importance.” Sevites, she explains, is the title given to all the devotees I’ve seen doing all the volunteer work over the past few weeks. Seva is the name for the work itself, though it’s not work, she says, it’s service – to the Guru. “You run into them everywhere,” she continues, “In the Amrit, in the Bookstore . . . all you can do is keep your sense of humor. It’s like I always say when I’m signing up for an Intensive: With every registration you get a free lecture!” She giggles at her own joke.
I like the fact that Kathleen has been involved in Siddha Yoga for so long, been so close to Gurumayi, and yet still remains un-phased by all the nonsense. I like that she breaks the rules, at least the ones that don’t seem to matter. Maybe Gurumayi is a bit of a rule-breaker too.
Later that night, up on the stage during Darshan, just as we're bowing down, Gurumayi draws Phylicia Rashad to her side, as if she needs tell her something. As my forehead touches the carpet I hear Gurumayi say in a voice that's low and monotone, “It should have happened at 7 o’clock.” Her statement is firm, and indisputable. Her displeasure is controlled, but it’s there. Some part of the program hadn't gone as planned. Someone was late.
As I back up and away from Gurumayi’s chair, I catch Phylicia’s face looking down in deference. I can tell that although she may not be the person who was late, she's the one Gurumayi's holding responsible.
Kathleen and I return to our seats and watch as the tail end of the darshan line files up. Each night we stay after and sit and wait until darshan ends, with the hope that Gurumayi will stay in the hall a bit longer. Sometimes a French magician named Arsene cames out and performs as if he were Gurumayi’s court jester; sometimes there is light banter back and forth between Gurumayi and the swamis; sometimes a chant.
One of the last women to step forward kneels down and offers Gurumayi a huge bouquet of flowers. Kathleen leans into me, places her hand over her mouth and shares in a whisper, “When I first started coming to Siddha Yoga I always took Gurumayi flowers. But then one day she told me: ‘Don’t bring flowers, bring money – And tell your friends!’“
I laugh along with her at the punch line to her story, though I’m not exactly sure why it’s funny.
During these final moments of each evening I can’t take my eyes off of Gurumayi. She’s been sitting with her legs folded up under her in the same lotus position for nearly five hours but looks just as radiant as she did when she arrived. Maybe more so. I don’t pretend to know who she is, but I do know this: no human I know would ever be capable of such a feat.