When the Guru holds us spellbound, how can we ever truly be free?
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Lucid Memories, Chapter Two, Part 1
I first heard Kathleen’s name early in 1992, not long after my mom and John called to say they were finally going to tie the knot. Having made my sister and I suffer through their unnecessary to us ten-year protracted courtship, they called one night and announced with glee that they were putting a date on the calendar and us out of our misery. Over the years, whenever we tried to press them about sealing the deal, my mom would joke, “Once my relationship with John outlasts the length of my two prior marriages, we’ll make it official – and not a moment before!” When they finally hit that target and made good on their promise my sister I were thrilled.We’d never known two people more meant for each other. We were also relieved. Due to our own need for security, we wanted a concrete guarantee they'd stay together. Now we had it.
The year prior, my mom had struck up a friendship with Kathleen through their local Siddha Yoga Center in Colorado. Although they hadn’t known each other long, the moment my mom announced her engagement Kathleen jumped in to help. Overnight she became both wedding planner and personal assistant, managing every last detail leading up to the big day.
I can’t remember the first time my mom told me about Kathleen, but during our phone conversations in the months prior to the wedding, she mentioned her name too many times to count. Clearly my mom was thrilled to have such a devoted, zealous volunteer at her side. “If I hired someone to do all this,” she gushed one night on the phone, “It would cost me a fortune!”
My mom was one of the most appreciative people I knew, and I understood why she felt so grateful, but to me it sounded like her new best friend was taking over. She began to adopt an almost “Kathleen knows best” attitude. That wasn’t like her. I hadn’t met Kathleen and felt protective. Maybe even a bit suspicious.
Who was this woman?
In October, just before the floor between Jack and I splintered in and collapsed, I flew home to Colorado for the wedding. Upon my arrival I finally met the person I’d been hearing so much about.
Kathleen was petite, attractive, and impeccably groomed. She had small, sparkling brown eyes and a pleasant, diminutive smile. Although Kathleen was a woman in her 40s who was living in the 90s, she still maintained her thick, glossy black hair in an immaculate braid that dangled down below her waist. She had the longest hair I’d ever seen and not a single strand was out of place. I suspected she was known for her hair.
Fall had arrived early in Colorado and Kathleen was ready, dressed on the day we met in an amber-colored cowl-neck sweater, coordinating calf-length skirt and dangly Navajo-style earrings, the kind she might have purchased while lingering at a roadside stand on a trip through in Arizona. She looked like a very put together flower child. Not someone I imagined dancing barefoot in the mud at a Grateful Dead concert, but someone who nonetheless likely wore a strand or two of love beads in her day – the kind she’d strung herself. I could imagine Kathleen bead shopping.
When my mom introduced us, she was chipper and polite, in an official wedding planner sort of way, but it was clear she wasn’t going to let anything, or anyone, divert her focus. Seeing her in action my immediate impression was that Kathleen had a lot of confidence in her work. She struck me as someone who believed she knew exactly what to do, how to do it, and when – the kind of person who, once assigned a specific task, doesn’t require further direction or stop for input. She wasn’t pushy, but she was certain. As the twenty-four hours before the wedding dwindled down, I could see her ticking through her mental list of priorities, checking off each one in her head then moving briskly onto the next.
I tried to dismiss Kathleen’s hyper-professional, somewhat controlling demeanor as expected from a bride’s personal assistant the day before the wedding, but something about her continued to rub me wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Still, it was obvious she was going way above and beyond – even offering to do my sister’s hair and make-up for the ceremony in addition to my mom’s, on top of having to take care of her own. I had to admit my mom glowed in Kathleen’s attentive care. That’s what’s most important, I thought, that my mom feels taken care of. That’s the only thing that matters.
As the weekend proceeded, I tucked aside my unease about Kathleen and made an effort to warm up to her – after all, her support meant so much to my mom. In the process she opened up and I learned a quite a bit of her story . . .
In the early 1980s, Kathleen lived for a time in Siddha Yoga’s mother ashram, in Ganeshpuri, India. She was there during Baba Mukantanda’s last years as Guru, there when he died, there when Gurumayi was appointed his successor. A talented seamstress, Kathleen was assigned the highly intimate role of making Gurumayi’s clothes. Prior to her sharing the highlights of her early years in Siddha Yoga, it hadn’t occurred to me that a specific person made Gurumayi’s clothes, but it did make sense. I couldn’t imagine Gurumayi wearing something purchased off a rack. Besides, she didn’t have time to go shopping.
Eventually Kathleen met her husband in Ganeshpuri and Gurumayi married them. In a giant gold-framed photo from their wedding I saw hanging in their house, Kathleen and her husband Alan appeared draped in thick garlands of marigolds, their foreheads glistening in the Indian heat as they lean in near Gurumayi who sits beside them beaming. I somewhat marveled at the photo when I saw it. I hadn’t known that Gurumayi married people. That was also the first time I saw a picture of Gurumayi taken with someone I actually knew. It hadn’t occurred to me that some people had their pictures taken with the Guru, owned copies of those pictures, and hung them in their homes.
I stared at that photo. To be married by the Guru must be the ultimate way to sanctify your relationship, I thought. But Kathleen didn’t mention her husband that weekend and I didn’t meet him – he was away on business.
Kathleen was so involved in the wedding it struck me as odd that her husband couldn’t arrange to be there. Later, when I asked my mom about him, she gave me her classic “Don’t ask” look. The list of people she disliked was short, but that look told me in an instant Alan was on it. While my sister and I were growing up my mom enforced and adhered to a strict “If you can’t say something nice” policy. I’d learned long ago that when she gave me that look we weren’t going to have a conversation. “I tell you about Alan another time,” she said. She didn’t mention him again; neither did I.
The moment for ceremony arrived and my mom floated through her wedding. I had to hand it to Kathleen who herself seemed to thrive in the midst of those final break-neck hours. She and I didn’t stay in touch after my mom’s wedding; there wasn’t any reason to. After I returned to San Francisco I sent her a card, thanking her for the support she gave my mom because it was the polite thing to do. But that was it.
Six months later in April, during the second week of Gurumayi’s programs, Kathleen called me out of the blue and left a message. I was startled to hear her voice on my answering machine but figured she must have contacted my mom and asked for my number. “I’m coming to Oakland Wednesday!” she exclaimed, near-breathless. “Let’s meet at The Paramount!”
Two days later as I stand waiting for her inside the lobby, I feel bit awkward. Kathleen is my mom’s age and the wrong gender, but for some reason I feel like I’m moments away from a first date – except instead of dinner and a movie we’re meeting for a chant and darshan. I agreed to meet her but now that I’m here it suddenly strikes me as an odd setting in which to spend the evening with someone I hardly know. Up until tonight I’ve been coming alone.
Suddenly I feel my focus yanked from behind. I turn around and see Kathleen, rushing toward me across the lobby. “How are you?!” she bursts, crushing me in a hug, like we’re old friends who’ve been apart too long. I jump inside, startled aback by her over-gregarious greeting.
“Isn’t this theater gorgeous?” she beams, looking up at me like a teenage girl out for her first night on the town. “Come on – I saved us some great seats!”
Inside, as we settle into our chairs, I watch from the corner of my eye as Kathleen employs a bit of artful choreography with her pashmina shawl, draping it over both shoulders, just so, to inconspicuously conceal the small spiral-bound notepad and pen she produces from her purse. As if she’s made this same move a hundred times before, she slips both items underneath her shawl and into her lap while looking around nonchalantly to see if any of the aisle monitors have spotted her.
As I observe her do this, my eyebrows raise a little. At the intro to every program the Emcees are explicit: “No note-taking aloud.” At first the rule strikes me as counterintuitive. Wouldn’t notes give people something concrete to refer to and focus on later when they meditated at home? But then I second-guess myself and try to imagine the potential rationales. Maybe if you’re too focused on writing things down you loose the true essence of what’s being offered. Maybe the process of absorbing the Guru’s teachings is too subtle and too profound to be reduced to a lecturer-audience format. Maybe it’s disrespectful to scribble the guru’s wisdom down into a series of illegible notes.
Ok, I get it.
Still, there is one curious phenomenon at these programs that does make the no note-taking rule continue to stick out as odd: despite how captivated everyone seems during Gurumayi’s talks, a common joke afterward is that many people can’t remember a thing she said. Often I see small groups in Amrit giggling over their collective inability to recall any specific part of what she’s said; the overall gist is there but none of the key details. It’s as if once she’s spoken them, Gurumayi’s words become slippery fish.
“What was that hilarious Nasrudin story she told – something about losing a key . . .?”
Given the four-hour combo of chanting, lecture, meditation and darshan, maybe some people are simply too blissed out to repeat anything back in a complete sentence. Like driving under the influence then getting pulled over and asked to repeat “toy boat” ten times, maybe the more you try to wrap your mind around the Guru’s exact phrasing, the harder it becomes.
Regardless, the consensus seems to be that just listening to the Guru is, in and of itself, enough. Her words go in, whether they’re remembered or not. The point is to be with Gurumayi, to be in her presence. That’s the real teaching.
Ironically, for whatever the reason, the effect her talks have on my retention is just the opposite. When she speaks I’m hyper-alert. As she sweeps through each passage all the cells in my body attach to her words like a trillion pins gathered up by a magnet. During the first week of programs I raced home with her words and the sound of her voice alive inside me. Her words fueled me past midnight as I typed them down as fast as I could, fearing they’d evaporate. I didn’t want to lose a single one.
When Kathleen notices I’m observing her notepad and pen sleight of hand she looks up at me with a mischievous glint in her eye. As if to alleviate any concern I might have that she’ll get busted for her bit of rule-breaking she leans in and whispers: “The year they instated the ‘no note-taking policy’ was the year I started wearing shawls to the programs!”
As the lights dim several volunteers pad up and down the aisles, scanning the crowd with strained faces, looking for people like Kathleen. They don’t notice her and apparently she couldn't care less about them.
Knowing Kathleen once worked so closely with Gurumayi, and knowing, as she shared earlier, that she writes to Gurumayi often, I figure it’s safe for me to take my cues from her. I make a mental note to bring my own notepad and pen the next evening.