The Appalachian Trail

The southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

The southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

I was reared in North Georgia, three hours from Appalachia. My wife, my daughter, and I, when we were all quite young, would often drive into the mountains and spend the day tip-toeing through icy streams, meandering along forest trails, and soaking up the ancient beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. We would stroll through the old gold rush town of Dahlonega, drive to the top of Amicalola Falls, or camp beside Noontootla Creek. A wide and well-worn trail traveled through our backcountry campground, and we would sometimes walk it for a half mile or so, always wondering where it led, what was around the next corner. This was not just any trail, we learned, but the Appalachian Trail, a nearly-2,200 mile footpath meandering along the Appalachian Mountains from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

I’ll never forget the day I first saw a backpacker on the A.T. My family was picnicking by the side of the trail when a young man with a tall pack on his back came cruising by, eyes on his feet, his mind, presumably, set on the rocky peaks of Maine’s Katahdin. I watched him go, my imagination running wild with thoughts of setting off down that trail, drawn ever forward by the white blazes that mark the path, walking through fourteen states, in twelve of which I’d never set foot.

That was over fifteen years ago, and I the Appalachian Trail, and the wanderlust that it inspires, has haunted me ever since.White Blazes on the Appalachian Trail

Three times I have planned to thru-hike the A.T., to hike the entire trail in one calendar year, over a period of about six months. In 2008, 2010, and 2011, family obligations and, above all, financial difficulties made leaving home for six months impossible. While I never gave up the dream of hiking the trail, after the 2011 failure, I did almost give up hope. It seemed that, by the time I would have the opportunity to hike the Trail, I would be too old to manage it. I was so distraught over my loss that, for years, I could hardly stand to hear mention of the A.T.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is challenge and an adventure, but it’s also far more than that. Ask anyone who has thru-hiked the Trail what were their reasons for doing it, and the response will usually be some circular argument that essentially amounts to, “I had always wanted to hike the Trail because I had always wanted to hike the Trail.” Some hope to find peace of mind, or work through the grief of losing a loved one, or to connect deeply with the natural world, or to challenge themselves in a way workaday life never has. But, more often than not, my experience has been that these reasons arise in the minds of hikers after the thought of thru-hiking the Trail has already become something of an obsession.

Hiking is, for me, a spiritual experience. In the temple of God’s woods, atop the shrine of His mountains, in the sacred waters of his streams, worship comes as naturally as breathing. Meditating in the early morning, God’s love dawns with the rising sun. The mantra bubbles up in my heart like a spring from a hillside. My boots with every step chant, “Jai Maa. Jai Maa.” I have experienced these moments, sometimes a couple of days. To experience this unending drama of divinity for six months, over five million steps, would be an overwhelming gift of Grace.

Well, there may yet be a chance.

A few months ago, Grace took hold of me and at last gave me the motivation and impetus I needed to start getting my self in shape. Since I was a child, I have been overweight, and while I was active when I was younger, poor fitness habits have taken their toll on me. Less than four months ago, I joined a gym, started counting my calories and improving my diet, and in that time I’ve lost thirty-five pounds and begun to shape this body into a proper instrument. Getting into shape made me think about the Trail again, how much better a chance I would have of completing a thru-hike if I were fit. I hashed out a plan for the next several years. I won’t go into detail about it because there are variables that are still up in the air, but if God is willing — and the events of recent months have left me believing that He is — I will step off from Springer Mountain in the Spring of 2019.

There is a website called Trail Journals which hikers use to blog about the progress of their hikes while they are en route, as well as detailing their pre-hike preparations. I’ll be occasionally posting there over the next few years. During my hike, I’ll carry a camera, and I intend to upload regular videos detailing my progress. I hope, my friends, that you will continue to follow me as I prepare for my hike, and, if Thakur indeed makes it happen, that you will keep up with me along the Trail.

The dream is tenuous, always hanging by a thread, but that thread is Grace. Jai Maa.

Thoughts on Suffering and Spiritual Practice

In the Garden of Gethsemane

In the Garden of Gethsemane

For as long as I have undertaken systematic spiritual practice, my sadhana has gone hand in hand with sorrow. There are periods of respite, of relative happiness, when I look forward to meditation, when I feel that the Lord hears my prayers, and when I feel part of a larger, dynamic unity of devotees, of children of God, of beings longing for enlightenment. The good times have been weeks, months, even many months, same as the challenging times, but the division has been far from equal. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I have to say that the periods of spiritual darkness have been disproportionately longer, more frequent, and more profound than the times of joyful striving.

There’s much in the media these days about the physical and mental health benefits of meditation. Research suggests that regular attendance of religious services offers significant protection against clinical depression. And, of course, the ultimate goal of spiritual practice is the cessation of suffering, the attainment of a happiness that does not end. My experience, then, would seem more than a little contrary. In fact, this has been a significant struggle for me, often leading to intense doubt in myself, in God, in my spiritual teacher, in the efficacy of spiritual practices. Indeed, as much as I would like to say that I’ve found the solution to my dilemma, that my spiritual life is uplifting and predominantly joyful, I can only say that, yes, I have found answers, I have found solutions, but they are difficult, sometimes confusing, often mysterious, and, at least at this point in my sadhana, they are usually of little comfort.

Be that as it may, the answers — the experiences of holy persons culled from their own spiritual lives — are available to those who suffer from spiritual depression. These are examples of patience, purity, and perseverance — especially perseverance! — in action. In dark times, we can only look for their light, then follow it as best we can.

Eknath Easwaran wrote that none suffer like the lovers of God. It’s logical to ask why that should be. The answer — as best someone like me can give an answer to that question — is also logical. The world is the playground of Maya, created by this inscrutable power through no detectable means and for no discernable purpose. Despite the theories of science and religion, they can only remain theories. As science delves deeper into the mysteries of the universe it finds not answers but more questions. Religions posit various ideas not as ultimate truths but as workable hypotheses to allow adherents to get on with everyday life, reasonably secure that they have a clue about what the universe is and what they’re doing in it. But, as Swami Vivekananda said, the only really sensible answer to the question of why human life is such a bloody mess is, “‘I do not know. I do not know how the perfect being, the soul, came to think of itself as imperfect, as joined to and conditioned by matter.’ But the fact is a fact for all that.” So here we are, at the mercy of causality, destined to live, grow, suffer, enjoy, decay, and die. If I analyze this situation critically, I can only call it a tragedy. And the sages of all the religions throughout all the ages of humankind have cried out that we need not accept the world as it is, that we need not remain players in the tragedy. We have put on these costumes to perform in this drama and we have become identified with our roles, forgetting our true identities. And we complain that we’re suffering in these costumes, that our roles are too difficult, that it’s a bad play and we just want to get out of it, all the while clinging as tightly as we can to our ugly, tattered masks.

Why don’t we just let go?

Easwaran said, “the lovers of God,” but he may as well have said the pious, the devout, the stalwart of every faith. God is every good thing, everything that is truly beautiful and wholesome, everything that is awe-inspiring and heart-warming. God is truth for the sake of truth, love that seeks no return, service that looks for no recognition. God is the path of enlightenment as well as the goal of the path. God is our true and perfect Self. God is not the world of enjoyment, of pleasure, of lust and greed, of selfishness and egoism. So the lovers of God are those who, however humble, are not content with a fine house and car, a beautiful husband or wife, academic achievements or career success. There is nothing sinful or wrong about any of these things, but the clinging that they inspire, and their empty, transient nature, translate not to real happiness, but to tiny, blissful moments between desires, when one has been fulfilled for a time and a new one has not arisen. This is not joy. This is slavery. The lovers of God long for freedom, freedom from their own pettiness and greed.

It is perhaps seemingly counter-intuitive that deep, heart-wrenching sadness over one’s spiritual practice, particularly over the lack of success therein, can be among the most effective motivators for sustained, enthusiastic — and, thus, effective — practice. It was just such longing, taken to an almost insane intensity, that led to Sri Ramakrishna’s first awakening when he was serving as a priest at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. According to Swami Nikhilananda’s introduction to The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna:

He felt the pangs of a child separated from its mother. Sometimes, in agony, he would rub his face against the ground and weep so bitterly that people, thinking he had lost his earthly mother, would sympathize with him in his grief. Sometimes, in moments of scepticism, he would cry: “Art Thou true, Mother, or is it all fiction — mere poetry without any reality? If Thou dost exist, why do I not see Thee? Is religion a mere fantasy and art Thou only a figment of man’s imagination?” Sometimes he would sit on the prayer carpet for two hours like an inert object. He began to behave in an abnormal manner, most of the time unconscious of the world. He almost gave up food; and sleep left him altogether.

Sri Ramakrishna was beset by an almost terrible longing to realize God. He thought about his Divine Mother, Kali, night and day, spent long hours in meditation, and performed intense austerities in an effort to commune with the Divine. His sadhana was marked not by the peace, serenity, and joy that we modern people usually hope to gain from spirituality, but by soul-deep emptiness, a burden of doubt, and almost hopeless desperation.

But he did not have to wait very long. He has thus described his first vision of the Mother: “I felt as if my heart were being squeezed like a wet towel. I was overpowered with a great restlessness and a fear that it might not be my lot to realize Her in this life. I could not bear the separation from Her any longer. Life seemed to be not worth living. Suddenly my glance fell on the sword that was kept in the Mother’s temple. I determined to put an end to my life. When I jumped up like a madman and seized it, suddenly the blessed Mother revealed Herself. The buildings with their different parts, the temple, and everything else vanished from my sight, leaving no trace whatsoever, and in their stead I saw a limitless, infinite, effulgent Ocean of Consciousness. As far as the eye could see, the shining billows were madly rushing at me from all sides with a terrific noise, to swallow me up! I was panting for breath. I was caught in the rush and collapsed, unconscious. What was happening in the outside world I did not know; but within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss, altogether new, and I felt the presence of the Divine Mother.” On his lips when he regained consciousness of the world was the word “Mother”.

This restless longing, accompanied by depression, sadness, and often desperation, is not unique to Sri Ramakrishna, though the intensity of his desire for God may be unparalleled. His young disciples experienced the same desperation, particularly Swami Vivekananda and Swami Brahmananda, both of whom wondered India for some time, absorbed in austerities, long frustrated in their quest for realization. We see many of these traits in the lives of such saints as Thérèse of Lisieux and Mother Theresa, the Buddha, and the hints of Jesus’s forty-day ordeal in the desert after his baptism by John the Baptist. An example which brings the point home to me is Swami Atulananda, the first Westerner to commit to and maintain a life of sannyasa under the Ramakrishna Order. The Swami was blessed with a glimpse of enlightenment fairly early in his spiritual life, but then endured a long life beset with many illnesses arising from his attempts to live in India, and serious health problems that plagued him until death. Not long before he died, he seems to have finally become established in the realization he had glimpsed decades before.

This, then, is the path of the “lovers of God.” We choose not to be enraptured by the pleasures of the world. Though we backslide and fail countless times, we know that the illusion of worldly happiness will never fulfil us. We are no longer babies, resting in our mothers’ arms, relishing no more than food, sleep, and comfort. We have found our legs and put our weight upon them, praying they will hold. They need a lot of exercise, a lot of effort, and more than a few falls, if we are to stand upright, the goal in our sights, and walk, clinging not to the crib blanket or the pacifier, but only to the hand of our father, our mother.

 

The Age of Rage

Angry KidAnger is not just an emotion, not just a negative response to stimuli. It’s alive. It lives and moves and has its being in the mind. The mind is a jungle, populated by the nettles of regret, the stagnant pools of apathy, the elephants of good intentions. Anger is a tiger, prowling the mind jungle, always hungry, always tensed for the attack. It’s dangerous enough left in that jungle, where, over time, it may befoul even the purest of thoughts and intentions, but all too often we let it out into the world, and it is an apex predator there.
Human life is an array of paradoxes. We want happiness, yet we seek it where it can never be found: in the gratification of the senses, the fulfillment of material desires, the attainment of fame. We know that living a disciplined life is far more fulfilling than hedonism could ever be, but still we’re on the lookout for the next adventure, the next excitement, the next entertainment. Just so, we want peace of mind, but we cultivate discontent, attachment, aversion.

And anger. We have birthed the Age of Rage. Road rage abounds on our highways. Our prisons overflow with violent offenders. The nightly news splatters our television screens with blood. Our school children become gun control statistics. Anger is an ever-present companion, its consequences all too familiar. But we do not learn our lessons. Rather than mindfully analyzing our situation and making effective changes, we allow anger to take control. Too often we even encourage it, jump in the passenger seat and give anger the wheel, and he swerves into this lane and that, mowing down pedestrians, running red lights, taking out anyone in his way. Anger is not a friend you can trust, not the kind of guy whose advice you want to take. Anger will only ever lead you astray, turn a victim into a perpetrator, leave a trail of collateral damage and in time, you survey the wreckage left behind and say to yourself, “What was I thinking?”

Simply, you weren’t. You let anger do your thinking. You stepped out. You vanished. It happens to us all to some extent. Maybe you take serious offense at a rude hand gesture from an aggressive driver on the Interstate, and you beat your steering wheel and fling vulgarities and wish you could pull him out of his car and teach him a lesson. Of course, you’re a decent person, really, so you would never actually hurt someone. Maybe you get wrapped up in politics, have a special loathing reserved for the president, and say to your co-workers that nothing short of a bullet is going to fix the White House’s problems. Not that you would ever wish such a thing on anyone no matter how you felt about them. It’s just talk. Blowing off steam.

And maybe is really is just talk. For you. But that same impulse, that same rage and loathing have driven people to violence over highway frustration, and turned an ordinary person into an assassin. Anger has destroyed families, ended lives, wrecked entire nations. It is not merely an emotion, something to work out at the gym or on the heavy bag. It is a force most of us hardly understand, with the potential to destroy in a moment.

In the same vein, anger is a power that can be harnessed, transmuted, transformed into spiritual growth. Sri Ramakrishna encouraged his disciples to give any impulse a Godward turn.

“Direct the six passions to God. The impulse of lust should be turned into the desire to have intercourse with Atman. Feel angry at those who stand in your way to God. Feel greedy for Him. If you must have the feeling of I and mine, then associate it with God. Say, for instance, ‘My Rama, my Krishna.’ If you must have pride, then feel like Bibhishana, who said, ‘I have touched the feet of Rama with my head; I will not bow this head before anyone else.’”

Then the question is how to put anger to work for us. In my limited experience, the answer is to pour out the emotions at the feet of the Lord in intense prayer. God is not some distant entity, some unknowable thing. He is our very own, dearer to us, so say the Sufi mystics, than our own jugular vein. There is no reason to restrict prayer to certain forms, to think of anything as taboo. Rage at God for not granting the boon of pure love for his lotus feet. Yell about your problems, your frustrations, and all of your grief, and lay it all upon the Lord’s altar. His purifying grace is the Philosopher’s Stone, transmuting even the basest of emotions into spiritual gold.

No Home in the World

Advaita brooks no sentimentality. Once you accept that the phenomenal world is illusory,

then there is, figuratively speaking, no going home again.

There is one true light: the light of the Atman. All other lights are but pale reflections of it. When you accept this, there is no settling for less. The mind will never rest unless it rests in the Atman.

You need not attain that perfect Knowledge of the Atman to understand that suffering will never end without that Knowledge. Once you have faith in the truth of the Atman, you can never again accept suffering. Though you may cling to many of those things that cause suffering, may clutch them like an addict, you will know that they cannot fulfill you, and you will want nothing more than to be rid of the desire for them.

Your home in the world is not real, and all the time it is collapsing upon you. When you know this, renunciation must begin to

Image credit: “love Don’t live here anymore…” – © 2009 Robb North – made available under Attribution 2.0 Generic

Pen Pals

Swami_Vivekananda_letter_2nd_Nov_1893Dear Friends,

Did you have pen pals when you were young? Do you remember the first time you opened the mailbox and found a slightly battered envelope with your name on it? Perhaps it traveled halfway around the world to get to you, and you read it in a state of wonder because you knew that, weeks before, it had been in the hands of a person you would likely never meet, but who, because of this letter, felt like a dear friend.

That was my pen pal experience when I was a teenager. In fact, I’m still in touch with my first pen pal, whose first letter I received twenty-two years ago. Of course, we’re both adults with busy lives, hers much more so than mine, and we usually settle for Facebook rather than letters these past several years. But I miss letters. There’s something personal and intimate about a letter, something significant about holding it in your hands.

Well, I’m a sentimental fool. Be that as it may, I’m also practical, and I realize that, as a Vedantin in the Bible Belt, a five hour drive from any Vedanta Society, my best bet at meeting like-minded individuals is over long distances. So I’m looking for pen pals.

Would any of you, dear readers, care to correspond with me? I don’t care if you’re in India, Australia, or New York City, I would like to hear from you. Oh, I don’t mind email correspondence if you haven’t the time for letters, but I will admit to being partial to the handwritten word.

If you’re interested, please use the contact form below to get in touch with me.

Sincerely yours,

Art

Heart of a Lion: Strength, Courage, Punk Rock, and Vedanta

KesariEveryday, the world challenges the Vedantin’s values. Materialist mantras decorate the billboards. The media shout their empty promises of fame and pleasure. Lust poses on the magazine covers and every television commercial proclaims the gospel of more, more. Even one’s dearest, even friends and family, may scoff at renunciation and spiritual practice. The world is on fire with the thirst for fulfillment, and we try to quench it with the oil of indulgence.

Some days, it takes a heroic effort just to crawl out of bed.

I watch my mind and don’t like what I see. Clinging and restlessness, and the constant temptations of the senses. And sometimes they sneak in, like a viper in the night, and I don’t even know they’ve bitten me before the venom has done its work. I tell myself every weekend that this one will be different, this time I’ll stand upon my dedication and do what needs doing, but I rarely do. Most days, by mid-morning, I have it all worked out, and my life is going to change. I’ll take charge, take the bull by the horns. And by the evening, I’m tired just from living through the day.

Swami Vivekananda was a relentless sannyasin. Calling for fearlessness and nerves of steel in his followers, he himself had both in full measure. Perfect in renunciation, unmoved by any of the things of the world, no one has ever been more certain. In the face of disbelief even from his fellow disciples, Swamiji was strong and courageous. He would have moved the world had no one supported him. By the sheer strength of his will, the world have known the name “Vivekananda.”

“This is a great fact,” Swamiji said. “Strength is life; weakness is death. Strength is felicity, life eternal, immortal; weakness is constant strain and misery: weakness is death.”

“If there is one word that you find coming out like a bomb from the Upanishads, bursting like a bombshell upon masses of ignorance, it is the word ‘fearlessness.'”

“You may meditate on whatever you wish, but I shall meditate on the heart of a lion. That gives strength.”

Swamiji grew to such proportions, that he burst through the net of Maya. Taking the world in his hand, he could have shaken it to its foundations; he left us a legacy of bravery in the war against mankind’s greatest enemy: ignorance. He died young because the world simply could not endure his majesty for long.

When I think about the example set for us by Swami Vivekananda, I also remember that he gave the best years of his life and the greatest part of his phenomenal energy to the people of America. When my great-grandparents were breaking their backs picking cotton, a hurricane of spiritual power swept across their country. Generations later, I still feel its wind. And what religious heritage did Swamiji plant in the States? Freedom. No sentimental devotionalism, no dogmatic creeds, no pointless rituals. Only the highest ideal of the brightest illumination.

“Each soul is potentially divine.The goal is to manifest this divinity by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion.”

Swamiji made tremendous efforts for me. He planted the tree of perfection that I could rest in its shade. Through his work, I too may glimpse the glory of my own divinity, and that in all Creation. Through the years, he beckoned to me, challenging me to Arise, and to Awake.

But Swamiji did not charge me with an easy task, for as I said, some days arising from bed itself requires enormous effort. Some days, I am afraid to even turn on my bedroom light. It isn’t depression, it isn’t anxiety, it isn’t lethargy. I think anyone who thinks deeply will admit this: the world scares the hell out of me. So how do we make this effort? How do we even hope to reach the goal?

Some of us thrive in silence and solitude, cherishing the warmth of the winter sun through a window and the inspiration of a good book. Hours pass in meditation and prayer. There is inner struggle, no doubt, but the face carries a radiant smile and the voice a ready laugh.

Others live to sing the Lord’s praises and worship Him in elaborate rituals. Lamps and flowers, sweet incense and music. Holy company, lively spiritual discussion, chanting God’s sacred names, and pilgrimages to sacred places. It is a life of abundant love.

But some take a martial view of the spiritual struggle. The ego is the Great Enemy, to be slain by the sword of Viveka and burned upon the pyre of Vairagya. The world is Kurukshetra. The sadhaka is Arjuna, the conqueror of enemies. The taunts and jeers of lust and greed inspire the devotee to battle, wielding the Mantra like Hanuman’s mace.

I grew up on punk rock and hardcore. I may have been a rebel without a cause, but I still admire the non-conformists, screaming out of frustration at the ignorance and corruption surrounding them. Swimming upstream, going against the grain, and an uncompromising certitude that things are not meant to be this way. This is the idiom I understand, the language that I speak. Born a Gen-Xer, the paradigms of my predecessors failing my generation, I grew up surrounded by kids who grew angrier and more dissatisfied every year. Our music was a sonic sledgehammer because we felt we needed to bludgeon the world into understanding. We wanted a weapon to defeat the apathy we saw in every school and on every news channel. We took our fight to the streets, never realising that we were waging the war in the wrong direction.

When I feel weighed down by doubt, and want nothing more than to pull the dark around me and hide, what good will it do me to burn some incense? But if I am a freedom fighter of Vivekananda…

Sometimes when I sit for meditation, I feel surrounded by hordes of desires. How can I fend them off by sitting? Am I a Buddha that I can defeat Mara’s army with the sheer force of my purity? But if Swamiji’s call to Arise and Awake is my battle cry…