Wednesday, January 2, 2019

An Ace at the Gate


After arriving at Bangalore Airport, I paced outside until I finally hopped into a cab and told the driver that I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but I that I needed a hotel near the bus station. As it was already dark, I would head south to Mysuru in the morning. Per the emailed recommendations from the ashram, I would take the Skybus. My American sensibilities were suddenly rattled from the realization that not planning ahead spawns moments of uncertainty. The taxi driver seemed helpful, despite us only understanding perhaps half of what the other was saying at any given time. 

Until he told me he hadn’t slept in 2 days. 

“You need to take a break then, and rest.” 

“No break.”

Okay. 

We drove - or rather sat - through over an hour of traffic to get into the city, and once there it was clear he was trying to take me to a hotel owned or run by a friend of his. Or at least someone who gives ‘commision’. Understandable, but I was not yet willing to relinquish my Western mindset or middle class standards and I wanted a place with a private shower...and in a neighborhood amenable to sleep. I got the former. The first hotel he pulled up to was full. Glory be. The second one overcharged for what it was, but after 24 hours of transit, and my haggling inclinations never being particularly keen, I didn’t feel like talking with the manager any longer than required to receive a room key. 

The next morning I took a taxi the three hours south to Mysuru. It was fortunate because I was able to pick up a yoga mat (of all the things to forget) along the way. 

Here at the ashram we are amidst seven days of abolsute silence, imposed by the guru and started on December 31st. This is waived during lectures and classes so that we may ask questions, and during Kirtan - an evening ritual where we sing mantras and other songs together before bed. Someone sang Auld Lang Syne that last night of 2018. 

We are not technically supposed to leave the ashram, which is laid out on a number of hectares of vegetable fields, sprinkled and surrounded with tall coconut trees and brush. It is on the outskirts of a small, country village - itself on the outskirts of the city of Mysuru. It is composed of several concrete buildings that serve as male and female dorms, a kitchen hut, the main hall where we meditate and have class, and what looks to be the original farmhouse, now serving as the masters’ ‘dorm’. 

But with limited space, diverse personalities, egos and energies, all in different stages of spiritual awakening, one needs to take a walk occasionally. There is a shrine built around a large tree up the road, in the middle of a three-way intersection. It is the perfect place to walk to after First Meal (one of two vegan meals daily, plus fruit and herbal tea - no caffeine - in the morning and after lectures). The setting becomes more magical with each day. However even though an occasional walk off grounds may go intentionally unnoticed, it is important that we steer clear of the village. 

When we arrived two weeks ago, the ashram was still being built around us. They had moved from their former location in Mysuru (Mysore) just before this current session began, and the feeling is a special one - seeing something new literally rise from the earth, with the purpose of teaching something ancient. 

The villagers are mostly very friendly and smile when you see them on the road or on the ashram grounds, as they come in to farm or do other things. But they have specific ways of doing things within their community, and disruption to that can cause problems. Westerners with good intentions can be blamed for anything that might go awry weeks or months after they’ve left. Not to mention the propensity for unintentional cultural insensitivity. So we were told - rightly - to stay out, especially since the village leadership has significant sway over the ashram’s land lease. 

We all have our daily Karma Yoga here, which is our assigned chore. I clean the toilets and showers in our dormitory. Admittedly, when our Karmas were announced at orientation, bewilderment was followed by hope that this was a rotating assignment...before I gulped acceptance. 

“Do you like cleaning toilets?” my co-Karma’d newfriend Cicero half-jokingly asked me the first day we were in the bathroom together, brushing porcelain holes in the ground with blue cleaner. (These are the original Squatty Potties.) “It’s not my favorite thing,” I replied. “Well, I like it,” he said. When I looked at him quizzically, he added, “I like when toilets are clean, don’t you?” Wow. Fair enough. 

With new perspectives come new questions. When we discipline the mind not to seek every answer, but to await them, we evolve. Of course some questions are worth seeking answers for. But the concept of Self-exploration and internal work has never been so clear as it has become here, as well as the fact that the first requisite for any change to occur is the desire for it. 

“Wake up! It’s a brand new dayyyy!” plays abruptly from across the open-aired dormitory at 4:30 every morning because it is the smartphone alarm of the toughguy Yogi who is both our asana demonstrator and ‘Resident Director’. The singsongy tune makes me laugh despite my tiredness. 

Washing our food trays, utensils and cups after every meal inspires trust among the group: trust that you wash diligently after your use to ensure the clean and pleasant future use by an other; and that an other has washed sufficiently before your own next use. 

The guru is a long-practicing medical doctor (whose 3D computer internal body images enhance lectures on  anatomy and movement, if not also induce occasional squirms), Yoga PhD, and the disciple of Swami Krishnananda Saraswati, who was a disciple of Sivananda Saraswati (those unfamiliar can Google both). The asana teacher is a national and international gold metal-earning former competitor, and Hatha Yoga teacher for over ten years. As we strengthen our bodies and minds, tune our wills, address our fears and deepen our knowledge reservoir, we are in good hands for an integrated, Integral Yoga education here, and I am thankful for that. 

Oh, and the name of this blog post? The day after Christmas, I needed a sign from the universe, although I didn’t know it. My emotions and ego were driving the chariot of the Self and I needed to retake the reigns. The day after my birthday was the winter solstice as usual, as well as one month’s time since my father’s sudden departure from his earthly body the night before Thanksgiving. The next day was a full moon, the first since he died. Christmas Eve and Day had come and gone with little fanfare here, which was perfect. But I was unconsciously waiting for something while walking down the dirt driveway toward the ashram gates. 

My father liked playing cards. All the card games I know he taught me - including Solitaire. All the card tricks that I know he taught me. We used to play together with his siblings-my uncles and aunts, their kids-my cousins, and his mother-my grandmother while at the family ranch down in Alabama every year. It was often a good prescription after swimming in the lake or four-wheeling all day. He would give my brother and I a new deck of cards in our Christmas stockings every year. 

As I approached the gate, slowing to decide whether to pass through onto the road for a short walk, something caught my eye. 

An ace of diamonds on the ground. 

As I passed beyond the gate, I saw that there were different playing cards all along the road - a queen of diamonds, two of clubs, jack of hearts, eight of hearts, king of spades...as if someone had strewn a deck along the road outside the ashram. I heard a pair of other straggling students say in English (the common language of everyone here) to each other as they passed me on their covert reentry: “Weird how there are playing cards all over the place.” 

In the game of life there are many cards to play. Some are given, some are found, and all the plays are our choices made. 

As it happens, today is my little (now taller) brother’s birthday. Happy birthday, Little Bro. In this life, I’ll always have a higher number of years. 




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