by Drake Childress
Cultural Immersion & Reflection
It might seem like the typical story to you: Hollywood and the novels feed us stories of failed love, the transformation of former lovers into monks and nuns—perhaps even the conclusion that romantic love is overrated. In the wake of a breakup myself—and disillusioned by L.A.’s particular brand of disappointment called inconsistent and flaky associates—spiritual advice wasn’t sounding so bad. As I stepped out in front of the Vedanta Society of Southern California’s Hollywood Temple, a white tower emerged from carefully cultivated greenery like a sprout in the night. The Vedanta Society of Southern California is a network of spiritual leaders, devotees, and practitioners of the Hindu faith that first caught my attention on YouTube. The wisdom of Swami Sarvapriyananda’s talk on “The Secret of the Five Sheaths” struck me as the most eloquent expression of who we are as individuals, a talk that made me wonder why my parents hadn’t given me a Teen Study Bhagavad Gita instead of a Teen Study Bible in my formative adolescent years. Maybe I would get lucky and meet Swami Sarvapriyananda or another monk at the temple who would teach me how to detach— how to lessen the lesions that love makes on the heart when it is given and not returned with the same degree, how to give of my heart without giving people disproportional dominion over my joy and sorrow. I silently wondered which Spartan or minimalist mindset I would have to adopt in order to let go of the significance of my personal cosmos of connections.
The day I came to the temple, a birthday celebration was underway—the birthday of someone who was around long before the advent of cake and yet is still in the minds and hearts of millions today. He goes by the simple name of Ram, yet he straddles both ancient and modern times. When I think of Ram and the inimitable devotion that he shared with his wife Sita, I think of the original Power Couple. Romeo and Juliet, except in ancient India, except with a happier ending, except that there is no ending because Ram is actually a divinity also known as the seventh incarnation (or avatar) of Lord Vishnu. The lasting impact of his life on the world goes far beyond his legendary bow and arrow and his alliance with Hanuman, the Monkey Deity, in reclaiming Sita from a demon-king who kidnapped her; to many devotees of Hinduism, Ram’s life is exemplary of virtuous living, or dharmic living. His name is as revered as is Jesus in the Christian tradition, and yet I remain struck at how most Americans are oblivious to this as they are to the Japanese stock market or dark matter.
When I entered the temple to celebrate Ram Navani, as Ram’s birthday celebration is called, people were arranged in rows before a central elevated place. I won’t even call it a stage or dais, because it was less about elevation and more about invocation.
There were three people up front performing: one was an instrumentalist playing something that sounded like a sitar, one a percussionist, and the other a prayer leader. The prayer leader sang to the drone of the sitar along a scale that would be considered exotic to most Western ears, its complexity informed by copious ghost notes and half steps. The language of the lyrics was completely unbeknownst to me, and yet somehow it didn’t matter: for the first few minutes of the service I felt like a newcomer drowning in a millennia-old tradition, yet as the chants continued and the audience responded to the prayer leader’s mellifluous calls, I stopped listening and started participating. I looked at the tiny book of hymns called “The Hanuman Chalisa” that an usher had handed me when I stepped into the room, and even though I didn’t understand the language (aside from the names Ram and Sita), the syllables seemed to jump off the page and greet me with the unique character and colors of their individual sounds. By the end of the service, I found my mouth uttering phrases that I couldn’t comprehend. My shoulders were relaxed, my ears were swimming in melody, and my mind was in a place where it rarely is these days: the present.
As therapists, we talk about the “here and now” and living in the moment, but to actually achieve this state of being is a different story! In this digital age of streaming and instant gratification, to be freed of the past and future through the power of music is a steep task, even for the most platinum of recording artists. It’s a great disappointment to think that several people I know have a view of Hinduism that involves a battalion of blue gods, each with ambiguous powers and an excess of limbs. What I experienced that night was such an intimate connection between Sound and Soul that it brought to mind Professor Grant Hardy of University of North Carolina Asheville’s comment that the ancient texts of of India, specifically the Vedas, manifest a great deal of their power through sound—not simply through the language in which they are written. I recall a languid summer afternoon I spent at the piano as a child and pausing to hear the sound of a dump truck backing up. As I listened to the beeping more closely it sounded an awful lot like a B, and surely enough, when I struck a high B on the piano the tones matched. All of our life is manifest in music: according to Swami Sivananda Radha, even the way we say each other’s names can have an emotional impact on the listener (Radha, 2011). Can you imagine wielding this power in everyday life, and as a therapist? To greet or see someone off by humming her name like a hymn is not the goal, but to enunciate her name with a tonal sensibility could lift spirits and remove barriers, making room for a deeper connection.
The food was yet another cause for celebration. Most birthday parties I attend find me in the awkward space of explaining to my generous host or hostess my aversion to meat, sweet and oily things, pizza, fried foods, and most of all cake. The feast laid out before us was anything but that heavy artillery that assaults the arteries: vegetarian curries, basmati rice, my personal favorite dal, and a gingery tea. I stood admiring the handiwork of the wives and daughters who had prepared the meal, feeling my first hint of compunction in a long time that I had no room left to partake in it. The monks called this feast “prasad”, which means food that has been offered to the gods and blessed by the deities prior to consumption. I must have come off as unholy by not eating the blessed food. I grabbed a cup of the ginger tea, which became my companion as I followed everyone else to a living room in an adjacent building where people brought their meals.
An elder monk in orange robes sat at the front of the room, accompanied by another younger orange-clad monk and and a worshipper slightly reminiscent of Sean Connery. Sean Connery read from a book on spiritual practice and the eldest monk, the Grand Swami, would give his interpretation of the passages. The sheer attentiveness with which everyone listened was a bellwether for what came next: a discussion of detachment. My moment of truth had arrived. I shifted in my seat and prepared to empty my mind, thirsty for the wisdom that would alleviate the burn of my people problems.
The big mistake about attachment, according to the Grand Swami, was that people think of it as a negative action: we detach and that’s it. He emphasized that the human heart cannot exist without being attached to something; to love deeply is the great risk and reward of being human. Why do we think of attachment to things as either one of two extremes: to be deeply connected or to be alienated? I thought of my studies on depression and anxiety and how many Americans subscribe to dichotomous thinking— we tend to think of ourselves as either depressed or not, anxious or calm, but there is a whole spectrum of disturbed states of mind in between. The Swami’s remark was adding depth, breadth and color to my faulty idea of the lone monk in the mountains who had renounced people and pleasurable things. Maybe there was a happy medium of being away from the world and yet still in it. The question then became how do I detach from people and things without completely cutting them off?
The Swami’s speech addressed the idea of detaching by reattaching to something else. If you wish to lessen the grips of your attachment to the material value of your car, house and job, you can remove your emotional servitude to these things by emotionally investing in other things that give you joy. The Swami suggested attaching to a higher power and chanting the name of God as a practice. My mind was immediately set in motion, applying this idea to interactions with my loved ones. I often forget that the past is also made of clay, albeit of a different kind than the future; with deliberation we can renovate the shape of our disappointments, most of all remembering that ever-evasive thing called Resilience. Perhaps I should reframe my breakup from a loss to a shift in stance—a movement towards a more sustainable lifestyle rather than a movement away from someone I love. Perhaps I should view those quotidian crises of L.A. life—those appointments canceled at the last minute, friends that don’t show up, broken promises, the disconcerting dissonance between people’s words and their actions—as an opportunity to forgive or quickly remove myself, using what I’ve learned to form more sound allegiances with others. I know it will take time, effort and a stubborn belief that joy is not just something that exists on the big screens or in the mind of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.
Before I left the temple, I had a chance to talk to Swami Mahayogananda, the monk that was sitting beside the Grand Swami as he spoke. My mental image of monks warped and deepened yet again as his warmth, sense of humor, and spectacles that seemed an extension of his face made me feel less out of place. What surprised me most was his genuine presence in our conversation. As someone who grew up attending a Baptist church until middle school, I have met plenty a Christian who treated me with a brand of obligatory kindness that made me wish to run in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. As worshippers who were leaving the event said their adieus by kissing his feet, I asked Swami Mahayogananda burning questions of mine that had not been answered so far that night: most notably, what is the Hindu view of God? It turns out that there is a grand ocean of divinity that powers all existence, and there are drops of divinity within each one of us as individuals. Even more empowering is the idea that the drops of divinity within each of us is identical in immensity to the Grand Presence that pervades the Universe. It sounded so similar to how Oprah thinks of God—and in that moment I understood part of the reason why she is able to access her fans on such a deeply spiritual level. Perhaps as therapists, we can access our clients on this level as well by making them feel as I felt with the metaphor of the ocean and the drops—by reassuring them somehow that there is a drop of integrity and strength within them that is grander than all of the problems that landed them in our offices. Perhaps we can remind them, and ourselves, that our quest for love and belonging is as ancient and modern as Ram himself—and that detachment with benefits is a lifetime’s work.
Radhi, Swami Sivananda (2011). Mantras: Words of Power. Spokane, WA: timeless books.