The shows last weekend included long drives at the beginning and the end. I drove nine hours up to Eugene on Wednesday, and then 11 hours from Portland on Sunday. At the last minute before the trip, I thought of downloading an audio book, and chose Autobiography of a Yogi, which was something that had been on my reading list for a long time, and it seemed like the perfect length for the drives. Which it was, as I finished on the return trip as I was passing through Redding.
The book was the first one written for the West by an Indian spiritual master. I love the film footage of Yogananda arriving in America in 1920, a sari-swathed, long-haired guru walking sandal shod through the streets of New York City. In a way, I feel that people were more open then. He was such an anomaly that folks seemed to welcome and celebrate him, and he was able to meet people and pretty instantly start spreading his teachings of Indian spirituality.
As a child, Yogananda was interested in gurus in the way that children today are interested in video stars. He tried several times to run away, not to the big city, but to the Himalayas, where his idols were living in caves communing with God. He didn’t care about school or girls or anything, except for the day when he would find his guru, and start the path toward becoming one with the creator.
That kind of focus is so interesting to read about, and so foreign to me. How is it that some people are born knowing whole-heartedly what their path will be? I feel I was floating around for most of my life. I fell backwards into a music career, knew I would write but was never in a big hurry to do so. I intuited that there was a greater wisdom out there, and sort of poked around in all kinds of different intellectual and spiritual paths on a kind of hunch that there was something bigger I was supposed to figure out.
I noticed as I listened to the book that the devotional aspect of Yogananda’s practice set up a little barrier in me. Somehow, I love the idea of a person on a spiritual path, but I can see myself become uncomfortable when he says that he was committed to surrendering to God.
The one thing that I very much stayed away from over the years was anything to do with God. The concept of the Father in the sky burned out for me very young in my Catholic education. Growing up in Moral Majority land while I was reading Kerouac and Vonnegut, I just couldn’t get down with the whole thing. It seemed like magical thinking to imagine a being with a big plan, and as the good materialist American I was, I set my mind to agnosticism and went searching for ways to become THE BEST CLEM I CAN BE, and in doing that imagined myself on some kind of path of wisdom, and what I called spirituality.
Of course, this idea of creating some higher version of the self really only causes misery. When I work to improve the small self, the ego Clem, there’s a ceiling there. I am only improving myself to be of better use to the material world: attractive, with a strong work ethic, and a striving intelligence. This way, there is no way to be enough. There is no way to succeed ultimately. I am forever grasping for more and fighting decay. Happiness comes from things and then those things get taken away. I judge myself against some standard that is always shifting. There is always someone with more, and the bar moves constantly. Even on this path of “wisdom,” I work harder and harder, and then one day I walk into a library or I meet someone further along and a sinking defeat rains down. I can never know enough. I can never be enough. The small self is programmed to judge and find lacking.
Luckily, fortuitously, I happened upon the way out. I first learned how to hear that big megaphone of an internal voice in my head, and once I distanced myself from it I realized, that’s not me. I was gifted with a friend who taught me how to stop identifying with my reactions to the world. I witnessed the heavy emotions I thought were me pass through like storms, and leave, once I invited them to make themselves known. Fear, shame, rage, happiness, grief, I learned to let go of their stories and I started to see, ah, I get to let go of the fight. Let go of judgment. Let go of avoiding. Let go of identity. Just be.
One day, I lay on the carpet and I said, what is it to die? I imagined the breath slowing, the warmth fading away, the heart stopping, the spirit uncaged. I saw how the terror of this eventuality had shadowed my whole life.
I realized that I said spirit, uncaged.
What is that spirit? Is that who is listening to the thoughts and not reacting to them? Is that who is feeling these emotions, watching them contract the body and then release? Is that who watches the small self and all its limitations? Is there something there that is complete already?
I was agnostic because I needed proof. I didn’t like the words and the implications and the metaphors. But here, as the small self dies, suddenly, I touch the infinite. I experience dropping away into bliss. I experience the oneness of all things. I still can’t say the word, but somehow, a profound knowing falls through me.
In Yogananda’s book, there are so many really wonderful mystical, magical stories. Gurus don’t eat for decades, or manifest to tell someone they’re taking a later train. There are levitations and secret messages from beyond the grave. So all weekend, I live in a reality in which these things are possible, and let my imagination run away a little. Before my show one night, rather than doing stick exercises, I lie down and see if I can bring the deathless guru Babaji into my heart. I ask him for a well-played show, to rain down love and connection on all the beings in the building. A lovely dream of lotus petals falling into my upturned hands passes through my awareness, and I rise refreshed and a little giddy.
Recently, I was listening to a lecture by Tara Brach, and she told a story of a teacher standing over a child in a classroom. The child says she’s drawing a picture of God, and the teacher tells the child that no one knows what God looks like.
“They will now!” The child says without missing a beat.
All my life I scoffed at certainty. I still cringe when I say the word God, maybe I always will. My mentor says she finds the word Consciousness suits her better, and I like that too. I like to think of the energy that existed before form, before matter, before the big bang, this infinite creative energy looking for something to do. Even that feels inadequate. However, when I let go of language, and are truthful in myself, I see what it is I have been discovering. I have to acknowledge this tangible experience, what feels like proof. I guess I’m not agnostic anymore.
I meet spirit, I fall into the true self, I experience the dropping away into bliss, and what else can I say? I look into the room as I play. Sound waves crash through light waves and love falls like lotus petals. This body communes with energy while the spirit stays still. In the center is an infinite blossoming truth. So really, who am I kidding?
From my blog www.blissanddrumming.com.
You can hear me read this on Soundcloud HERE and on iTunes HERE.