COLUMN: Finding home in India
A Word from the Wise
Published: Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, September 7, 2011 10:09
Three months ago, I was sitting cross-legged in a temple in southern India, as Hindu priests chanted verses from 4,000-year-old scriptures. The priests were a group of ancient men and young boys in dhotis — white wraps covering their bodies from the waist down. They were bare-chested in the heat — chests and foreheads marked with ash — their voices reverberating through the carved, granite halls. I sat alone in one of the shrine rooms to the side, before a huge statue of Ramana Maharshi, one of the great spiritual teachers of the 20th Century. Peacocks flew to the roof and screamed their hearts out, joining in the general morning celebration. Gradually, my meditation took me to a place of great peace. Here I was in India — a place I'd longed to visit my whole life. And though it was my first visit, I felt like I'd come home.
Raised Catholic and granted 11 years of Catholic education, I abandoned the Catholic church in high school, bored by what seemed its excessive ritualism and over-preoccupation with moralizing. I yearned for a richer spiritual life. Like many in the late 1970s, I tried to find it with drugs. Dropping hits of "orange sunshine" — LSD — the world opened into new dimensions of vision and reality. But this was a temporary and artificial experience, and I wanted something authentic. I began reading Emerson and Thoreau, who wrote about the exploration of the inner life. I was intrigued, but how did one begin?
Then I saw a flier for a meditation class and signed up. I arrived at the class and met the teacher, a long-haired guy with a beard and the most amazing eyes I'd ever seen — blue and full of openness and kindness. He looked right into my eyes without fear or competitiveness or aggression, just openly, lovingly. After a year or so of regular meditation practice, I began to feel a great sense of peace, well-being and happiness. I stopped drinking alcohol, became a vegetarian and became active in service work.
One day browsing my parents' bookshelf, I found a 25-cent copy of a book by Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk, called "In Seed of Contemplation." I read it and was completely astonished at how this Catholic monk was describing meditation experiences like those I had in a Hindu yoga tradition. Eleven years of Catholic education had told me nothing about Christian meditation.
I embarked upon what became a lifelong study of Christian contemplation, reading books like "The Practice of the Presence of God," "The Imitation of Christ," "The Cloud of Unknowing," "The Autobiography of Saint Teresa," and works by John of the Cross, all written in a tradition called "Christian mysticism." The word "mysticism" often calls up images of magic and the occult, but the dictionary first defines it as "a doctrine of immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding, or of a direct, intimate union of the soul with God through contemplation or ecstasy." "Yoga," too, I learned, means "union"— union of the soul with the divine. The union Christian mystics wrote of sounded astonishingly similar to that described by yogis.
I came close to becoming a monk in the yogic tradition I was involved in but fell in love, instead. I eventually left that tradition and entered a spiritual crisis and a long, "dark night of the soul"—to quote John of the Cross. After seven years in crisis, I found my way out when I encountered some books on Buddhism. I began Buddhist meditation and practiced in that tradition for more than 15 years. Once again, I encountered the same inner life I encountered in yoga and in Christian contemplative traditions.
After this long and circuitous journey, today, I draw on all of these traditions, in addition to immersing myself in the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, of the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism.
In "The Perennial Philosophy," Aldous Huxley observed that while the world's religions differ dramatically in terms of doctrine, ritual and belief, when their members write of the inner life, their descriptions are remarkably similar. This, I have found to be true. When I sit in meditation with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus or Sufis, I always feel that I've come home — surrounded by a love and peace that "passeth all understanding."