I got out of the house by 7:30 this morning because I knew the dusting of snow would not last long, and I wanted to enjoy the combination of blossoms and snow making every thing vibrate with beauty. I was not disappointed. The sun started to come out just after I had fully circumnavigated the Capitol. By the time I got to Lafayette Square, the snow was all melted, but the blossoms sparkled even more. It was such a glorious walk through the neighborhood, I was quite ecstatic, and at one point, I thought perhaps I was hallucinating when I first crested the Capitol grounds around 8am; from loudspeakers on the Mall (presumably there for Cherry Blossom Festival events), someone was blaring the Clash, singing “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
Could I really have been hearing the Clash being broadcast on the National Mall at 8am on a Sunday morning? I remembered thinking we were making a statement when we blared the Sex Pistols as we drove across the 14th Street bridge towards the Capitol on July 4rh in the mid-80s. I remembered how disappointed my friends and I were when Joey Strummer disappeared the year I was living in London, and we didn’t get to see the Clash in Brixton. I allowed the flood of memories to rush in and then fade with the music. I thought of all the years I have been walking around this city, and how many times it has snowed while the blossoms are in bloom–more frequent than one might think.
I watched the melting snow start to glitter in the sun and the blossoms vibrating with their ephemeral beauty. And then I walked on through downtown, past the White House, and up to Dupont Circle, stopping to buy apples and mushrooms at the Dupont Fresh Farm Market before attending meeting for worship at Friends Meeting of Washington.
I am reading Philip Goldberg’s American Veda–From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation; How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. It is another of the recently published works on the interplay and inter-influence of east and west. What distinguishes American Veda is that it is more about how Indian spirituality influenced western/American society overall, than an analysis of the yoga that we practice in the west. Much that one might expect to be in the book is there: Emerson, Thoreau, Swami Vivekananda (and the Parliament of the World’s Religions), Ramakrishna, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Osho, Muktananda, the Beatles, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but there are other connections that are less well-known.
As one generally familiar with the history of Indian philosophy and yoga practices coming to the West, it reads more like a survey or overview than an analysis to the extent that it tries not to leave out any one who could have been an influence and goes into little depth regarding any particular influence. (Note: the author himself says that the book is limited to Vedic/Hindu influences; he refers the reader to other sources, in particular, How the Swans Came to the Lake, for the transmission of Buddhism to the west).
What is most interesting to me about reading American Veda is that it reads like old home week. I recognize the names and the philosophies and the way people speak about spirituality and religion, and the author lovingly and thoroughly shows how profound and widespread is the influence of Vedic thought in America, even where no attribution is given. I recognized even when I first discovered Indian philosophy texts in high school the interplay between how me and my fellow unprogrammed. liberal Quaker friends were talking about mystical experience and understanding of God/Spirit and the Indian philosophy, and it is lovely to have a book where someone went out and did all the research and gathered the sources. By the time I was thinking about anything at all really, Indian philosophy was already something in my consciousness thanks to the Beatles and the Beats. The Beatles discovered Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when I was six, which was the year that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour came out and my parents for some now unfathomable reason gave them to me for my Christmas present. My older sister and I played those albums over and over again on our portable record player, whirling ourselves into states of dizzy ecstasy with the sitar grooving in the background on our favorite songs.
I was moved to read the Bhagavad Gita by reading J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. I do not remember whether this was in 9th or 10th grade, but I read Salinger because was what cool, smart kids read. What I remember is that I read both Franny and Zooey and Catcher in the Rye (probably read the latter first) before Catcher in the Rye was assigned reading in 10th or 11th grade and that while I was not particularly impressed with Holden Caulfield, I really wanted to be as brilliant and educated and extraordinary and talented and philosophical as the children in the Glass family, and so I tried to read what they read (though alas, I read it in translation, where they were able to read the Greek and Latin and Sanskrit, etc.) By 11th grade, a teacher had given me J. Krishnamurti to read, and his anti-guru guruness appealed to my Quaker sensibilities.
In Paths to God, Ram Dass speaks of satgurus and upagurus. A satguru is the true teacher. The upaguru is anyone who teaches us something, which, when we are truly open to recognizing the good in all, is literally every one.
The satguru may refer to that within us that is the power, or the essential pulsation, or the light, or the illuminative wisdom, or the heart unbound by space and time that leads us to know the true Self. As such, the satguru unfolds the means to experience the love that the satguru is/experiences. The very rarest of individuals do not have to make any effort either through the various yoga practices (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, etc.) or practices in another spiritual tradition to experience the fullness of consciousness unbound by self, or time, or space. The rest of us must engage in shifting our lives to align better with nature to experience the highest bliss of being. For this, we need teachers and we receive, if we are paying attention, teachings.
Sometimes a person will will recognize the satguru embodied in a particular human form, as Ram Dass has with Neem Karoli Baba. Sometimes, the teachers illuminating our journey are acharyas, great spiritual teachers who illuminate pathways and practices for finding the satguru within ourselves and in others. They are important teachers for many and a profound influence, but except to the extent that we are all the satguru, they are not “gurus,” nor do they hold themselves out as such. I think of my primary teachers–those I have studied with personally and a couple, like Ram Dass and J. Krishnamurti, whose writings have deeply shifted me–as acharyas. That they may have human foibles does not diminish the power of what I have learned from them and the joy I have experienced and shared from studying with them.
Other people we meet — all of them — are upagurus; we can learn from everyone and anyone. That is what Quakers are taught and seek to practice; that is what Ram Dass is offering for us to consider in both Paths to God and in more detail in Be Love Now. Sometimes we meet a stranger just for a moment, but the stranger in that moment exhibits such grace, that the stranger is one of our teachers for life. It is by being open and spacious that we get the opportunity to recognize those who have just one perfect teaching for us. When we are closed off, we can miss both teachers and teachings.
If we are open enough to seeing the light in everyone, we will also find that even those that trouble us can help us better respond in the highest. Those are the ones Ram Dass calls “teachings” instead of “teachers.” And those who will trouble us will come. We will meet someone and that person will push our buttons. Perhaps the person demonstrates too strongly some behavior or trait we don’t like in ourselves. What a great teaching that can be. When I see such a reflection of myself, I know that when I respond or act in similar ways, I am out of alignment, and it is a great motivator to release the behavior or trait.
Perhaps someone shows up to help us reenact an old emotional pattern that has not served. That someone is the laboratory upaguru who has arrived to give us the opportunity to discover whether this time around we are able better able to embody the principles that we are studying. In being faced with our old stuff, we are given an opportunity, by changing how we respond, to dissolve the old patterns (samskaras) that, if not dissolved by practice, commit us to perpetuate the suffering resulting from our past actions (karma).
Sometimes the upagurus come from the past. They are seeing you through the filter of their own past and have reappeared for something on their own journey. In such people, we perhaps get a teaching that reminds us why we are seeking to better align, why we have sought to shift and change old patterns. We might also meet in an upaguru who has been part of our past someone who has shifted and grown and inspires us to go further on the path, sharing it for a while. Those who are parts of our life for a long time, I think generally serve as both teachers and teachings, and we are the same for them.
With regard to everyone we meet, from an embodied satguru to the most troublesome, the more we are open, the more we hold all that we encounter in what John Friend calls “luminous spaciousness,” the more able we will be both to recognize the true teachers and to learn from the teachings.