Yesterday morning, on the listserv for the Friends Meeting of Washington, someone shared a link to the original recording of Arlo Guthrie singing “Alice’s Restaurant” as part of an email about Thanksgiving festivities. Usually, I scan listserv emails quickly and delete, especially when they relate to events that I am unable to attend. I saved this one for later, though. I’d woken up from some anguished dreams that were hard to shake, and on being reminded of it, I was sure that when I could make the time, listening all the way through Alice’s Restaurant (it’s long) would cheer me up.
This morning I did indeed listen, and remembered why we (at least those of us who attended Quaker Youth Camp in the early 1970s) memorized most of Alice’s Restaurant. It spoke to us and inspired us and invited us to feel that we were not alone in thinking that things could and should be more gracious and peaceful.
And the refrain is catchy and easy to sing. This morning, at the end, when Arlo invites the audience (the 1967 album version was a “live” recording), I started singing along just for the delight of it, which led me to think about the power of mantra.
Chanting or silently repeating mantra is one of the key yoga practices. The purpose, roughly, of mantra is to replace one set of thoughts with another. Repeating even just “om,” the simplest mantra, over and over again is meant to shift you from whatever mind state you might have been in (at least to the extent that you are having repeating troubling thought patterns) and into or towards a more beneficent state. In my own years of practice, I have found much power in practicing Sanskrit mantras, but many of the songs we have been singing for years, especially those that we associate with ritual can serve similar purposes.
If you’re so moved and feeling that you’re having thoughts around this Thanksgiving holiday that you’d rather replace with more cheerful ones, invite the power of mantra and perhaps sing, along with Arlo for the refrain in Alice’s Restaurant.
Oh yes. Happy Thanksgiving.
Much of the reason that I began attending Friends meeting again several years ago after a long hiatus was to help me find peace within myself as I witnessed and sought to change, in my own way with my own skills, this country’s impulse to war following the attacks on 9/11. As quiet and unlistened to as voices for peace might have been, I still needed to be among a community of people speaking about peace.
One of the questions Friends Meeting of Washington invites attenders to consider, which has become a core contemplation for me, is “what do you do personally to eliminate the causes of war?” For me, this extends not just to how I vote, what work I do, and what charities I support, but what I eat, what energy I consume, what media I read and support, what I wear, and how I interrelate in this complicated global web of consumption and interchange.
Here is a letter from the American Friends Service Committee that I wanted to share with all of you.
On the Friends Meeting of Washington list serve this week, there has been a fair amount of email exchanged about an upcoming “meeting for discernment for peace.” Very roughly described, a meeting for discernment begins with a period of silent worship in which those present settle into the silence and surrender thought to allow the light of spirit to illuminate a specific subject of contemplation. The subject of the meeting serves to enlighten both the individuals participating and to further both the business and spiritual state of the meeting as a whole.
As I read the emails and invited myself to contemplate the questions offered for the meeting (I will not be able to attend because I had previously committed to volunteer work), it led me to think not only about the topic under discernment, but about how similar it seems to me to the yoga practice of bhavana and how bhavana supports the Anusara teaching method of “heart-oriented posturing language.”
When we practice bhavana ,we invite the fullness of consciousness to illuminate ever deeper levels of understanding of particular teachings from the yoga texts or similar ideas. It is similar to meditation in that we don’t try to think our way through the concept, but rest with it. Bhavana differs from meditation exactly because it is focused on the deepening of a particular concept rather than simply going into the space of meditation as an end in itself.
Although a meeting for discernment is practiced as a form of collective worship rather than an individual practice, it is much like bhavana, and I brought the Quaker method of resting in the light to reveal deeper insight regarding a concept when I first starting teaching Anusara yoga with its emphasis on having a class theme and using heart-oriented language to invite myself and students to experience a heart quality through asana practice.
The queries for contemplation at the meeting for discernment for peace, include the following:
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.
Walking has always been my preferred form of getting from one place to another; if time and distance require it, I intersperse a lift from bus, metro, or taxi on one end or in the middle of a walk. All I really wanted to do with my time off–I don’t have to go to the office or teach class until January 3rd–is to walk and practice and visit with friends and family and look at art and cook and read and study and eat and play with the cats and write and photograph and dance (an open-ended term) and maybe knit or draw. For me, walking is walking in itself; time to practice bhavana — deep contemplation; time to practice japa–repetition of mantra; opportunity to open the mind and senses to allow the flourishing of creative projects–mostly writing and photography; a way of going from one place to another for shopping, working, visiting, etc; and sometimes an activity to share with friends. And of course walking to get food is wonderful both for stimulating the appetite and for aiding digestion.
Yesterday, we were given 90 minutes of administrative leave. On leaving the office at 3:30, I walked west from my building to the last Thursday until spring of the Penn Quarter Farmer’s Market. I didn’t really need anything, but wanted to support the farmers who were braving the cold, so I bought a wild oyster to eat while I stood there and a bag of arugula and a few apples and pears. From there I walked back east, traversing the Capitol grounds to East Capitol Street and stopped in and browsed at Capitol Hill Books. It was turning dark when I walked east into Lincoln Park before turning north to go home.
In less than an hour, a good friend will arrive at the door in her walking shoes. We are going to head out on foot to the Mall to talk and to look at art and to share a meal in Penn Quarter or back on the Hill. Later in the day, I will walk along the bus route to Dupont or walk to the metro to go to a Christmas Eve potluck dinner at Friends Meeting of Washington.
Tomorrow, Christmas Day, I will celebrate Christmas in the manner of New York Jews (Chinese food and a movie). After walking through Lincoln Park and down Kentucky Avenue SE (where are some of the most beautiful trees in the neighborhood) to get a massage, I’ll walk to the U.S. Botanical Gardens to meet a friend I have known since third grade who is town with some of her NY friends for the holidays. We will probably walk up to Chinatown after that. Then I’ll go see a movie. Whether I walk or take the bus will depend on whether it is dark by the time the movie lets out.
On Boxing Day, I will go to Georgetown to volunteer at the Lantern Bookshop. I will walk some of the way and take the bus the rest of the way. The length of the walk will depend on the amount of time I spend making breakfast, caring for plants and cats and house, and writing. How much of the return trip ends up being on foot will depend on how many books I decide to take home from the Lantern. Sometimes I only get one or two.