Rivers Run Back

I cannot deny it:  I am an obsessive reader.  I read for pleasure, I read to counteract misery, I read when I’m bored, I read when I’m not bored, I read while I’m eating (if I’m alone), I read while watching television (and miss most of what’s on TV), I read in the car during trips and, well… you get the picture.  I like to think I don’t read just anything, and I don’t.  I also like to think I am not one to read murder mysteries, but the number of them I have now read is mounting, and I’ll have to do some thinking about why I enjoy them occasionally.  Oh, RRBwait, I’ve got it:  I like the ones written by people who can write.  That’s it!  That’s the ticket!

Recently, Joyce Yarrow came into my life through other avenues, and I just read her book with Arindam Roy,  Rivers Run Back.  I like Joyce a lot, and so I wanted to read her novel, although one can get into a LOT of trouble in reading the work of friends.  In my case, the pile of stuff I have waiting to be read seems to constantly grow, and people don’t always ask you politely to read their stuff.  A lot of them seem to simply assume that you will want to do them the favor of being a “test reader” for what they write.  I tend to avoid those kind, through some cussedness of my own.  I personally am quite hesitant to ask people to read what I write, but as usual, I digress:  I want to talk about this book.

First, however, let me tell you about the pictures you are going to see here:  they are the work, overall, of the Flying Birds of the Aseem Asha Foundation of India, and each one is a painting of one of the characters in the book.  If you have some disposable income and want to feel you are contributing to a worthy cause, you should check out the work my good friend Aseem Asha is doing with the most marginalized of children in India:  he is teaching them to make films, he is teaching them technical skills, he is teaching them to express their creativity, he takes them to museums and holy places and other places they need to know about in their own country.  He is teaching them to improve the community they live in and he is teaching them to think.  He helps them with their schoolwork, he helps them to learn English, he teaches them to minister to those less fortunate than they are, and he clearly loves them.  He does all this on what is probably well below a shoestring budget.  He started by opening his very own personal room in Delhi, and the children flocked to come to him after school, and more children kept coming and coming, Hindu, Christian, Muslim and all.  Now, through the help of friends, he has a little more space and a bit more money, and they still come, increasingly.  You can find the Aseem Asha Foundation on Facebook; they do not have a website yet, although that is in the works, and you can find Aseem here:  (aseemasha@gmail.com).  I’m sure you can find some of the films the kids have made on YouTube, as well.  Just do a search for Flying Birds.  To get back to these paintings, they are the work of Aseem Asha’s “Birds,” and you will love them.  See below.


Now, to the book:

In literature and mythology, a river signifies the flow of life’s journey. Ganga, the lifeline of India, flows back thrice in its course. It changes its flow from Dakshniayan (southern) to Uttarayan (northern). The title of this book, Rivers Run Back, is inspired by Ganga’s backward flows and introspections. Ganga changes its course first at Uttarkashi, Uttrakhand. Then it turns back at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and finally, it runs back at Sultanganj, Bihar. In India, the yearning of rivers to run back signifies the deep introspection experienced by all of us— male or female, Eastern or Western— during the different stages in our lives. A woman, on her life’s journey, looks back thrice. First, she turns back for a last look at her paternal home, when she leaves to start a new life with her husband. The second time she turns her life around to nourish a new life within her when she becomes a mother. Then, when her children leave, she again turns around to give a new meaning to her empty nest. She adapts to the transitions as she flows with life. As the characters in Rivers Run Back search for their identities, their journeys are within and without, spiritual and spatial, from one culture to the other. The narrative crisscrosses nations, histories, politics, and crime. It celebrates universal humanism, liberal democracies and the ardent belief in the goodness of life and living. Nothing remains the same. Everything returns. Everything changes! — Joyce Yarrow & Arindam Roy, Rivers Run Back (2015)

 The mythos that I was raised on as a spiritual infant taught me that the rivers Ganga and Yumna are consorts that run each in its own direction, converging with the subterranean river Saraswati at the end of each aeon in Prayag, an ancient spiritual center, purported to have the most fertile land in India.  Ganga, while the recipient of all kinds of filth created from the birth pangs of modern India, has a mysteriously pure water, a water that even scientifically holds up to scrutiny of its reputation.  When a person dies, the Hindu custom is to put two drops of Ganga water in their mouth so that the soul may be cleansed of its sins and ushered forward on its journey.  People continue to bathe in Ganga despite everything that finds its way to it,  and somehow retain their health.  It seems there is a mysterious “X-factor” in the water than ensures this (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17134270)

narsimha_resizedThis is a story that sweeps across cultures, time, and spirit, a story that Ganga and its mysterious qualities runs all through.  It is a story of the eventual outcome of will and the triumph of spirit.  It is, however, even more:  it is about about chance and change and who lives and who dies.  The part of it that is a murder mystery is fairly minor, because it illuminates a number of different beings, beginning in India, 1960, which in itself surprised me–although not much–because the event that triggered all the rest, the birth of an illegitimate child, was set in the context of an entrenched Brahmin family for whom such an occurrence was quite unacceptable.  The baby born was Narsimha, meaning Lion, and he grew into a force that seeded growth and tragedy both:

There was no naming-ceremony for the baby, born amidst strangers and unwelcome in the world. On the 12th day after giving birth, his mother gently inserted a betel leaf in his right ear and whispered across it, “Narsimha. You are called Narsimha Sastry. You will survive in spite of everything.” The first name signified man-lion. She wanted him to be fierce. The surname meant brave one. The naam-roop— name that shapes character— did its work. His baby cry was ferocious. Tulasi was proud of her baby boy, although his wails and cries forced her to relive the terrible events following the revelation of her pregnancy…. — Joyce Yarrow & Arindam Roy, Rivers Run Back (2015)

shankarI am determined to write this response to the book without “spoilers,” as you may want to read it too.  But let me say that as a psychologist, Narsimha presents a fascinatingly accurate portrait of a developing antisocial personality.  On the one hand he has plenty of reason to go wrong, yet at the same time, he could have gone either way.  I suspect in this day and age we would say he has an “attachment disorder.”

MARILYNAs Narsimha is growing up under the cloud of shame and outrage surrounding his birth, so is Shankar,
a boy growing up in wealthy circumstances, loved and cosseted, although with a controlling mother who places certain expectations on her only child.  Eventually Shankar escapes to New York City to teach at a university, although he may only have dimly realized that was what he was doing.  Shankar presents an interesting picture of a man who is in some way at war internally, a war between intellect (and its ambitions) and spirit.

Seven thousand miles away in New York, Marilyn is growing up in a similarly comfortable family, but one without the spiritual heritage that gives meaning and constriction both to Shankar’s life.  Her demons are interior ones, but she has an uncle, Sven, who helps her to develop her talent, support her, and find meaning.  However, the events of her life, combined with her own innate constitution, cause her to develop a severe bipolar disorder, a disorder to the point of psychosis.  The lack of understanding of her parents, her own loneliness and the resultant lack of self-esteem have caused her to develop an interior “voice” that invariably works to undermine her self-confidence.  As might be imagined, she and Shankar find each other, and eventually have two children, Padma and Leela, who constitute the main cast of characters of the book, although one of my favorite characters, Dusty, enters briefly at a later point.  Padma, it seems, is her father’s child, an almost too-gooLEELAd-to-be-true character, while Leela is more similar to her mother in her inability to sacrifice her own individuality for the greater good of the family.

PADMA_to printThus, we have a family growing, both as individuals and a unit, and all the time their nemesis Narsimha, unknown to them, is growing in his own direction.  Most of the book is constituted by the thought-provoking development of its characters, only turning into a real detective drama toward the end.  It is, I think, far too intelligently written to be confined to that genre.  It is a book about the growth of soul.  Along the way, who lives and who dies?  Or to use a better phrase, who prevails?  This is a fascinating read that flows out of its origin–India–to the West and back again, illuminating the development of its characters in the context of their cultures and traditions, on the backdrop of modernity.  I keep wanting to tell people:  please do read this so we can talk about it!

I just didn’t want it to end when it did.  Let me know what you think.

The Battle of Life

BG Krishna instructs Arjuna 2

I have been thinking, lately, about how despite all the inner work one does, the battle with the limited self must continue throughout life.  Presumably, this is because what we call the “ego” or the “nafs” (in Sufi terminology) is necessary to our experience on the earth plane.  As I understand it, it works as a sort of anchor to hold us to this plane of materiality, and the overcoming of its limitations seems to be the primary vehicle for learning what we come here to learn.  The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him, said in a Hadith that the human being is actually higher than the angels, because in coming here for the earth experience, the soul has the opportunity to actualize the God-self, while the angels remain caught in contemplation of God.  The descent of the soul out of the unity of divine Being into humanity is the ultimate descent, its limitation being symbolized by the crucifixion of Christ.

Inayat Khan, in The Unity of Religious Ideals, illuminates the battle with the limited self by telling the story of Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, which metaphorically describes the inner battle with the limited self in the war that Arjuna must fight.  In his fear and anguish, caught between two sides, he consults his charioteer, Krishna, and gradually Krishna helps him to see what the battle really means, and how to win it.  It is a good way to describe the battle of the soul with the ego, because in reality, the inner battle can only be fought through outer circumstances.   Inayat Khan writes:

 . . . the latter part of Krishna’s life has two very important aspects. One aspect teaches us that life is a continual battle and the earth is the battlefield where every soul has to struggle, and the one who wants to own the kingdom of the earth must be well acquainted with the law of warfare. S/He must learn the secret of an offensive, the mystery of defense, how to hold her or his position, how to retreat, how to advance, and how to change position; how to protect and control all that has been won, how to abandon that which must be given up, the manner of sending an ultimatum, the way of making an armistice, and the method by which peace is made. In the battle of life man’s position is most difficult. S/He has to fight on two fronts at the same time: one enemy is himself, and the other is before him. If s/he is successful on one front and fails on the other front, then his or her success is not complete.  (Inayat Khan, Volume IX, The Unity of Religious Ideals)

A well-known aphorism comes to mind here:  Choose your battles, as the saying goes.  Recently, I found myself in conflict with some colleagues, and this whole idea was brought home to me quite thoroughly:  those colleagues got the jump on me in a situation where they ought to have shown more ethical and professional discretion, and I found myself powerless to do much of anything about it when I realized what had happened.  How to deal with this, I wondered, and as someone with a strong inner life, I was frustrated to find myself ready to “spit nails.”  On an outer level, I did what I could do:  there were three people with whom I found myself in this situation, and one of them was fairly innocent, because he was on the outside and was used to accomplish the ends of the other two.  Another of these colleagues was someone I had long ago realized was going to do what she would do without any thought for ethical protocol or what the Sufis call adab, or fineness of manner.  Such a person cannot be fought, except within.  More on that later.   The third of these people was someone who is mostly just a bit inexperienced, and was probably just thoughtless in this situation.  In pain and suffering, I confronted her, as wisely and compassionately as I could, and endured her rage, remembering that I was once exactly where she was, and knowing that she would eventually grow through her hypersensitivity.

But the one in the middle, the one who had proven herself unbeatable without resorting to her own machinations in order to “win.”  What about her?  Vanquishing an enemy such as this is fairly impossible in outer circumstances, because one demeans oneself if one resorts to the tactics the other person is willing to use in order to attain her ends.  Thus, it occurred to me that first, I needed to look inside to find out why this person had such power over me.  The answer came immediately, in identifying the bodily sensations that arose at the thought of this person’s treachery:  I realized that she invoked the fear and powerlessness that came over me as a small child with an older sibling who later was revealed to have clear antisocial tendencies, and who tormented me, as the “baby of the family,” throughout my childhood.  This kind of family dynamic is fairly common in dysfunctional, alcoholic families, as mine was; and while I would like to say I overcame my fear and frustration, I think that in the continued appearance of similar people in my life, I still have a ways to go.  So there I am:  Arjuna on the battlefield of the soul.

What is to be done when one cannot fight outwardly without making a fool of oneself, to say nothing of making public one’s fear and frustration?  How do we deal with behavior it would demean us to even recognize, let alone fight?

The battle of each individual has a different character; it depends upon a man’s particular grade of evolution. Therefore every person’s battle in life is different, and of a peculiar character. No one in the world is exempt from that battle; only, one is more prepared for it while the other is perhaps ignorant of the law of warfare. And in the success of this battle lies the fulfillment of life. The Bhagavad-Gita, the Song Celestial, from the beginning to end is a teaching on the law of life’s warfare. (Inayat Khan)

When Inayat Khan came to the West, an Indian in what was then a very strange and alien culture, he came with a purpose:  to spread the Message of the unity of all religions, to teach his own understanding of Sufism, a philosophy that superceded differences and distinctions, one that went beyond dogmas, theologies and philosophies:  simply, love, harmony and beauty.  To those who met him, he seemed to be a simply astounding presence, the true embodiment of spiritual realization.  Yet in a sense, he was somewhat of an innocent in the culture of a war-torn Europe.  It didn’t take long for a sizeable group of students to be attracted to him and his Message, but they were very human beings, and the constant battle of politics and personalities became more and more discouraging to him.  One of my life’s teachers, Shamcher (one of his early students) said to me that “the Sufi has two points of view:  his own and that of the other.”  Murshid (the name his students called Inayat Khan, meaning “teacher”) was beset on either side with students complaining about other students, power battles, battles with the outer world, constant poverty while he tried to do his spiritual work and still support his family; at one point, when a student kept coming to complain about another, he simply said, “Well, that’s what he did today.  Let us see what he will do tomorrow.”  How does such a being–or any being–maintain equanimity in the face of this kind of constant negativity?   And the battles continue today, as they seem to in every church, spiritual and secular organization, all of which seem to exist in order to facilitate opportunities for the soul to fight its battle with its ego.  Shamcher humorously said, “God wanted to create Hell, so he created the committee.”

Arjuna speaks:

 Drive my chariot, Krishna immortal, and place it between the two armies.

That I may see those warriors who stand there eager for battle, with whom I must now fight at the beginning of this war.

That I may see those who have come here eager and ready to fight, in their desire to do the will of the evil son of Dhrita-Rashtra.  (From the Bhagavad Gita)

If you are reading this and it evokes similar situations you have had to fight, and you are hoping I am going to offer you some solution, I hate to disappoint you, because I don’t have any easy solutions for you.  I fight this battle every day of my life, and I have come to realize that I am not alone in this battle.  

Krishna, of course, represents the God-ideal, and it is God who is both sides of the battle, the war, and Arjuna.  It strikes me, here, that the important idea in this brief verse is in seeing:  put me in the middle, the passage says.  Let me see both sides equally, both good and bad.  Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, the son and successor of Inayat Khan, often told his students, of which I am one, that we ought not just learn to see with the eyes of God, but to BECOME the divine glance.  How else do we learn to fight if we cannot not only see, but become that Glance?  While I–or you–may need to become aware of my personal issues, the impressions I have retained in the battle of life, the wounds that have not yet completely healed, the “ego-trips” I put myself through, it seems to me that I cannot win my battles–or my ultimate Battle–until I learn to see the entire battlefield with the eyes of God.

When Krishna heard the words of Arjuna he drove their glorious chariot and placed it between the two armies.

And facing Bhishma and Drona and other royal rulers he said:  ‘See, Arjuna, the armies of the Kurus, gathered here on this field of battle.’

Then Arjuna saw in both armies fathers, grandfathers, sons, grandsons; fathers of wives, uncles, masters; brothers, companions and friends.

When Arjuna thus saw his kinsmen face to face in both lines of battle, he was overcome by grief and despair, and thus he spoke with a sinking heart.  (Bhagavad Gita)

Arjuna is overcome with despair:  Lord Krishna has enabled him to see through His eyes, and he now sees both sides.  How can he fight?  How can he take sides?  He weeps at the idea of killing anyone, because no one is an enemy, they are all parts of himself.  Lord Krishna,however, lets him see that on this occasion, the fight must be fought, and that on another level, it makes sense to fight it, and it is okay to fight.  There is a reality beyond the apparent battle:

Krishna speaks:

Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are they words words of wisdom?  The wise grieve not for those who live; and they grieve not for those who die; for life and death shall pass away.

Because we all have been for all time:  I, and thou, and these kings of men.  And we all shall be for all time, we all for ever and ever.  (Bhagavad Gita)

Arjuna is catapulted beyond the apparent and into the real.  He sees that, whatever this battle is about, there is a greater reality that is beyond it that must be kept in mind if he is to win.  He sees beyond the veil, from the apparent to the real.  Then why is the battle taking place?  And why must it be won?  Must it even be fought?

Many people today ask why, if there is a God, should wars and disasters take place. And many give up their belief when they think more about it. The image of Krishna with a sword, going to war, shows that God who is in heaven, and who is most kind, is yet the same God who stands with a sword in his hand; that there is no name, no form, no place, no occupation, which is devoid of God. It is a lesson that we should recognize God in all, instead of limiting Him only to the good and keeping Him away from what we call evil; for this contradicts the saying: ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’  (Inayat Khan)

Rumi said,”If I told what I knew, the world would be in flames.”  How do we know what is transpiring beyond that which occurs?  How do we get beyond the petty grievances and frustrations, the battles of everyday living?  By learning to see.  It seems to this person that no matter what we call our ideal, whether to us it is a God ideal or an idea or a concept or a theology or philosophy, it is is truly our own, it will lead us to reality.  In time, we learn to see which battles must be fought and which must be given up.  We see who the enemy really is, and we learn to see ourselves in that enemy.  Gandhi said that we can only win over our enemy if we love her or him more than ourselves.

There is always more work to do.


The Beautiful Names


At the end of a crazy-moon night
the love of God rose.
I said, “It’s me, Lalla.”

The Beloved woke. We became That,
and the lake is crystal-clear.  –Lalla

They say there are as many different kinds of Sufis as there are Sufis, and I’m sure that’s true, given the nature of Sufism, which is such that it isn’t really a religion at all, but focuses its work on the inner meaning of all religion.  Yet there do seem to be a few central contemplative practices that are common to most if not all Sufis (and Buddhists and Hindus and well, the contemplatives of all the esoteric schools!).  The one I want to try to do justice to here today is the practice of wazifa, which most Westerners know as the term mantra, the repetition of a sacred name or phrase in order to develop the inner life and unfold particular sacred qualities inherent to the soul.  The wazifa works on many levels, not the least of which is its particular psychology, a psychology that strikes me more deeply as I research the Beautiful Names in Arabic, a language so beautiful that it is said to be the language that will be spoken in Heaven when and if we get there.  It does indeed have an extremely high vibratory quality to it, as does Sanskrit; and although I had originally been taught the Sanskrit mantras, when I became initiated as a Sufi and began to work with the Arabic wazaif (plural), I was hooked for eternity.  I’m not enough of a scholar to know which other languages have this vibratory quality, although I’ve seen hints of it in many languages, including Hebrew;  but these two seem to be the ones that work best for me.

The Sufi Order in which I am an initiate, and the various Inayati orders that are descendents of the ancient Chishtia school of Sufism, is both an interreligious organization and an esoteric school.  It is non-hierarchical in theory, but in actuality those who know more on various topics try to help those who know less, often changing places as necessary.  Many of us have a guide who works directly with the initiate on behalf of the teacher who is our link in the Silsila, the chain of illuminated beings who link with us and draw us back into pre-eternity, at the same time propelling us into post-eternity, whatever that is–through the promise we make to ourselves when we decide to come home to who we actually are.  But what does that mean in terms of the work we are doing in the world?  That looks like a very nitty-gritty process at the outset, but the more I hang out with this process, the more I see that it is all about the unfoldment of that promise, and what looks like a smelly, messy, cacophonous and chaotic world soul is also an exquisite symphony, a divine flower unfolding in the sun.  And it is the Beautiful Names that allow me to dwell in this understanding, to the extent that I Remember.  For a basic list of them, go here, to Wahiduddin’s wonderful site:  http://wahiduddin.net/words/99_pages/wazifa_practice.htm  There, you can find a list, and the basic meanings, as well as a great deal more information about Sufism, if you are interested.  Yet what I find is that these basic meanings are but springboards.  Pir Vilayat used to give these practices and teach his students how to make use of the sounds they invoke in the various spiritual centers that rise up the spine and connect the body with the higher realms of the psyche:  the solar plexus, the heart center, the crown center, etc.  He also used to suggest archetypes that embodied various of the Names:  Maryam, peace be upon her, for the divine purity (Subhan Allah), for instance, or the archangel Ophiel for Noor, the uncreated Light.  But those examples are kind of “out there,” and the wazaif can address very practical issues, too, such as the need for more power (Ya Malik,  Allahu Akbar) or the evocation of Beauty, Ya Jamil.  Of course, it must be said that to experience a quality such as beauty or power in its highest form is just that:  one must go beyond preconceptions into the true meaning of the quality, and thus the wazifa works in the psyche–soul–to reveal what is latent, and further, allows one to apply that quality to real life situations.  Magic!  If repeated with sincerity and diligence and openness.  Openness to the mystery, as Heidegger said. . .

I have been focusing on my inner work very intensely in recent months, and the more I “research” these Beautiful Names, the more I realize what a profound psychology they are for the unfolding personality and the progressing soul.  One might, through the advice and help of one’s guide, choose to work with not just one, but two wazaif, providing a point and counterpoint for the focus of what wants to unfold.  An example might be Ya (the “ya” simply means “O”) Muh’yi and Ya Mu’id, briefly defined as the divine Quickener and the divine Restorer.  The words are the springboards:  to evoke Muh’yi,  the Quickener, that aspect of God that brings things into being, makes things happen, is to go to the Source of the Water of Life.  To evoke Mu’id, the Restorer, is to return to one’s original condition, that of the divine Child, prior to the desecration the soul undergoes living on the earth plane.  Ya Rahman and Ya Rahim, the Compassionate One and the Merciful One, evoke both the divine kindness as well as the suffering God undergoes in taking on limitation in His creatures in order that the universe might unfold as it wants to.  These are but a few of what seem to be the true psychology of the soul.

Ultimately, the practice of wazifa ought to lead beyond the intent to find the quality in the personality to finding out how that quality as a condition of God manifests through the personality.  In other words, it is God–the central Self–that seeks to utilize the soul of humankind as a manifestation of divinity.  I wrote, awhile back, on another central practice of the Sufis, the dhikr.   The difference between the repetition of wazifa is that wazifa is how God is, while dhikr is the very being of God, beyond qualities.  Inayat Khan pointed out in his writings that the soul can be seen as the breath of God exhaled and inhaled, and I suppose the divine qualities–the Beautiful Names–are that exhalation, in the condition of Being.

We are not just a discreet entity but we carry the whole, the totality of the universe in us potentially.  –Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan

To truly experience the divine qualities, one seems to need to undergo a sort of death, or so it seems at the time. . . yet like the Fool in the Tarot, we fix our eyes on the beyond and leap into the chasm and find. . . Life.