Thursday, December 30, 2010

Saving Humanity, one heap of compost at a time

So... in four days I will become a Sadhu.
 Usually one thinks of this when one pictures a Hindu Sadhu:
This sadhu, sitting alongside the Ganges River, appears to us as a half-naked Hindu holy man smeared in ash and red-eyed from too much ganga (marijuana).  But this isn’t the only way to be a sadhu.  And while this particular sadhu’s path is authentic for him (and may sound exotic and exciting to us) it is not, by any means, the only way to be a good sadhu.  I know my mother, for one, will be happy to learn that when I say I am becoming a Sadhu I am not transforming myself into the image above!

To be a sadhu, simply put, is to be practitioner of Sadhana.  Sadhana is spiritual practice. It focuses on accomplishing ones spiritual goals whatever they may be.  For some sadhus the ultimate goal is reunion with the Divine.  I say reunion because Hindus believe we’re already ‘there’, so we just have to realize it, or actually, remember it.  In this belief system, the duality of spirit and world is false.  The separation of the self/soul (atman) from the cosmic divine (Brahman) is an illusion.  This illusion (Maya) keeps us from realizing we are already one with God.    Isn’t that a nice thought?  We’re already perfect and we just have to ‘wake up’ to the fact.  So different than the Original Sin concept foisted upon the Judeo-Christian sects over the last 2000 years.  So much nicer!  Well Hinduism is about 10,000 years older and has, collectively, been practiced by a lot more people.  That should give it some street cred., right? 

As a person who believes in reincarnation, I believe we don’t go to heaven or hell when we die; our energies continue, in other forms, and possibly our energies get wrapped up in a new set of human skin to meet other skin-ensconced energies to continue the journey.  I don’t know how I feel about Karma (the sum total of all our positive and negative acts in this life) and its consequences but I do know that I feel there is a cosmic harmony and balance.  Disruption of the balance for long periods of time may cause suffering and a sense of loss.  Efforts to maintain the balance keep the cosmos in harmony.  Always the universe is unfolding as it should – striving to maintain the balance.  We can help it along, or not, that can have different outcomes of us here (or maybe later in the next time around).  Having said that, I’m trying to figure out what my spiritual goal is – to end the exhausting cycle of birth and rebirth?  This is true of most sadhus. Union with the Cosmic Divine (same thing, only sounds more ambitious)? Or simply a greater understanding of what it means to be, my self, a sacred being? 

I think for this trip I’m going to stick to what is behind curtain #3.  It feels real and manageable.  I do want to know my spiritual self better.  I do want to figure out what that means and if that will feel good.  I  want to live life to its fullest and not just inhabit a series of mechanical rituals enacted daily in order to be fed and clothed.  I want to practice Sadhana because I believe there is something beyond the routine, beyond the material, beyond the guine-pig tread mill of buy-consume-shed-waste and die.  There is something bigger than me out there and, most interestingly, I am starting to believe it isn’t out there… it is in me. I’m a part of it.  It is me! 

I am going to Sadhana Forest in four days to better know my authentic and sacred self.  So, that makes me a sadhu.  A sadhu is someone who follows a particular spiritual path in search of greater understanding of, or union with, the Divine.  Sounds like a tall order, huh?  Well, yes and no. Sadhus may take several paths in the hopes of realizing their spiritual goals. And any step along the path of Sadhana is a step of spiritual upliftment. 

What does that look like you ask?  For some, this might be a repeated action (focused study and examination) accompanied by reflection (known as Kriya).  Yoga is a great example of this.  Here I mean real yoga – in its various forms -- combining mindfulness, meditation and physical devotion to the Divine. Not the mindless aerobic work-out sans spiritual reflection that you find in one too many fitness gyms across America.  When yoga is an act of discipline meant to obtain a new level of spiritual liberation than you have Sadhana.  A Sadhu and a Yogini are one in the same here.  Lucky for me, just because I have  not mastered that funky posture where you wrap your legs over your shoulders and stand on your hands, I am not disqualified from being a Sadhu.  However, since I am not a very regular (or reflective) yogini I cannot claim sadhu status through my yoga kriya.  Still, I love yoga and when I do it my chubby stubby little body (which impresses so few here on this terrestrial plane) feels like a galactic inspiration.  I hope to find time to do yoga when I’m in the woods.  I am excited that two of my fellow pilgrims into Sadhana Forest, Chris and Karolyn, are regular practitioners.  Perhaps together we’ll do a Sadhana of this kind and know our sacred selves a bit better from taking this path. 
My favorite pose.  Makes me feel STRONG and GORGEOUS
Another path (or way of exertion towards a spiritual goal) for the Sadhu may be reading spiritual books or chanting.   I’ve been known to dabble in both of these in my day.  Hare Krishnas are the most famous in the West for their devotion to God via the recitation of the names of the deity Krishna.  Their singing and tambourine playing (especially in public parks) has won them a popular sadhu position in the pantheon of sadhus, if not a little ribbing along the way.  For someone who has chanted with the Hare Krishna devotees and loved it, I can tell you it is not only exhilarating (if done in the right context and frame of mind) it IS spiritually uplifting.   Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. 

All these forms of Sadhana (yoga, meditation, spiritual reading, chanting) fall under the Niskam Sadhana category (Nis = without, Kam = desire).  They are individualistic and are not meant to help others achieve spiritual upliftment.  This is perfectly acceptable and may be practiced with non-judgement and compassion for the self.  As added bonus, these acts are said to help you achieve spiritual progress, to increase your faith and to increase your talmal or DESIRE FOR GOD. In this case, the term 'desire' has a different translation than above... Kam is desire related to love, lust and the flesh. Talmal expresses desire of a very different kind, almost a yearning for God. Fascinating concept,  that last one, I think.  In the West, we don’t often think about cultivating desire for the Divine.  We don’t praise people or give them greater honor when we see their talmal made manifest.  We don't advertise our striving for talmal.  For us, you've either got it or you don’t and it seems to be no one else's business. 

Sometimes we may poke fun of people who jump around with too much talmal  (that’s how the Quakers got their name) and other times we shun those talmal filled people who tout their talmalness door-to-door (have you ever ignored the door bell when you knew it was a Jehovah Witness ringing)?  We in the post-Enlightenment West are so rational and so secular that we've grown embarrassed talking about talmal in public.  But what if we think about God as simply LOVE and then talk about a desire for LOVE – then it doesn't seem so weird or fanatical or discomforting to us.  If reading Thoreau’s book Walden or reading one of Thoreau’s favorite writings, The Bhagavd Gita, increases my desire to love and be loved, well then okay!  Another act of Sadhana is in the bag.  My sadhu self stands up tall, proud and accounted for.

Sadhana can also be done by a group for the society at large (Samasti Sadhana).  This path really excites my inner Sadhu like crazy.  Heck, that’s why I’ve flown thousands of miles around the globe and am meeting a group of my students in the woods.  We are here to get dirty!  We are here to do some planetary sweat equity !

Samasti Sadhana is done collectively for the spiritual progress of entire humanity.  That's the work that I'm up to next week.  And people wonder why I guffaw when they say “Have fun on vacation in India!”  Working for the spiritual progress of humanity may at first seem like an overly ambitious agenda, but Hinduism gives you some great tools to work with... and then the task isn’t really so overwhelming if you break it down.  Every step on the journey counts! So when I go into the woods to live with my fellow sadhus next week, I go to make mulch, to compost our waste (food and excrement), to gather the rich resources we constantly ‘throw away’ back home, to build soil, to enrich the earth, to feed the trees and nourish the garden – I am doing my Samasti Sadhana, I am participating in saving humanity.  No small potatoes, to use a vegan idiom.  Okay, probably the brisket-loving Irish used this idiom before vegans did but I like to think of my metaphors and allusions propping up my new vegan world view. 

Examples of Samasti Sadhana (for collective spiritual uplift) include partaking in satsangs (spiritual gatherings focused on devotional speech and chanting), organizing satsangs, organizing meditation camps or, for me, organizing trips to eco villages for my college students. 

Satsang means “association with truth” (sat = true, sang = company) and is done by groups, often under the leadership of a guru (teacher), who wish to increase their spiritual/love consciousness and devotion to the divine. I am an infrequent member of just such a beautiful group which meets for satsang in the woods up the road from my house in New Hampshire.  I’ve learned a lot from my Sandwich Notch Road guru, Norman, and I think I can put a great deal of my learning to work for me in the woods over the next few weeks.  Our satsang group (Sangha) meets at his home for discussion and a veggie potluck lunch once a month.  It is in the company of such wonderful people (and cooks) that I have often felt the most real in my sadhu-ness. 

Not that one always needs a guru and a group to get busy with Sadhana – but it helps.  Pitfalls to Sadhana without a guru include increased ego and loss of motivation (over the long haul).  All this spiritual practice can get frustrating and exhausting without support.  Is it any wonder so many people prefer a trip to Ikea on Sunday or a football game, over seeking spiritual enlightenment?  But does the new Swedish love seat or the thrill of grid action get you UNION WITH THE DIVINE?  Who knows.  I’m going the route of Thoreau – living in radical simplicity, sucking the marrow, composting like mad.  Let’s see what happens.
Planting a 'Butterfly Garden' at Sadhana Forest, January 2010

Watering with my fellow Sadhus, the children of  Sadhana Forest


  1. All I can say is: WOW. We need to take regular walks just so we can talk more about this. <3 , Me.

  2. Great writing, I share many of the same ideas, thoughts, and beliefs, and strive daily to cultivate them in my Life every day.