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The title of this blog comes from the words of Indian Prime Minister Nehru after the passing of Mahatma Gandhi. "The light that shone in this land was no ordinary light," Nehru said of the peaceful modern saint. The name of this blog, which chronicles my journey deeper into Spirit, is to remind us that there is no such thing as an ordinary light. The spiritual scriptures of many traditions such as the Bible, the Vedas, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, the Koran and others all tell us that God is Light and so are we. It is the essence of who we are as a universe. Turn on your inner glow and shine it like a search light across the darkness of the world. We are the stuff of suns and stars.
We are no ordinary lights.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Clean! Clean! Clean!

My last few days in India have not been what I had hoped. I suppose that a last hurrah at the Golden Temple and parties with friends in Amritsar just wasn’t in the cards.

Food poisoning. There is nothing, my friends, nothing like food poisoning in this country to make you homesick. Horrible, intense food poisoning no less. I think I threw up nearly thirty times in a 24-hour period, accompanied by severe diarrhea. I had a high fever and was sweating out of nearly every pore of my body. The headache and body aches couldn’t really compare with the knives stabbing me in my stomach, so I hardly noticed them.

My friend Ravinder Singh went to the chemist to get me some medicine. It promptly made me throw up again. But knowing he was checking on me from time to time as I lay moaning in my bed made me feel safer, because certainly he would get me to a hospital if it looked like I was on my way out.

Two absolute angels showed up in my life. Siri Atma Kaur and Balwant Kaur, both from South America, stayed up with me rubbing towels dipped in ice water over my body to draw out the fever. Balwant gave me a few hours of reflexology to try to stop the vomiting. They spoke to me softly and gently, keeping my mind off of how sick I felt. I literally fell asleep on them. After a beautiful night’s sleep thanks to these angels, I’m strong enough to go to the airport at least.

Thanks, India, I think. You have a way of cleaning the poisons out of people. (Although, the reverse is also true, for you always have a way of putting poisons into people.) When I was studying with Ustaad-ji one day, he looked at me and said “Ramdesh Kaur! You have to clean, clean, clean your insides! Clean your body! Clean your mind! Only then will you be able to sing!” I guess I wasn’t moving fast enough for the universe. I’ve never been the best housekeeper. India thought, “I know! I’ll clean her up!” and promptly polluted my body just enough to make me think death was a possibility and then pull me back.

What an end! If nothing else, it helps mitigate the nostalgia. It is easy to romanticize India. Easy to make it a land of red and pink saris, of painted elephants, of sadhus with their hair wrapped up into rishi knots of the top of their heads, of naughty monkeys cavorting in the branches of banyan trees, of magical rivers and hidden caves. It is all of these things, but it is also the opposite. It is a land of incredible poverty, of terrible corruption, of extreme pollution. Anything you can say about India is true, and at the same time, the reverse is also true. That is, of course, one of its greatest lessons. It’s all God, all the time: the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. Most of these states are just human judgments anyway. Let go of judgment, and you feel the presence of the Divine.

Ek ong kar: the creator and the creation are one. You and I are one. Thanks to India, I’m a leaving a little cleaner than I came. Thanks to Oneness, so are you.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mata-ji, Guru-ji

One day in Rishikesh, I decided to have a vedic astrology consultation. I found the man who was considered one of the finest astrologers and went for an appointment. I provided the details of my birth date, time and location. He calculated a complex chart.

For the next half an hour he proceeded to tell me about my life in great detail. I felt like if I asked him what I ate on June 12th the year I was 18 for breakfast, he could have told me. After some general advice for the future, he asked me if I had any questions. Here, in the land of India, ripe with stories of Baba-ji at Kumbha Mela and fresh from reading The Autobiography of a Yogi, I asked him who my guru was.

He looked back at my chart. I anticipated perhaps Yogi Bhajan or even the name of an ashram in the hills I should go to in order to find my guru. When he looked up at me again, he smiled. “Your guru?” he said. “Your guru is your mother.”

It struck me hard in the gut as truth. Obviously, she was. My mother is a lovely woman. She is a dynamic minister and the inspired leader of an interfaith spiritual community. She taught me how to pray, how to meditate, and how to find God in everything. She taught me to reach out to the divine and ask for help, and to trust that the universe is always conspiring for my good. If a guru is the teacher who shows you the way to the divine, then obviously, she is my guru.

But I think, really, all mothers are. If your mother was awful and abusive, then she drove you into a place of such inner darkness that you could not help but reach for the light. Her cruelty drove you into a search for something more. She put you on the path of light.
If your mother, like mine, was a delight and a treasure trove of strength and faith, then she laid the path to Infinity beneath your feet like a yellow brick road. And she, too, put you on the path of light. How amazing mothers are. Despite their limited human personalities, whether full of light or full of darkness, they cannot help but be so connected to the great cosmic mother that they put you back on the road to her arms, one way or another.

I honor you, mothers of the world. I honor you, for better or worse. I honor your role in setting us all on the path of light, whether consciously or unconsciously. I bow and touch your feet, honoring the guru in your heart, the flame of the divine mother, which burns and burns and never stops.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mama. Happy Mother’s Day, Guru-ji.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Leper of Sandhu Colony

On the outskirts of Amritsar, away from the clamor and din of life around the Golden Temple, tucked into a little suburb called Sandhu colony, is an enclave of houses frequented by western Sikhs. They all come here, as I did, to study with a great master of Raag and life named Ustaad Narinder Singh Sandhu, lovingly called Ustaad-ji. They are usually all musicians, mostly singers with albums of Western-style chant music, or devoted Sikhs who come to connect with the shabad guru, the teacher in the song. Me? I can play piano, or I did in high school. I do not, however, have any apparent vocal talent.

Here is where you say, “Oh, she’s just being modest.” Everyone says that. They say the best singers always say they are the worst. They say I’m just being self-deprecating. Maybe I am being self-deprecating, but I’m not being modest. I’m not good.

When Ustaad-ji sings, he whirls up and down the scales, rolling notes and half notes and quarter notes and sixteenth notes around and around his velvety throat. The class follows, half of them crying tears of bliss at the beauty of his voice and the sweetness of the holy songs.

One day, after singing a particularly lovely raag, he stopped the class. He gestured for me to come closer to him and to sit in front of him. I did so and we started singing again. He stopped the class a second time. He looked at me, eyes pregnant with too much to say. He sighed. “Your blood is stuck in your neck. It is stopping your voice. I’m going to have to touch you. Tee kay?” “Sure,” I replied. We started singing again. Then he hit me hard on the back of my lungs. I practically choked. The other students’ eyes widened into quarters. Then he pinched the back of my neck, closing off some blood flow. I made a face, a mixture of confusion and pain, and kept singing. For a moment he looked triumphant. Then his face fell again.

“Guru has sent you to me as a test.” This didn’t sound good. He continued, “You play harmonium so beautifully. Your hands are so musical. And then you sing. And no, your voice is all over the place. Up and down, over and back.” He looked near tears. He wiped the sweat off his brow. The room so hot it was like sitting under the interrogation lights you see in bad cop movies. “God has sent you to me to test me.” He looked like he was struggling to find a polite way to tell me that I was the worst student he ever heard. I knew he was trying not to let me in on exactly how bad I am, but I know it.

I knew it before I ever came to him. I have known it every day since I lost my hearing and with it my beautiful singing voice. His heart was only now breaking where mine had broken many times before.

“It will take so much work to fix this, Ramdesh. This is a very big problem. So much work.” And he sighed. “Who sent you to me?” he demanded.

“Guru must have.” I said. (Isn’t that the right answer? When in doubt, blame it on God.)

“Gurumustuk Singh?” he interjected.

“No. No. Guru,” I said again, a little concerned to name names, as if he was expecting me to say the angel of death had sent me to bring him home.

“But Balwant,"I said, gesturing to another student in class, "She says my voice is like a butterfly, flittering about all over the place, but so pretty when it lands on something.”

“No butterfly. So much work.” He held his head in his hands. That was a bit disappointing…no butterfly even? I looked around at all the beautiful singers in the room and wondered if my presence in class was making it harder for them to learn. My ego reared its ugly head, and I felt lost and alone. I felt like the leper of Sandhu colony.

I held my head up high and told him he was up for the job. I smiled brightly. But inside I cried everything except tears. When I was young, before I lost my hearing, my voice would soar out of me so easily with perfect pitch. I remember when I was the best singer out of every class. It is a profound and humbling experience to watch yourself in life go from the best to the worst.

It happens sometimes. Perhaps as you go from high school to college, and realize that while you were the star quarterback in rural Montana, you can’t hold up to the standards at your major university. It happens if you are a surgeon, and you develop a hand tremor. For me, it happened in Amritsar, where I could see myself as a child singing circles around my peers, and then watched myself as an adult struggle to sing a scale.

We need that, though, in life. I need that. You cannot appreciate being the best unless you understand what it feels like to be the worst. Humility is a virtue that needs careful honing.

What a privilege it is to be disappointed, really. For one, it means that you are still full of enough light to have dreams. It means your heart is open and searching for more. It may also mean that you have attachments to things that you would do better to release. Disappointment may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is a good medicine for the ego.

His sadness on my behalf burned bitterly that night, during class. But under the gentle shade of the leaves on the tree of passing time, my wounds have cooled. And I find a lightness there that wasn’t there before. By seeing his sadness for me, I let much of the sadness that I had for me go. Singing for me was always a bittersweet event. Although I loved it, I was always haunted by the thoughts of what might have been if history had been different for me. Once Ustaad-ji told me, “You must put your emotions to the side and do the work, Ramdesh. Give me the responsibility. You have so much emotion weighing down your heart about singing, give me the responsibility to make your voice good. Just do as I tell you to do, and let the heart be free from worry. This will help the voice.”

The baggage of lost dreams that I carried on my back like a dowager’s hump, I left at his feet. And it is funny, in that very Indian way that whatever your plans are never have the result you intend here. I went to Amritsar to learn to sing, but there I laid down the banner of sadness and loss, and suddenly I am realizing that with it, I laid down the shackle of attachment to an old dream. I have other talents and other gifts. I have other songs to sing.

I may be a leper and a schizophrenic, but my heart is healed again. At long, long last, my heart is whole. And that is something to sing about, isn’t it?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Schizophrenic Shabad Singer

The train from Rishikesh to Amritsar was a test in patience. That is the nicest way I can describe it. Imagine if you will…Kumba Mela season. That alone should be descriptive enough for those of you who might have been to the smoosh of humanity that is the Kumbh. Now further imagine a low class seat. Further smoosh. Now visualize if you will an unfortunately large women with no assigned seating deciding that the area between the back of the seat in front of me and my face is a perfect place to park herself. Now continue along with my cough worsening until I am full-blown sick.

When I finally arrived in Amritsar, I got into an auto-rickshaw to take me to Sandhu colony to a home full of people studying with Ustaad-ji, the beloved singer of raag (classical Indian devotional music). All was working out until a man jumped into the rickshaw and began putting his hands all over my body. While I decided whether to stab him with the kirpan I was wearing or push him out of the rickshaw into oncoming traffic, he jumped out of the rickshaw with a “Thank you, madam.” So rude, and yet, so polite. So India.

The next few days I laid in bed overcome with a serious cough. I completely lost my voice. And here I was to studying singing. Ustaad-ji became concerned that I was seriously ill and sent me with another student to the hospital. This student explained in Punjabi to the doctor there that I was studying with Ustaad-ji and wanted to sing the shabads (Sikh hymns). The doctor turned to me and asked in English, “You want to sing shabads?” I croaked a meager, “Yes.” He wrote a prescription and sent me out of the room. (As is the norm for my experiences with Indian doctors, this was without either examining me or asking if I was allergic to medicine or taking another drug.) I picked up the medicine and went home. Looking it up on the internet to check to make sure it hadn’t been recalled in the US for causing cancer or something, I learned that I had been given wonderful drugs…for schizophrenia. That is what you get when you say a white girl with no voice wants to sing the shabads. Obviously, I am nuts. That is a much bigger problem than a cough.

When I told Ustaad-ji later that day that I had been given drugs for being crazy, he gave me my first of many lessons. Ustaad-ji said, “Yes, you are crazy. Good. Everyone is crazy. The men who sang the shabads were crazy. They sat outside of society and sang to God with intense love. Everyone thought they were crazy. Look outside, people who live from their head and not their heart. There are crazy! They are crazy with maya. Everyone is crazy. Do you want to be crazy with maya [illusion], or crazy with God?”

If there is something to experience about India, it is that it is crazy. It is both crazy with maya and crazy with God. It provides you with a powerful opportunity to choose.

Ask yourself today; do you want to be crazy with maya or crazy with God? Then decide whether or not to take the pills. Me? I’m crazy, but not that crazy. I’ll stick with good, old-fashioned TLC. It might not fix the desire to sing, but it should take care of the cold.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Moving On

Everything must come to an end. So must my time in Rishikesh, at least on this leg of my life’s journey.

So many things happened here, some I blogged about, some I didn’t. I still have stories to write and things to tell you about my time here. There will still be tales of Rishikesh for a while I am sure, as I acclimate to other surroundings, and tales of my adventures in Amritsar and abroad.

So many things I learned here, some universal, some personal. I am still processing all of these lessons, trying to integrate them and understand why they have come into my life at this time.

I learned about the sweetness of seva, about how your heart can breathe after the weight of its own hurt is lifted by putting yourself aside and working for others. I learned about the strength of childhood, about the resilience of the human capacity for joy in the face of the most atrocious realities. I learned about the magic that is still in this world, and that is worth searching for and worth finding. I learned about the power that all people have to be your teachers, whether saints and gurus, or waiters and crazy people. I learned that loving a cow could be a mutually rewarding experience. I learned that I love to teach and that watching someone have an experience with his or her own soul is just about the freshest thing in the world. I learned that my desire to retreat from the world into prayerful solitude could be just as easily accomplished by staying in the world and retreating into my own heart than it can be by retreating into an ashram. I learned that beauty sometimes looks ugly if you are looking with the wrong eyes.

I bow before Mata Ganga and the banyan trees and the brown-faced monkeys and Ramana’s Garden and my sweet Beatrice and all my teachers here. I have been honored to share space and time with each and every one of you.

May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you, guide your way on. Sat nam.