Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Person Worship

One early morning, dressed in a traditional sari and acting in my role as a kind of priestess [pujari], I was seated in front of two small brass deities of the divine couple, Radha and Krishna. I intoned, “Su swagatam,” then immediately said, “Idam asanam,” and gestured with an open palm from the deities to two small, elaborately stitched sitting cushions. 

The first mantra I spoke simply translates as “Welcome!” and the second one translates as “Please, have a seat” - I was welcoming these deities to please, metaphysically, have a seat on these cushions. 

This welcoming of brass deities to please have a seat could seem strange. But within my spiritual tradition, deity worship is an expression of love and devotion, and I have been surrounded and inspired by this culture since I was a child. Ten years ago, I traveled to a holy village in India to formally study at a renowned Academy this ancient science. 

It sounds archaic to be intoning mantras and making mystical hand gestures (mudras) and learning obscure recipes. Sounds maybe, even, a little Harry Potter-ish. But by the time I graduated from the Academy, I had the most profound realization that deity worship is a practice to learn how to treat God as a person. 

One of the core practices is to offer Reception, which is, basically, hospitality.  

You are welcome here, come on in. 

That's all. 

Just treat God like a person. As the saying goes, we should love people and use objects, but so often we use people and love objects. 

I had the epiphany: What if I used some of these principles to treat PEOPLE like people?? 

I began to apply the principles of deity worship to how I offer hospitality in my own home. Whenever someone walks through my front door, I will immediately say some variation of: “Welcome, so good to see you! Come on in!” and then I will say, “Please, have a seat,” and actually physically gesture to a chair or the sofa. This simple physical movement, or mudra, is nothing mystical. It’s a powerful gesture from host to guest that communicates, “You belong here.” And then I will offer a glass of water (idam paniyam) - I never ask, I just place the cup of water in their hands or on a saucer on the table. 

The response of gratitude by my guests over the years has been astonishing, some even crowning me as the “Queen of Hospitality” but I just have to laugh because ultimately most times what I’ve offered was so simple - a welcome, a seat, some water.  

Hospitality is transcends religion or culture or time and place because it is the science of transformation of heart. Deity worship is not "idol worship", it is "person worship" - a brass deity of the Lord becomes a person, a person we can serve and know and love. 

And when I apply the principles of deity worship with other people in my life - whether family or strangers - they truly become persons I can serve and know and love. 


For the Wisdom of the Sages Ashram Month this August, I will be teaching a one-week segment on the culture of bhakti yoga. You will learn the principles of character and practices that create a transformational culture of love and devotion. Come join us! For more information, follow this link to the Wisdom of the Sages website: https://www.wisdomofthesages.com/ashram-month

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Holy Name Heals All Wounds

My alarm rang in the dark morning. Immediately, a heavy weight lodged in my gut. While I showered and got dressed and walked out the door, the weight only became heavier and heavier. 

I drove to work in the twilight, the headlights from my car still lighting up the road. That's when the dread really kicked in - facing the reality that I would soon be entering my office, preparing my classes for the day... and then teaching. 

This semester I had started my new job of teaching Freshman Composition at my alma mater, Santa Fe College. This was my dream job, the position I had been dreaming about, praying for, and working very hard to be qualified for for years. 

And there I was, morning after morning, dread settling upon me in heavy, oppressive sheets of tar. 

It made no sense. My students were kind and respectful. I loved teaching my content. The environment of my college is uplifting. My colleagues are inspiring. My supervisor believes in me and supports me. In fact, the woman who hired me was MY Freshman Composition teacher fifteen years prior. I loved every minute of attending Santa Fe College, and on a completely objective level, the dread I was experiencing made no sense. 

Then why? Why

I began to realize: past teaching experiences. 

I taught first grade, middle school, and high school in New York City in various full-time capacities. Being a teacher (and simultaneously taking graduate classes at times) is all-consuming. But teaching middle school? The experience can eat you alive. 

I taught middle school full-time for almost two years. The first year was challenging but ultimately inspiring. The second year... let's just say that I could feel myself being mashed up while being eaten alive. This is no secret - that year was a tough year for almost every teacher, student, and even the principal. The most difficult part for me was the experience of disrespect I received from the students, no matter how many books I read in order to manage a classroom, how much advice I received from other teachers, the principal, instructional coaches, and more. I tried everything. A method would work for a couple hours, maybe a couple days, and then the chaos would set in again.

Duty-bound to finish the year, I would wake up to my alarm in the dark morning. Sure enough, the dread would settle into the pit of my gut in that first moment of consciousness. While I brushed my teeth, showered, and rode the subway to work, the dread would make its way into every fiber of my being.  

The helplessness and hopelessness began to permeate my life. I wore my glasses and dark clothing often in a subconscious desire to hide and dissolve. 

The only relief was to drown myself in grading and planning, but the disrespect and lack of self-discipline from 12, 13, and 14-year-olds was eating away at my sense of value as an educator and self-worth. Why put all this time and energy into planning a lesson that would fall apart within the first five minutes because students would start chatting and chatting and chatting to each other, or throwing pencils, or making dismissive comments about the text or the activity, or would refuse to follow a direction, or (worst of all) be mean to each other, or whatever? Of course I had heard it a million times to not take what they said and did personally. They're middle schoolers, what can you expect?

But I could not teach. These students were a difficult bunch, as confirmed by every other teacher and supervisor of the school. The negative behavior spread like a virus, infecting even the nicely behaved ones. Besides, the school itself was in disarray.  

By the time the school year ended, we were all so very, very done. 

I felt like a shell of an educator, wondering if I would ever be competent enough or strong enough or good enough to teach again. I considered leaving education, but deep down I knew it was my dharma (occupation) in this lifetime, and so I shouldered on. And of course, I knew that teaching middle school was simply not a fit for me. I needed to teach adults. 

So there I was, three years later, teaching (young) adults in my dream position, and that dread and self-doubt and and exhaustion was coming back to haunt me. 

I was at a total loss.

Then, on YouTube I discovered a recording of the 99 Names of Allah (Asma-Allah). I was entranced. I read a comment on this video that said, "I play this on my way to work and I don't even know exactly what's being sung at each moment but I feel more peaceful after."

Huh. 

Of course, I understand the power of  the holy name and how it can give peace and love to the heart and soul. I've experienced this countless times in my own tradition of singing and chanting the Hare Krishna mantra as well as other powerful prayers. That said, I've also experienced this kind of peace and fulfillment with the Asma-Allah, especially while I dedicated myself to memorizing the 99 Names. 

So I tried it. 

I played the recording on my way to work. 

One twilit morning, over and over again, I played the recording and sang what I could recall. The names of Allah filled my car and I was bathed in peace and courage. 

Then, in soft and gentle tones, I chanted the Hare Krishna mantra.  

I did this two times on my way to work, maybe three, and the dread dissolved forever. 

Did I have "dumpster fire" days where so much went wrong because I was on a steep learning curve? Yes. But I was no longer battling a foe that kept getting resurrected from my past. I dealt with the current reality of being human and making mistakes. They were fair fights.  

Will the dread return, maybe next semester? 

Maybe. 

But now I know what to do. Or rather, I know who to turn to.  

The holy name dissipated the darkness and lit up my heart. So often we struggle with past demons and patterns and impressions, seemingly endless cycles of pain and hurt and sadness and anger and violence and destruction. And while doing the needful to get the healing we need (such as therapy, etc.) is essential, ultimately there's no way out of those patterns by only fighting them on a material level. The only way out is to take shelter of a higher principle, to take shelter of the Lord. And the easiest way is to call out His name. 

My thanks go out to that commenter on YouTube. You showed me that the holy name is like medicine - it works even if we don't know or understand how it is healing our hearts. 

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Into the Depths



About two minutes. 

Thanks to YouTube analytics, I now know that that's the maximum for how long a few viewers have watched one of my YouTube videos for my 100 Day Project, a Bhagavad-gita exploration project called sincerely, bhakti.

This is just what it means to generate online content - engagement can sometimes be very, very low. 

So where does this leave me with my Gita project? 

Well... to be honest, I feel a twinge of discouragement. 

But if I just take a look at the reality here, these videos are not snappy or catchy. I'm not commenting on a current event or delving into controversy. No editing, no alternate shots, no text or graphics or just anything. 

Just me, my cell phone, and one angle for 5-10 minutes, discussing... scripture. 

So exciting, right? 

:) 

Sarcasm aside, why I even decided to DO this project is because I have found that scripture actually is exciting. It's like freediving into the depths of a deep, dark ocean. 

"Profound" means "deep" in Latin, and when I say "dive deep into the Gita" I do not mean this in a cliche way. Yesterday's video and the experience of absorbing myself in scripture and the words of great souls is still reverberating in my heart and a kind of quiet has settled over me. I truly felt as though I was diving into the depths of spiritual reflection, where the water becomes a dark blue and everything becomes very quiet. 

Lord Krishna's and Prabhupad's words became deep like an ocean. 

I swam there, suspended, observing how small I was, how humbled to be immersed in truth and wisdom and divinity. 

So while these videos shall never be catchy or trendy, I hope that they are presentable. I would hope that if my spiritual master or Srila Prabhupad were to watch one of these videos, they would nod their heads and bless me to continue to keep diving, keep diving. 

And if you or anyone else decides to join me for even two minutes, then I am grateful to share eternal truth and wisdom with another soul.

(email subscribers may need to click on this link to view video: https://youtu.be/sfeb5Lv3RBo)

Thursday, November 5, 2020

God is Great

I raised my palms and closed my eyes. The 99 names of Allah swirled around me, and I sung each name along with the chorus of singers in the recording. Each name flashed in my mind's eye, along with the meaning...

Al Khaliq (The Creator)...

Al Mu'min (The Inspirer of Faith)...

Al Mujib (The Responder to Prayer)...

Al Wadud (The Loving One)...

Each name cycled through me and my body rocked back and forth in the momentum. When the last name of Alllah was recited on the recording, concluding prayers rung out. 

Over the past many months as I have committed to learning the 99 names of Allah, I have reached out to old friends and teachers of  Islam on the internet. I've even asked my husband to ask a Muslim chaplain at work - what do those concluding words on this recording mean?? What is the translation? They're so beautiful, and I have been burning to know. I have been yearning to form those words in my mouth properly like a potter shaping smooth clay. 

Alas, I have had no response. 

The other morning, though, when the 99 names had been sung and those concluding prayers began to encircle me, I just belted out the words the best I could, in garbled Arabic, I'm sure. I caught a few words here and there, such as "Mohammed" and "Allah" and so I knew that God's great devotee was being glorified, God was being praised. 

As I sang, I realized that God does not care if my Arabic is perfect, or even that I know the exact meaning. All he sees is that I tried to learn the meaning, I tried to learn the pronunciation. All he sees is me in my living room with my palms raised, trying my best to glorify Him and His devotee with all of my heart. Tears came to my eyes. 

When the recording finished, I murmured, "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) and knelt to touch my forehead to the floor. Chills washed over me again and again. God is not only great because he is the supreme Creator. God is great because he is The Loving One, the One who Responds to Prayers, no matter how mangled. God is Great because He sees my heart.   




Monday, February 4, 2019

I Can't Help Falling In Love With You

Like a river flows
surely to the sea
darling so it goes
some things
are meant to be...

I can't help falling in love with you. 

I'm on the subway, listening to this song, and in the darkness of my closed eyelids, a glowing image emerges.

And while yes, that song does conjure up images of my beloved husband, Ghanashyam, another images always comes to the forefront.

My body goes still.

An image of statues emerges in the dark - one is of a young woman, the other a young man - and they're standing side by side, wearing lovely, draping silks. They glow. The woman is an iridescent, pearly white marble, her eyes luminous. The young man is of ebony marble, his arms forever poised to play a flute, his eyes reaching out through time and space. Their gazes touch mine.

A wave of emotion rolls over me and tears flow from my eyes.

The short song ends, I open my eyes to tap repeat on my phone and the wave of emotion dissipates. Then, the guitar begins, I close my eyes, and in the darkness of my closed eyelids, the glowing image emerges again.

I can't help it.

I just can't.

I can't help falling in love with you, God.

Radha and Krishna - Radhe Shyam.

Ever since I was a little girl, I've been gazing up at deities of Radha and Krishna, and in the eyes of an innocent girl the statues on the altar were simply God. There were no mind games and philosophical manipulations to wonder how God could fit on an altar and be four feet tall. God stood on that altar because that way we could see each other, and that reason made the most sense in the world to a little girl.

And to the woman I am now, I guess it still makes sense.

Now the altar is in my mind, and I can't help falling in love with those smiles. Those eyes.

When my stop comes, I open my eyes and the lights of 181st Street Station spill into my brain. I ride the wave of people who disembark the train. I wipe my cheeks of the wetness from the tears.

Unbidden, my mind jumps to the moment when I shall leave this world, and a profound peace falls over me. For maybe when I close my eyes for the last time, the image of Radhe Shyam shall be imprinted upon my closed eyelids.

God is magnificent, God is great, God is powerful. God makes the mountains tremble and the tsunamis crash and the earth spin and the sun blaze.

But God is also this beautiful boy along with a beautiful girl who smile at me in the dark and make me weep at their beauty. Krishna makes me fall in love with him, even in some underground tunnel riding a train.

So take my hand
Take my whole life too
For I can't help 
Falling in love 
With you

https://youtu.be/D8pCv-eivqM



Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Folded-Palms Thingy

*pseudonym

The stampede of students flew down the stairs - the end of the school day had arrived. "Hey, Mrs. Caruso," Charles*, an 8th grade student, called out to me with a grin, breezing past, "you have 180 youtube subscribers!"

"Wait, what? I do?" I replied, shocked. "How do you know??"

"We were all just checking it out in Mr. O'Connor's* class,"

"You mean, right now?"

"Yeah. We saw you singing. And dancing. You were playing that piano thingy..."

My mouth was agape. "That's called a harmonium,"

"Yeah, it was cool. A Simple Post? That's the name of the video? Pretty cool,"

"That was like, six years ago! My YouTube channel is mainly a teaching tool for singing...!"

"I know, I know. And what was that thing that all these people were doing - " Charles motioned his hands up into a kind of prayer position, " - you all came in and bowed..."

Bewildered, I said, "Uh, I don't know!"

The student swept on by. I glanced around in shock to other 8th grade students who had overheard us and they just nodded, grinning too. They also bounded away, carried away in the exultation of the end of the school day. Obviously they were in on this and had seen all the hullabaloo on Mrs. Caruso's YouTube channel.

I walked back up to my classroom, dazed.

Naturally, I looked up my YouTube channel. I looked at it through the eyes of my eighth graders. Mind you, I work at a Catholic school and I'm the Religion teacher to boot. So these kids are looking at a teacher who has all of these exotic videos of India, putting on some strange draped garment, wearing red dots on her head, performing some intricate and foreign kind of dance, being proposed to in front of an exotic priest in orange cloth, singing some kind of ancient language, and on and on.

Must be weird.

I then came home and kept watching and watching, no longer seeing through my students' eyes, but seeing through MY eyes, the eyes of a Bhakti lata who has been removed from her culture and active spirituality for a few years now. In all of these videos, I'm seeing a common thread - even the ones where I'm just demonstrating the structure of a Hare Krishna melody:

Devotion.

I'm peering into another world, another person's life.

And it's beautiful.

I keep remembering when my student Charles said that he had watched A Simple Post, which I had posted 6 years ago and was just me singing Hare Krishna in my cluttered living room. He had expressed genuine appreciation for that video. It wasn't some fancy edited video, I wasn't doing anything that dramatic. But his eyes had softened when he said, "Pretty cool,"

Some 8th grade boy thought that was pretty cool? Why? No seriously, why? Not just because of the cool harmonium thingy. Not even the foreign language I was singing in.

There must have been something else that was cool.

The holy name.

Devotion.

A hunger for something beyond this world. A hunger for a love to satisfy the soul.

In this quiet space before I jump into the whirlwind of work tomorrow, I feel this tender spiraling of my heart, this yearning to... to... be a devotee. To express my longing for God with all of my heart.

Oh Krishna. Please draw me home to You.

And if you so desire, may I sing and play the piano-thingy and may I approach you with the folded-palms thingy.


(If you are an email subscriber, you may click on the links below the videos to view)


A Simple Post: https://youtu.be/bj6lwzjFbhQ

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Me, At the Core

I am teaching my students how to write a five-paragraph essay. Because I work at a private Catholic school, I get to bring up God all the time. The special feature of Catholic schools is that people from all walks of life attend this institution. For the final exam for my 7th Grade, I created an exam that they would read an article about theism, atheism, and agnosticism, identify with one, and then write a five-paragraph essay to explain their reasoning. Their responses have been enlightening.

I decided to write the essay myself.

***

I glanced at the grinning faces of all the ladies surrounding me, and when the music in praise of God rose to a crescendo, we all spontaneously began to twirl, our arms raised. Our skirts flared like blossoming flowers, and my feet turned upon the warm wood floor in swift movements. My face lifted and my whole face smiled and I felt my whole body alight with a joy beyond this world. In my religious tradition, we sing and we dance, for we believe it is the natural proclivity of the soul to sing and dance in the joy of God’s love. Even when my mind doubts stories and is disgusted by the horrible things done in the name of religion, these deep, powerful experiences of joy tell me that God exists. I am a theist because I believe in sacred objects and rituals, I follow a God-centered moral code, and I experience religious feelings.

I believe in God because of my experience of the supernatural through sacred objects and rituals. In my tradition, we worship a special statue of God, called a murti, because in this way we are meant to develop a sweet and intimate relationship with Him. In the article “Who are atheists and agnostics? Are they religious?” on Thoughtco.com, the author states, “Sacred means that something is very special and worthy of respect. In religion, people might think sacred things are connected to God or gods.” When we worship this murti of God, we hold it very special and offer it our deepest respect. This quote says that people might “think” that something is connected to God, and I would take this one step further to say that I have “experienced” that this murti is connected to God. I have experienced that when I look into the eyes of this statue, I feel that I am seen, and I feel loved and accepted for who I am, unconditionally. I have never experienced this by looking at any ordinary statue in this world. It is actually said in my tradition that the gaze, or the drishti, of the murti actually has this effect on the heart - a sense of peace and a sense that “everything is going to be okay.” I believe that this object is sacred and connected to the supernatural which gives me conviction that God exists. 

Another reason that I am a theist is that I follow a God-centered moral code. When I took vows of spiritual initiation, I promised to follow four moral codes plus a commitment to meditation that would guide my life. The article states: “Think of a moral code like this: it is a set of rules about right or wrong behavior.” One code that I vowed to follow is to take no intoxicants - this means to not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or take any sort of drug. I believe that this moral code to not take intoxicants helps me to live a life that is awake and present. This moral code is communicating that I do not need some material substance to be happy and that ultimately my only, true happiness can be found by loving and serving God. To me, this is "right" behavior. This moral code, as well as the others that I follow, allow me to live a present, conscious life and to love with my full heart.

A third reason that I consider myself a theist is that I experience religious feelings. Religious feelings are more of an undeniable experience of something beyond this world, and no one can take that away from me The article states that “These feelings might include awe, adoration, or guilt. If you believe in religion, the feelings are usually connected to the presence of the supernatural.” I have experienced awe by participating in religious rituals and singing God’s praise. I have experienced adoration, affection, joy, peace, and humility through my religion. I have never experienced the depth of these kinds of feelings from anything in the ordinary material world, such as from watching a great movie or even spending time with my family. The depth and power of these religious feelings have only been felt when I am connecting to God and the supernatural through scripture, and spiritual song and dance. Ultimately, even when my mind rejects God, religious feelings and experiences are what make me come back to God and believe and trust in Him.

In conclusion, I am a theist at my very core. I could share many reasons, although the ones I highlighted here are that I believe in sacred objects that connect me to the supernatural, and that I follow a moral code that is connected to God. What binds all of my reasons together to be a theist is that I experience religious feelings, which always pull me back, even if I wander away from God for a long, long time. I would say that right now, I have distanced myself from the externals of my religion. But I have conviction that I will sing and dance in praise of God again and my soul will lift beyond this world to experience a joy that can only be felt within God’s embrace.

To write is to dare the soul. So write.