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Wednesday November 16, 2005: V.G.'s retreat

         Another year has come and gone, and with it--another retreat with Dr. V.G. Kulkarni and old friends. Ryan, my second son, rode down with me; the four hour drive gave us enough time to get caught up with recent experiences and future plans, time for long discussions on philosophy and politics.

          I’d picked up Ryan after his mid-afternoon exam, knowing the slightly later start meant we could not make our final destination until after dark. Dinner was eaten at a rest stop plaza on the turnpike, but I hoped we could still arrive in time for the Friday night puja. It was wonderful to have Ryan along to read directions; things looked vaguely familiar along the way, but I would not have been able to reach the retreat without a printout from MapQuest.

          Of course, once here, I am glad to see everyone at the retreat. A moment to clean up and shake off the dust of the road, grab my prayer shawl and some fruit to offer for the puja, and I head straight for the basement meeting room.

          This year someone has laid out an assortment of beautiful rugs across the carpeted floor; they seem to invite individuals to sit on the floor. Still, most of us are now in our fifties and sixties; chairs will be brought out and most will choose to sit western-style, our legs no longer comfortable holding even a modified lotus position for long periods of time, not to mention getting up and down several times during the ceremony.

           I walk up to the puja table to place my fruit offering on one of several overflowing trays, trays already piled high with apples, bananas, oranges, and grapes. I notice a tray with coins and paper money, and the usual bowl of nuts. These are all symbolic items to be blessed and redistributed after the ceremony.

           Someone has brought vast quantities of roses this year. Huge bowls of individual rose petals are beside the puja table, ready to be scattered over religious icons. Though I know flower petals are meant as offerings made toward the end of the ceremony, the fragrance has already been released into the air; I enjoy the sweet scent of roses with deep full breaths.

         There are fifteen minutes still left before the ceremony begins and only a few yogis have wandered into the room. There is time to chat and get caught up.  Eric, an American who has spent most of his adult years working in Germany, has been in a terrible car accident. Minor details of the accident-- the angle of the cars when they hit, the fact Eric had a broken hand and had not picked up luggage afterward (which might have done serious damage to a broken vertebrae) --all resulted in a relatively good outcome. Thanks to the German health system, his bills are all covered and he has been given a year and a half off work to recover. He responds with a huge grin when I ask if he is going stir crazy at home.

          "Actually, I’m enjoying it so much that I wonder if I really want to go back. Maybe it’s time for me to start off in a new direction." There were still months of recovery time to consider options, like doing consult work in India, where he could be closer to V.G.

           I see other old friends.  Gail is considering leaving her present position and starting her own practice; Ann is moving, buying a house with her new love; Janet has bought a retirement home in Maine, which is being rented until she finishes another year or two of work. The first people I talk with are all going through transitional phases in their lives. I think of my own transition and wonder if there is something special about the way this year is affecting our circle.

          The room gradually fills with the remainder of the group. V.G. makes his appearance, dressed in yards of draped yellow fabric, with a multicolored mohair scarf about his neck (a gift from one of the group), and bare feet. He makes his usual jokes and light-hearted comments, demonstrating once more his knack of pulling the group together while putting everyone at their ease.

          Chanting. We have always chanted during pujas, but the effect seems intoxicating tonight. The male voices resonate in deep base tones; together with female voices they produce a rich blend that fills the room, that vibrates against the body. I am almost overwhelmed by the effect of my own chanting as it vibrates within; the pulsing resonance blends between inside and outside, becomes equalized so that I can no longer sense the edges of where my body ends and the room begins.

          I feel myself drifting rapidly into other realms of awareness and wonder if the power of chanting is this almost hypnotic breaking away from everyday awareness. Am I simply tired from a long day and a long drive, so that my usual inner focus is reduced to noticing the effect, or is this the exact power or effect that people seek out in group chanting sessions?

          Kali appears before me. I find it strange that non-Hindus so often assume her to be a negative entity. They are misled by Hollywood stories and the natural American assumptions based on her portrayal in paintings: her black skin, razor sharp teeth, blood dripping off the tongue, and skulls hung about her neck, can easily gives a false impression of her nature for those who do not understand the symbolism of Kali’s image. She has always been kind to me and now her smile is that of a loving mother. So sweetly she smiles, so gently the fragrance of her breath drifts over me, that I lose track of the chanting.

          Someone touches me on the knee and I come back to body awareness. I open my eyes to see Ryan, who is going about the room on his knees, offering a tray with small bowls of kunkumam powder to each yogi.  Last year, one of the Indian Brahmin’s came around the room, putting on the smudge of red powder. Ryan has to demonstrate for me which finger to dip in the red powder, and I apply a smudge to my own forehead.

         We begin the puja. I’ve described this before. First a mixture (milk, honey, yogurt, bananas, and sugar represent the five elements of the character) is poured over a few representative statues of the goddess Lakshmi by each individual attending the ceremony. After this part of the devotional offering, the statues are carefully rinsed in clear water, dried and put back on the table with the other statues and pictures.

          Flower petals are scattered over statues, another offering to the deities; I try to focus on giving up weaknesses, but I am keenly aware that in the past year I have become no more of a ritual person than before. Perhaps I am tired, because it is even harder to focus this year. I just try to open to the love that fills the room, to pour out my own gratitude of being here with friends. Blessings are given, and we each return to our seats with prasad, a piece of blessed fruit.

           Are we all just getting older? There are fewer groups that gathering to talk after the ceremony. People disappear to their rooms. In the room next to mine, I hear someone play a single song on her bamboo flute before putting it away for the night. Morning will come early and I think we are all tired from the drive to get here. Tomorrow there will be time to visit.

Posted on Wednesday, November 16, 2005 at 05:49AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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