The day was ending at Madhuban Ashram, as the sun’s last golden rays shined out as it nestled its way down between the peaks of the Himalayan valley. Just miles from Kainchi and Nainital, Madhuban, the Himalayan branch of the Shri Aurobindo ashrams, posed a logistical launching point and picturesque backdrop for the longest section of Saraswati’s Himalayan Yoga Yatra. This well-run and seva-soaked ashram sat overlooking one of the most gorgeous valleys of the Himalayan foothills, holding an atmosphere of stoic beauty which undoubtedly saturated the minds and hearts of anyone open enough to spend time practicing here. As the sun’s final ray gleamed the last peak and the soft orange-to-purple gradient hung cupped in the shadowed mountains, our yatra group was sitting outside, finishing our last cups of chai for the day after having eaten dinner. The twenty-or-so of us chatted calmly, deep in the bhav after spending the last week focused solely on sadhana; singing kirtan, attending dharma talks, doing morning asana, and nightly meditations. Looking around at everyone’s radiant, jobile faces, I was truly feeling it this night. Finishing my last gulps of the sweet, smooth tea, and heading over to clean my dishes, I started a whimsical walk towards the meditation hall, down the flowered adorned trail in the stark silhouettes of dusk.
The schedule that night concluded with a big kirtan in the yoga hall, but was preceded with forty minutes of silent meditation in the meditation room, a nightly ritual at Madhuban, which not just the yatra attendees, but all of the ashramites participated in. Stepping foot inside the tight box of the meditation room, each wall a giant window overlooking the darkening Himalayan peaks, there were a handful of people already deep in mediation, either eyes closed, or focused intently on the podiumed lingum at the center of the room, which was cradled by small portraits of both Shri Aurobindo and The Mother on either side. The energy of the room was palpable and total shanti. Remaining as silent as I could, I shuffled my way to the neatly stacked pile of meditation pillows, plopped one on the floor, and sat down, hands creating a circuit in my lap and eyes gazing out in a half-closed stare. For some reason, vipassana did not come entirely fluidly in this session, so I began with some mantra. “Jai Jai Jai Neem Karoli Baba, Kripa Karahu Avai Sadbhava,” and then the same to Shyam Sundar Das Baba, and Siddhi Ma, and Ram Dass, etc. I kept going down the line, sending out as much love and appreciation as I could, sitting there in total thankful awe for being brought swaddled to India in such a safe and direct way, simply through the grace of this lineage. This thankfulness and unadulterated love began spilling over, as images of my wife, my parents, my grandparents, families, friends, even past enemies started flowing through my mind, and, knowing that everyone is the Guru, I would say their name inside of the mantra as their images appeared to me. What started as vipassana, flipped into mantra, which then slipped its way into the most potent metta (loving kindness) meditation I had ever taken part in. I was overwhelmed and brimming with gratitude and love, feeling maybe better than I ever have in my entire life.
The meditation room at Madhuban
As the forty minutes came to a close, we were softly awakened out of our meditations by the shuffle of feet returning their pillows to the pile. I stood up, with a pure smile, tenderly placed my pillow atop the pile, exited the circular glass room, the walls now completely mirror-like in the darkness of night. I felt like I almost floated my way up the dimly lit pathway to the yoga hall for kirtan. I couldn’t believe how high I was. I am generally a relatively depressive person, so to be overflowing with so much happiness was astounding, and as I found out to be later, without a proper mindfulness of highs and lows attached to it, maybe a little dangerous. My friends, Balaram Das, Mandakini Devi, and Sudama, known as The Flying Monkey Kirtan Band were leading the chanting that night. Feeling light and inspired, I basically swam my way to the front of the room, and sat directly before the band, ready to exude and share all of this love I was still teeming with.
The kirtan was charged that night. I’m not sure if it was the bhav exuding out from the core of the kirtan wallahs, a special vibe hanging up in the air, or a reflection of my exceptionally high mood state after the group meditation, but whatever it was, the devotional chanting was an exuberant inner journey which only further lifted me to unexpected realms of bliss and gratitude. Nearing the end of the session, between songs, Balaram Das looked up at me from the Harmonium and our eyes met. “James-Hai, (as he jokingly calls me), would you like to take us home with a Chalisa?” Due to my joyous evening, I replied with glee and hopped to to front of the hall, stationing myself behind the harmonium. Behind me stood giant photo images of Shri Aurobindo and The Mother, while to my right lay a small, makeshift altar, candles burning to Neem Karoli Baba, Siddhi Ma, and Shyam Sundar Das Baba. I internally bowed to them, looked over to my left to see the Flying Monkey Kirtan Band awaiting launch signal, and cleared my throat.
Never having led a chant this formal, and of this magnitude, to this many people, I watched as a wave of nerves washed over me as I pressed my hands to the keys of this foreign harmonium. Trying to be cute, knowing that many people were disappointed Raghu couldn't make it to the yatra, I decided to try to play his version of the chalisa, the “Bajarangbali Chalisa,” named after Lord Hanuman’s lightning-body form. I chose this one, which I was less comfortable with than my personal version, and instantly forgot the keys. Searching around for a second, and again making the mistake of passing over my usual Chalisa, I thought I would try Mirabai Moon’s Chalisa she had just given me the chords to, since it had garnered good reception in our tiny rogue bhajan circle the evening prior. Again, not totally comfortable with this version, I had a few hiccups, but found my groove and fell into flow with it.
The chant picked up steam and energy, but at the end of the Chalisa, as we were in the midst of “Shri Ram Jai Ram,” the drum cut out to signify the final repetition of the chant, but in my tranced out state mixed with my learning curve on this particular version, I completely forgot where I was. Mid chant, mid chord progression, I just stopped, like a deer in the headlights. My stomach dropped. I tried to hit what I thought was the next chord. It was wrong, very wrong. To me, at the time, it sounded like the “fail” buzzer on a gameshow. This whole night of beauty for everyone, the chai-soaked sunset, the deep meditation, this wonderful chanting, all coalesced into this flub of a note. In my mind, this was vibratory catastrophe, an irreparable mistake that I would never be able to live down. Heart pounding, I looked up at the group, everyone smiling out of compassion, but inside I was dying a little. I began to flush as the adrenaline of the moment hit me, and to break the awkward silence, which I’m sure my perception only elongated for me, I put my hands up and yelled out “Jai Shri Ram!” The chorus chanted back to me, still smiling, as I put hands over my heart in a “Namaste” to signal the end of the session, outwardly returning the smile, but completely and utterly devastated internally.
Walking back to my room, completely wrapped up in my head, my own negative self talk was louder than I could handle. People had thanked me for the offering of the Chalisa, and even complimented it, but I couldn’t hear anything over the self-doubt and self-hatred I was indulging in. I couldn't sleep that night. I felt ashamed and embarrassed, such a grandiose fall from the loving grace I had been swaddled in after the meditation. Tossing and turning on the hard Indian bed, I couldn’t get sound of the flubbed note or feeling of reddening embarrassment out of my head. I wasn’t going to fall asleep, so I got up, opened the door, and took a long walk about the cool, crisp, nighttime air of the mountain ashram. Making my way towards the meditation room, I saw it empty, and walked in. Setting up my pillow, I tried to recreate my metta meditation from earlier, but to no avail. Overwhelmed, I laid down in frustration and contemplation. I thought to myself then, and would bring up to my wife the following day, “Why should I share my chanting if it has the potential to pain me so bad?” I felt wounded. I felt that my earnest offering of sharing love had hurt me. Just like that, in one sloppy mistake, that one tiny moment, I went from open to closed. No solace came to me during this second foray in the meditation hall and it was getting to the early morning hours, so I felt it best to try to find some sleep. On my late walk back to my room, all of the lights in the ashram turned out, leaving me in total pitch black. “Very metaphorical,” I thought to myself, as I slinked my way back to my room in a darkness so thick that the only things seemingly visible were my own enlarged thoughts.
The next day, still totally in my head after my Madhuban mess-up, I was hoping to find a way to open myself back up into that space of unadulterated love that I had touched during my metta meditation the evening prior, or even to get back to a functional, content baselined homeostasis, but was thwarted by every poking, jagged thought that would encapsulate my mind. At breakfast, overlooking the pristine, green valley, I talked to a few other members of the yatra, contemplating my personal dilemma, and honestly groping for kind words or anything to hold on to that would pull me up out of this unnecessary pit I had created for myself. The conversations helped, but I was still deep in personal despair. My chanting practice, the one thing I thought I always had as a safety blanket, felt tarnished due to my sloppy mistake. I knew I was overindulging these negative thoughts, but they were momentous and constant. Knowing I had to get out of my own head so I could be of best open service to the others on the yatra, I asked Maharajji silently to myself, “Please, Baba, pull me out of this.”
Myself (Ganesh Das) and Mangala Devi at Hanumanghar Temple. Photo Credit: @thejeremyphillips
The afternoon brought us to journey along the tight, winding roads of the Himalayas to Neem Karoli Baba’s Hanumanghar temple. It was here, as I wrote in a previous piece, that the consistent and attentive presence and devotion of Maharajji, with the help of devotees, transformed a spooky graveyard which no one dared to go, into a beautiful and flourishing temple to Lord Hanuman. Softly walking through Hanumanghar gave my brain some ease, as I focused on being in the presence of murtis (statues of deities) and giving them as much love and gratitude as I could. As a group, we then made our way into the room housing an altar to Neem Karoli Baba, garnished with some artifacts from his life. As an antique, seemingly ancient Harmonium was dusted off and brought to the middle of the room for some Chalisas, I was happy we would be singing in such a sacred place, but also all of my negativity, worry, and embarrassment from my flub the evening prior began to pour back into my being like a tidal wave of doubt. I wasn’t called on to sing that day. Half of me was relieved, while the other half of me was upset that I didn’t get a chance to lead in this special place, secretly hoping that a “good” Chalisa may heal this self-inflicted wound I was harboring. The final Chalisa brought us to rise to an ecstatic dance and full body pranam. I felt it, but still was a layer away from it all.
As the rest of the yatra seeped out of the room to other parts of the monkey-packed Hanumanghar temple, I still sat there, staring at the altar, silently asking for some respite from the onslaught of personal negative thoughts pertaining to my clumsy mess-up. I just wanted to be able to chant again without being overwhelmed by the hideous self-judgement of this mistake. Nothing came. I gave up and started to get up to leave the room. Looking back for one last glance, I saw my best friend and yatra leader, Sudama, or Pavan Das, beckoning me over to the front of the altar. In my negative haze, I first thought he was shooing me away, as the Indian hand gesture for “come here” is the same as our “go away,” but he recognized my confusion and called me closer. As I made my way next to him at the front of the altar he pointed down at what he had wanted to show me. It was an old ragged piece of paper from a notebook with what appeared to me to be sloppy sanskrit scribbles.
As I took a closer look, I saw the entire page was covered over and over with the handwritten word “Ram,” the sanskrit name for God. The handwriting was messy, not elegant or perfect penmanship by any means. Sudama looked down at me, “This is Neem Karoli Baba’s writing,” and instantly my heart melted. I couldn’t stop crying. It was as if all of the weight from the previous day, all the tumultuous heaviness I had placed on myself, all the embarrassment and self-shaming, all just melted away. His writing was sloppy. His writing was messy. His “Ram's” weren’t in perfect penmanship. Not all of his lines met. Not all of the “Ram’s” stayed in a row. They were all over the place. Despite all of this; though, they were completely perfect in all of their “flaws,” not because of how meticulously they were executed, but because of the love which they came from and were offered with. I realized in this moment that it was never about how perfectly or smoothly I played the harmonium, or how eloquently I chanted the Chalisa. It was never about that. It was always about what's going on underneath it. It was never about the form. It was always about the Love behind the form. Knowing this now to be true, even in my outward, overt, topical mistake, the only thing that mattered was the Love behind it all. This was the lesson. This was my lila at Hanumanghar after my Madhuban mess-up. Again, through his continued presence and devotion, Maharajji had turned the harrowing graveyard of my mind, into a beautiful temple within my heart. Tasting my tears as I exuding my being fully into this loving release, I reminded myself, I am a sloppy bhakti after all. Namaste.
If exploring India, following in the footsteps of Ram Dass, and visiting the holy sites of Neem Karoli Baba sparks an interest in you, Saraswati Markus and Sudama lead Spring and Autumn yatras each year. Please visit NourishingLife.com/yatra for more information