Sunday, January 23, 2011

Spiritual politics

The latest issue of the New Yorker has an article about Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the man who led the independence movement in the 1940s that freed the nation of Burma from British colonial rule. She studied philosophy and political science at Oxford University, and as the leader of their pro-democracy movement is revered by the Burmese people for her vision and staunch principles. That’s why the military dictatorship there has kept her either imprisoned or under house arrest for most of the near-quarter century since she returned to Burma.

She was recently freed again, and has immediately returned to rebuilding the democracy movement that had been brutally suppressed several years ago—with thousands killed and imprisoned—and largely disempowered by last year’s rigged elections—which left the dictatorship in total control of their newly forged Potemkin democracy, and the option of cancelling all human rights at any time.

One bit in the article I found particularly interesting is that, for her personal endurance and commitment to her vision, Aung San Suu Kyi depends on daily meditation practice. “In captivity,” the article says, “she had practiced vipasanna meditation, an ancient technique attributed to the Gautama Buddha.”

Her description of her early practice will seem familiar to anyone who’s practiced meditation. “I found it very difficult to do, because my mind was wandering, instead of being fixed on one particular place—your breathing, the rising and falling of your abdomen. I got frustrated, thinking, My goodness, can’t I do even this little mind exercise? But with persistence, you get there.”

What made this detail so interesting to me is that she seems to be describing the core of the technique of my new yoga teacher, Swami Ramachandrananda, who teaches a free class at the library in Romney every Saturday morning at 10.

One of the more remarkable aspects of living in Hampshire County is that, even though there seems to be a church on every ridge of one Christian denomination or another, mostly fundamentalist—we even have a small village named, for obvious reasons, Three Churches—there is also a growing community of people (last time I looked, we were still the third-fastest growing county in the state, even with the real estate bust) who get their religious inspiration from Eastern spirituality. There is a Buddhist retreat in the eastern part of the county, and a $15 million Transcendental Meditation center opening in the northern end this year. Probably this phenomenon is happening in other parts of the state (as the boomer “creative class” retires to the mountains) and I just don’t know about it, but I find it fascinating.

Swami Rama has an international reputation as a “holy man,” with followers all over the world. He will be the guest of honor at the International World Yoga Federation conference in Lisbon, Portugal in June 2011. We’re very fortunate to have him here in Hampshire County, where he has lived for a number of years. I’ve seen him walking around town in his ski cap and long graying beard, and knew who he was because some of my friends had studied yoga with him, but never really had the opportunity to meet him before last summer—he says because the universe is so precisely timed. He has large brown eyes that twinkle often, when he’s amused, and otherwise have the amazing focus that obviously comes from a lifetime of concentration.

I was lucky to realize early in life that the key to successful aging is flexibility, and have been practicing yoga for almost forty years, mostly on my own. But sometimes you need a teacher to steer you back onto the path. Here’s a website where you can find out more about him:

The Swami has a small community of people around here that seems to center on him, into which I’ve been most pleasantly absorbed by virtue of being a new student. As you can imagine, they’re all very nice people. I think he likes to have me around because he finds me so disagreeable, which seems to be a refreshing change of pace from his usual followers. I was born with a congenital resistance to authority; my purpose in life seems to be compulsive irritant.

For example, I challenged him yesterday in class on a statement he’d made the week before, about cats not being able to concentrate as well as humans. Being a pantheist who lives with cats, I immediately wondered if this was some trans-species version of the Indian caste system, considering his origins and everything.

I just happened to casually mention what he said to the cats that night, when I was getting their dinner ready. They rolled their eyes and looked at each other for the split second it took to reach mental consensus that this was yet another example of the invariability of human stupidity, and then looked back at me with that “Just dish the Purina, bud” look they get. You know what I mean.

The only one not too insulted to talk to me about it was Smudge, the youngest, who, lacking the others’ wider experience with human ignorance, still harbors some compassion for us. She’s also my yoga teacher in the animal world. You may think I’m kidding, but if she thinks I’ve got a posture wrong, she doesn’t hesitate to stick a claw in me.

Anyway, Smudge says, “Look. I can concentrate hard enough to jump onto a surface twice as high as my body length. Can you do that?” Well, of course they’d all seen me around the house, and had never intuited me even thinking about doing something like that, so I could hardly lie to them. So I didn’t say anything. I thought I heard them snickering in their dishes, but didn’t feel like getting into an argument about it. You never know what a cat might do to you in your sleep.

Anyway, I reported back my conversation with the cats to the Swami yesterday, but he stood his ground on the subject. I told him that, regretfully, out of household solidarity, I was sticking with the cats—who I agree with, anyway. I’m no species-ist. We agreed to disagree, but I think he was secretly getting back at me later when he told us to assume what I think of as the “flying” pose, which he knows I have trouble with, even though he lets us keep one leg on the floor (none of us are that advanced).

The Swami and I have a few other subjects we like to debate. He’s quite aware, politically; and as my friends know, I’m rarely as happy as when I’ve found someone who will disagree with me, so I can hone my ideas. I think our most fundamental difference of opinion is the classic East/West philosophical divide. He, in his Eastern way, thinks that if humanity really wants to destroy itself and its home planet—as humans by all appearances seem to want to do—who is he to stop it, if God won’t?

I, on the other hand, had a Christian upbringing, in which my mind was filled by Franciscans and Jesuits alike with the Western “crusader” spirit (a word sharper than a serpent’s tooth from any Muslim mouth, but tragically accurate)—a spirit that says that, as the children of divinity (“Is it not written, ye are gods?” Jesus asked), we have just as much responsibility for creating what happens here on Earth as God does. And since we have this responsibility, it’s our job to be about our Father’s business.

We’ll keep hashing this debate out, I’m sure, because we’ve already become great friends. Probably every student he has feels the same way about him—though perhaps without the chess match of wills. But I need to tell you about the important influence he’s had on this website, the Hampshire Independent.

I had only recently met Swami Rama when I started editing this site, but I dropped by his house one day to ask if he had any advice about goals for our online project. He didn’t hesitate a moment to answer.

“Unity,” he said. “Seek unity. That’s the way of God.”

I don’t mind telling you that the answer surprised me. This is an obviously partisan site—how could we get to unity, in these harshly divisive times? But I immediately sensed that he was right. And as I thought about it more over the next few days, I realized that my first-generation immigrant Indian friend had a valuable lesson to teach his floundering student whose forebears have been here since before the Revolution—this nation was built on a spirit of unity. And even though we have criticized our political opposites here, without restraint at times, I have tried to keep the Swami’s advice to seek unity as our highest ideal.

“E pluribus unum”—out of many, one—is our national motto. We have been a divided, pluralistic nation from the very beginning. And it is out of our long struggle to bridge those divisions that America has been created. If we can remember who we are, and think about how clear the Framers’ intentions were when they passed that simple national motto down to us, we can emerge from the crisis of democracy in which we presently find ourselves—and it is indeed a crisis—and perhaps once again become a great nation, a status we have sadly lost.

We’re trying to arrange our schedules for the Swami and his wife to join us for dinner at our place, so I can test his theory.

If he can make friends with the cats, anything can happen.


This essay inaugurates our “Sunday morning gospel hour” here at the Independent, which I’m now decreeing as the self-exalted (because I’m the only one with the password) editor (“Ever striving to be humbled” is our motto here). If you have thoughts about the connections between religion and politics you feel like putting into writing, send them along to our email address; and if I think they’re consistent with our ideals, I’ll post them on Sunday. Otherwise, if nothing appears, it means I’m sleeping off a bender.

--Michael Hasty

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