Settling

After months of traveling, with its constant stream of new people and places, I’ve reunited with one small tract of unhurried land and watched my seedlings grow into Swiss chard, red leaf, romaine, and butternut lettuces, basil, oregano, and parsley. Here my good-hearted neighbors, the pulse of country life, evenings filled with the cows’ bellows and the bluebirds chanting their final chorus, all give me a sense of rightness, of connectedness. Life’s frailty and temporariness, as well as my body’s inescapable, gradual demise, somehow become vivid during the quiet, closing moments of a country day. I won’t be getting out of this world alive.

In my simple, off-the-grid life, I don’t want to settle into complacency but into soul qualities: faith, gratitude, happiness, and the sense of abundance. Why splendid and tragic things happen in this world is beyond me, but I know it’s not happenstance. The hand behind all happenings may appear tender or iron-fisted, but the heart behind that hand is always a loving one. We miss that point when we think the sliver of life we’re experiencing now is all there is. Actually, this one lifetime is like one drop is to the Pacific.

Last Saturday was Sharangati’s annual farm festival, complete with a parade, singing, dancing, an epic play by the students, games, a bonfire, and feasting. My husband and I got more than a few compliments on the bean salad we spent two hours making. Plus there was rice, vegetables, fresh salad, cauliflower pakoras with chutney, sweet potato fries with ketchup, cake, and a refreshing lemon drink. Please join us next year!

water dunk game by Lake Sharanagati

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Rite of Passage

Last Saturday here at Sharanagati Village in British Columbia, we had a ceremony for the three students who graduated from our small, K-12 school. All the village parents, children, friends, community members, teachers, and former teachers attended. Many spoke at the event.

Ms. Cummings said, “I’ve been teaching for nineteen years, and that one year some eight years ago when I taught at the Sharanagati school remains my best teaching year. I don’t expect that to change in my teaching career; my year here will remain my best year.”

graduation gratitude and ecstasyGopal Fournier, one of the graduates, said “At first I didn’t want to be emotional at this time, but then I realized when I see all of you, the beautiful people who have sheltered, supported, encouraged, and loved me my whole life, I couldn’t help but be emotional from the gratitude and love I feel for each one of you.”

Afterwards, some of the teachers and I talked about how small village schools are healthy for both students—who, with their friends, are nurtured close to home—and the community—which is infused with the youthful energy of their own children. Students at our Sharanagati school are happy, which means discipline problems are virtually unknown and academic achievement is often high. Schools like ours aren’t experimental but were the norm a century ago.

I also considered that for those who accept the idea of reincarnation, high school graduation, which marks the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood, is a bit like death: it means stepping out of one stage and into another—it’s a change of bodies. In the words of the Bhagavad-gita:

“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from childhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.”

family, friends, teachers, neighbors, students

Resilience

I notice with dismay that an apple tree my daughter and I planted seven years ago as well dead for no apparent reasonas my dear Montmorency sour cherry tree that my friends and I feast from each summer aren’t leafing out this spring. It was a mild winter, so it wasn’t the cold that killed them.

I’m discouraged. Why buy trees, chip holes for them into the rocklike soil, plant, fertilize, water, and prune them only to have them die for no apparent reason? I’d rather lie in the sun reading the Bhagavad-gita.

That reasoning wilts before my wise, pious friend Patricia. Now nearing 60, she’s successfully battled serious cancer and today has the buoyancy and brightness of a youth. Unhesitatingly she tells me, “Try again or try something else.” Her simple words lift me from my defeat. She’s right. Two trees died but ten lived. Why not see that?

Humans are not meant to give up—on trees, problems, people, or ourselves. In consistently, optimistically trying to bring health and spirituality into the world and its occupants, we gain the same for ourselves.

I can try again. And then I can read that book in the sun. And when I do read, the Gita’s words will enter my heart – the heart of a budding optimist – and resonate there, as they would never do for a cynic.

Behind the Scene

Armed with chutzpah and other people’s credit, Marc Dreier, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, hatched one ingenious scam after another and used the proceeds to maintain a lavish lifestyle, including owning a $10,000,000 apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, beachfront properties in the Hamptons, a valuable art collection, several expensive cars, and an $18,000,000 yacht.

Gita Nagari farm, Port Royal, PABefore he began committing his crimes, Mr. Dreier earned about $400,000 a year. So, one may ask, why did Mr. Dreier engage in fraud? The classic spiritual treatise, Bhagavad-gita, explains that a person in the grips of the mode of passion (called raja guna, in Sanskrit) has unlimited desires and longings.

Gita Nagari farm, Port Royal, PAA guna is a quality that, due to our desires and activities, entraps us. In the case of Mr. Dreier, after pleading guilty to his crimes he wrote a letter to the judge explaining that he began stealing in 2002, taking money from the settlement proceeds owed to a client. He had hoped to repay the money quickly, but instead he stepped into “a quicksand of spending” and found himself “running a massive Ponzi scheme with no apparent way out.”

When there is an increase in the mode of passion, the Gita tells us, uncontrollable greed develops.

In his letter, Mr. Dreier also told the judge that colleagues and clients were doing “better financially and seemingly enjoying more status” than he was, and he felt “crushed by a sense of underachievement.”

A person in the grip of passion is never satisfied with the position he or she has, covets higher positions and more possessions, and becomes disturbed by not having them and envious of those who do. Then, the intelligence smothered, that person ignores morality.

Or, in Mr. Dreier’s words, “I can’t remember or imagine why I didn’t stop myself. It all seems so obviously deplorable now. I recall only that I was desperate for some measure of the success that I felt had eluded me. I lost my perspective and my moral grounding, and really, in a sense, I just lost my mind.”

Greed, the Gita tells us, is one of three gates to hell, and any action done under its influence tastes like nectar in the beginning and poison at the end.

Mr. Dreier was convicted of fraud for bilking hedge funds and other investors out of at least $400 million and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He commented: “It’s easy to say you would never cross the line, but the line is presented to very few people.”

And it’s true. Anyone can succumb to greed – and have to experience the misery it brings.

There is a bright side, however. Anyone, including Mr. Dreier, who is sixty-two and may spend the rest of his life in prison, can reflect on and learn from the glorious Gita. This passage, for example, could give all of us pause:

“In the mode of passion, people become greedy, and their hankering for sense enjoyment has no limit. One can see that even if one has enough money and adequate arrangements for sense gratification, there is neither happiness nor peace of mind. That is not possible, because one is situated in the mode of passion. If one wants happiness at all, his money will not help him…” (Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad-gita 14.17)

Ample Space, Divine Opportunities

One of the more noteworthy statements I heard while traveling was, “As yoga enables us to stretch in ways we couldn’t before, so the Bhagavad-gita enables our mind to stretch to accommodate ideas we couldn’t entertain before.”

Recently—and unfortunately—my absorption in the mind-stretching Gita has been disappointing. Although I had great intentions and read the Gita daily, I’ve been preoccupied with keeping my camper functioning, maintaining my stock of books and DVDs, having exchanges and farewells with friends along the way, forging future plans, keeping a wary eye on the weather, and trying to stay healthy and safe.

suburban samenessMy lack of absorption in the Gita may have been due to all that, or it may have been due to my feeling like a zombie after so much driving. Or from feeling suffocated after driving through cities with office buildings and houses so similar I could hardly tell them apart, buildings so close together that children couldn’t play between them.

At Saranagati, where my family and I live, each house is pleasantly quirky in ways just suited to its residents, as if the house and its residents morphed a bit to fit each other well. There’s ample space between them—space that doesn’t separate the residents but draws them closer.

The poet Cowper says the city is made by man and the country by God; perhaps that’s why the mind breathes deeply in the country, expanding to encompass dimensions suffocated elsewhere. And in the country the spirit, stretching toward that unknowable Person who’s within and without, basks in the enchanting freedom of real, divine intangibles.

spring murmurs

Aspens by a creek, Cascade foothills behind, the afternoon spring sunshine lighting it all.

For those of us who survived Sharanagati’s drawn-out winter, the varied greens that emerge from the moist and long-dormant soil especially gladden the heart. Somehow, whatever natural and man-made disasters plague our fragile planet, the earth is still robust and the sun still shines brilliantly.

In May I turned 61 (feels ancient!), and perhaps that’s why these days on my Sharanagati walks I often see decay and death juxtaposed with new life. Gradually, I’m getting it: these extremes are actually part of a continuum. “The material body of the indestructible, immeasurable, and eternal living entity is sure to die,” the Bhagavad-gita tells us, “and after death one is sure to take birth again.”

Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada comments, “The soul is so small that it is smaller than an atom. That small particle is within you, within me, within the elephant, within the gigantic animals, in all people, in the ant, in the tree, everywhere. However, scientific knowledge cannot estimate the dimensions of the soul, nor can a doctor locate the soul within the body. Consequently, material scientists conclude that there is no soul, but that is not a fact. There is a soul. The presence of the soul makes a difference between the living body and a dead body. As soon as the soul departs from the body, the body dies.”

Kinnikinik and grassesAt dusk in spring, British Columbia reveals its unique beauty.

our-spiritual-journey.com

watching those amazing changes

five life-long friends
Spring 2001: Priya, Gopal, Kalindi, Kava and Rasa
the body changes, the soul is eternal
Spring 2011: Priya, Gopal, Kalindi, Kava and Rasa

 

These pictures don’t show “growing up,” Bhagavad-gita says, but “changing bodies.” At every moment our body becomes infinitesimally different from the previous moment. The cumulative effect of these innumerable changes is dramatic (I’d love to take pictures of Priya and her friends again in 2021, 2031…).

the author of the Bhagavad-gita for children, teens and the rest of us

The more time that passes, the more dramatic the body’s changes, but our essential spiritual nature, the soul, doesn’t change. And that soul, the Bhagavad-gita says, is who we are. 

at 21 Barstow Road, Great Neck, N.Y. with Louise Foord Papert

Yours truly, 1951 and (right) 2011

Sharanagati’s passing seasons repeatedly remind me of life’s inevitable cyclical nature: the gray, short days of winter are brightened by the certainty of a lush spring to follow. In the same way, life’s wintery parts will surely be followed by a welcoming spring. My goal is to be grateful for each day as it comes.

From the Bhagavad-gita: “All of us existed as individuals in the past, we exist as individuals now, and in the future we shall continue to exist as individuals. We were existing, we are existing and we will exist. Only the body experiences birth, death, disease and old age, not the soul within. “