The Being Behind Becoming

A Review of Songs for Siva: Vacanas of Akka Mahadevi, translated by Vinaya Chaitanya (2017).

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A small hardcover volume filled with poems seeking to move from duality and separation into divine union ― Songs for Siva is a new translation by Vinaya Chaitanya of the 12th century poet, Akka Mahadevi. She was known as “sky-clad” (digambaras), as she was of the tradition of the wandering saint, clad only with the hair she was given.

               If the cloth that covers them slips,

               Men and women become shy.

               If you, lord of life,

               Envelop the whole world,

               What is there to be shy of?

               If Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,

               Sees with the whole world as eyes,

               What shall you cover and hide, O man? (145)

The foreword by H.S. Shivaprakash describes Akka’s writing as “poetic without being poetry, spiritual without being religious or scriptural,” (vii). Transcending duality, Shivaprakash further states that Akka’s pathway of Siva is “where heaven and hell become one in the clear understanding of continuous awareness, turning nectar and poison into each other,” (viii).

               You grasped the space within the space

               That no one knows

               And handed it to me,

               O Guru Channamallikarjuna, jasmine tender (92)

Translator, Vinaya Chaitanya, provides an informative and intriguing introduction to Akka Mahadevi. Chaitanya draws parallels between the 12th century Virasaiva movement that Mahadevi was part of, and the translator’s own wisdom lineage of Narayan Guru: speaking out against discrimination and oppression based on separation and difference such as “caste, sex, language or dress,” (xvi). Chaitanya quotes Narayana Guru, “Humanity is of one caste, of one religion and of one God,” (xxix). As well as looking forward to the present, Chaitanya also looks back to the past, describing the Virasaiva movement as a continuation of the pre-Aryan, pre-Vedic “older, more contemplative tradition associated with Siva,” (xxiii). This movement accorded equal status to the sexes and there are “thirty-three vacanakartis (women writers of vacanas)” whose poems are known, (xxiv).

               I saw the divine form…

               I saw the great one

               Who makes all the males female.

               I saw the supreme guru

               Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,

               Ever united with the primal Sakti.

               Seeing him, I am saved. (141)

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One of the fundamental human differences that is frequently a basis of discrimination is male and female. Chaitanya writes, “It is the dialectics between male and female that makes for the creative evolution of the world. When these opposites are united in harmony, there is peace and contentment; when the balance between them is lost, there is suffering,” (xii). The longing for union that Akka Mahadevi expresses toward her Lord Siva, whom she calls Channamallikarjuna, goes beyond the union of male and female, which is still a form of separation and dualism, to a state of mystical union with the Divine. A.K. Ramanujan translated Channamallikarjuna as “jasmine-white Lord,” in his translations of the 1970s, whereas Chaitanya chooses a slightly different translation, “jasmine-tender,” and continues to use the original in the poems as well, Channamallikarjuna (“Channa means ‘beautiful’; mallika is jasmine; arjuna meaning ‘bright’ or ‘white’”).

               My mind is unhappy.

               It cannot become empty

               Forgetting the two.

               Show me how you can become me,

               O, Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender. (10)

Like another Bhakti poet, Mirabai, Akka Mahadevi was married to a husband, but considered herself married to God, in Mirabai’s case Shyam (Krishna) and for Mahadevi, Śiva. The poems are called vacanas, meaning “to give one’s word” or “to make a promise or commitment,” (xxiii).

               Like treasure hidden by the earth.

               Like taste hidden by the fruit…

               Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,

               Hides as the being behind becoming;

               No one knows him. (9)

Aside from the timeless beauty of these poems, which express the ancient mystical longing to transcend dualism, these vacanas are topical today ― when we live in such a time that focuses so very much on walls and borders, differences and separation. We need reminders of our human unity and of the sacred and divine Oneness that transcends and swallows all our differences into the vast Cosmic Ocean of Being, out of which all this becoming arises.

 

 

 

 

Review of Walking the Medicine Wheel by Michael H. Cohen

Thank you to Michael H. Cohen for his kind and thoughtful review of Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD. You can read the entire review here. A few excerpts below.

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CAN INDIGENOUS HEALING SYSTEMS RESOLVE COMPLEX, MODERN CLINICAL PROBLEMS SUCH AS TRAUMA AND PTSD?

“Answering this question, as part of a larger inquiry into integrative medicine, psychiatrist and integrative physician David Kopacz, and Native American visionary Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), have written Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD.”

“Importantly, the book notes that ‘the real importance of ceremony is that we are not just going through meaningless motions, but that our motions are full of deep meaning, our motions are the motions of creation.’

Healing not only helps the person – it changes the cosmos.

That is why this is such an important book. Walking the Medicine Wheel shares wisdom from two divergent traditions—one clinical and the other focused on healing through imagery, sound, poetry, introspection, visioning. The quest is nothing less than clearing the fog of the aftermath of war, instilling sacredness, and reclaiming the whole self.”

Review of Gerald Arbuckle’s Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad

Gerald Arbuckle is an anthropologist and Catholic priest from New Zealand who lives in Australia. He has written on a variety of topics including bullying, humanizing health care reform, humor, Pope Francis, and his latest book is on varieties of fundamentalism in the modern world.

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In Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad, Gerald Arbuckle brings his understanding of culture as an anthropologist and his perspective as a theologian who sympathizes with the broad-mindedness and inclusiveness of Pope Francis. Recognizing that there is a “global epidemic of fundamentalism both religious and political,” he examines fundamentalism across the world and throughout history, paying particular attention to the rise of fundamentalism in the United States (what he dubs “Trumpism”), Islamic terrorism, the reforms of Pope Benedict, and even “siloism” in health care that creates fragmentation and competition. (28). He views fundamentalism as something all “individuals, cultures, and religions have a capacity for,” and that it is a “form of organized and institutional or civic religious anger in reaction to secularization, political changes and globalization; it often intimidates or coerces people to achieve its ends,” (28). He describes a typical fundamentalist leader as someone who “is a populist, homophobic, charismatic, authoritarian man who likes to bully,” (15). The book is very topical given the current fundamentalist movements across the globe that appear to be breaking out in an “epidemic.”

What is perhaps most useful in the book is in understanding how “we” (each and every one of us) can so easily turn to this ideology as a way of simplifying the world and resorting to black and white categories based on separation of the larger whole into smaller sub-parts. While it is useful to understand “others” fundamentalism as a response to cultural trauma and disorientation, it is more important to seek out our own fundamentalism. The sense of us vs. them paves the way for subtle discrimination all the way to self-righteous violence and genocide. Viewing fundamentalism as a reaction to cultural trauma and cultural disorientation, Arbuckle sees fundamentalists as “boundary setters” who oppose “openness and choice,” (9). He also describes suppression of dissent, even of moderate opposing views (such as we see with the stereotypical demonization of the media by fundamentalists). Arbuckle sees a spectrum of violence that can begin with a manipulation of facts on one end and physical violence against people at the other end. He describes the common fundamentalist tendency toward paranoia (which a psychological perspective understands as a projection of fantasies about one’s own unconscious on to another group).

In response to cultural trauma, Gerald Arbuckle describes four different possible reactions or solutions (75).

  • escape into an unreal golden age or utopian past
  • chronic paralysis
  • seeking to refound or reform the culture in light of changing circumstances
  • fundamentalist movements

We see all four of these responses “at home and abroad.” Many in the United States feel paralyzed, many escape into glorifying the past, but the fundamentalist movements are the most dangerous and are the primary focus of the book. Arbuckle does describe an alternative to fundamentalism: refounding narratives are positive solutions to cultural trauma that draw on the founding beliefs of a culture while adapting those beliefs to changing times.

Refounding is a process of storytelling whereby imaginative leaders are able to inspire people collaboratively to rearticulate the founding mythology of an institution and apply it to contemporary needs through creative dialogue with the world. The purpose of refounding narratives is to find a positive way out of trauma by allowing people to reenter the sacred time of their founding with imaginative leaders who are able to rearticulate the founding mythology in narratives adapted to the changing world. (93).

By mythology, Arbuckle does not mean something that is false, but rather a story that makes emotional sense of the past. The difference between a refounding narrative and a fundamentalist solution to cultural trauma is that the fundamentalist response is “closed to dialogue and…dissent” (94). The fundamentalist response is strident, closed, rigid, and aggressive, whereas a refounding narrative is creative, collaborative, open, and ultimately regenerative. There is a great deal of similarity in Arbuckle’s description of refounding narratives and the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell described, in which an individual and culture separates from traditions that are no longer adaptive, transforms into a new identity (by getting in touch with the “sacred time”), and then returns back to society, bringing personal and cultural transformation. Whereas a refounding narrative creates new meaning and new modes of being while incorporating the essence of the past, fundamentalist reactions are based on “ideological necrophilia,” the “blind fixation on dead ideas,” so that there is nothing new, only an aggressive attempt to recreate a past that may or may not have even existed in reality (78).

Gerald Arbuckle describes, in his last chapter, a number of antidotes or responses to fundamentalism, what he calls pastoral responses. A few of these follow.

  • We are all in danger of becoming fundamentalists.
  • Have a sense of humor. As Arbuckle amusingly points out “there is not much fun in fundamentalism” (155)
  • We need to be aware of the dynamics of prejudice and discrimination.
  • Receive without prejudice migrants and parishoners from cultures different from our own as Christ would wish.
  • Be alert: Ideology is a prejudice that is integral to all fundamentalist movements.
  • Cultivate the art of dialogue, which is the antidote to fundamentalism.
  • Remember, violence in all its forms, for example terrorism and bullying, is contrary to the Gospel.

Arbuckle Head Shot

Gerald Arbuckle provides a much-needed discussion of the cultural and religious roots of fundamentalism (both our own and other’s) as a response to cultural trauma and disorientation. He calls for us to be open and inclusive and to engage in refounding narrative of continually returning to the “sacred time” of the mythological roots of our cultures and histories and be continually adapting these to the present moment. Particularly for Americans it is of utmost importance to be aware of fundamentalist movements within the United States that can foster violence against ourselves as well as others. If fundamentalism functions through this separation of groups into self/other, then perhaps the antidote is to see us as all connected and all related, that, after all, is one of the founding narratives of this country of immigrants. We must use the same eyes to look at ourselves as we use to look at fundamentalism abroad. As Pope Francis encourages us, we should strive to be builders of bridges, not walls.

 

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel” (Pope Francis, in Arbuckle, xi).

 

 

 

A Review of Patient-Centered Medicine: A Human Experience

A Review of Patient-Centered Medicine: A Human Experience

By David H. Rosen and Uyen Bao Hoang

Book Cover

This is a new and updated edition of Medicine as a Human Experience originally published in 1984 by David H. Rosen and David E. Reiser with two guest chapters by George L. Engel (one of the founders of the biopsychosocial model still taught in medical schools). As a disclosure, one of the current authors, Uyen, is a friend of mine whom I know through living and working in New Zealand.

This new edition features a foreword by Andrew Weil, MD, who puts the book in context within the current frameworks of the biopsychosocialspiritual model of medicine and integrative medicine. Dr. Weil writes that not only does Patient-Centered Medicine “define the role of health professionals in the new model of medicine that is coming into being, it gives a great deal of practical advice about the attitudes and skills they should develop to care best for patients” (ix).  The current edition includes Norman Cousins’ (author of Anatomy of an Illness and The Healing Heart) original foreword entitled “Physician as Humanist,” which invokes the framework of humanism as a partner or counter-balance to the technological and interventionist aspects of medicine. Cousins stresses the interconnectedness of science and humanism, ending with the statement, “I pray that, even as you attach the highest value to your science, you will never forget that it works best when it serves your humanity” (xvii).

The book next includes a prologue, written by Dr. Uyen B. Hoang. Uyen tells of her own path as a healer, as a Vietnamese-born American, training in medicine, going through burnout in the contemporary practice of psychiatry in the United States, and then moving to New Zealand to practice, “in search of something greater, on a quest for expansion and truth” (xxv). With honesty and integrity, Uyen brings her own personal experiences of medical practice to the book which bridges the thirty-some years since the book was first written. Dr. Rosen also shares personal elements of his own work and journey to humanize the more theoretical aspects of the text.

The text elaborates the four essential principles of medicine as a human experience: acceptance, empathy, conceptualization, and competence, stating that these are required to prepare physicians to be “compassionate champions for health” (4). The grounding of the book is in the frameworks of humanism and the psychotherapeutic understanding of human relationships. George Engel’s two chapters give us the opportunity to read, in his own words, the ideas of the founder of the biopsychosocial model. Throughout the book, Drs. Rosen and Hoang focus on the idea that there is no separation between the humanistic and scientific approaches. Rather than a duality between the art and science of medicine, they offer the perspective that the therapeutic relationship is rooted in the human science of presence and connected observation.

What could be improved in this book for the next edition? I think the authors do a good job of retaining the focus of the original and updating it to the present times. I think a larger discussion of what is now called the biopsychosocialspiritual model that Dr. Weil mentions in his foreword could be helpful. Another area to consider is the work on compassion-based practices as an antidote to burnout. These elements are present in the book, but could be further developed. That said, this book easily joins the work of other healers such as Robin Youngson, Tony Fernando, Allan D. Peterkin, Andrew Weil, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and the late Lee Lipsenthal who have been engaged in what I call the compassion revolution in medicine.

Patient-Centered Medicine: A Human Experience gives the reader a great overview of biopsychosocial, humanist and psychotherapeutic perspectives of human interconnection and inter-relatedness. It combines the enthusiasm of the younger psychiatrist with the wisdom of the older psychiatrist in order to guide students, doctors, nurses, and clinicians through training and into practice. Patient-Centered Medicine is also a source of renewal for practicing doctors and clinicians, reminding us all why we went into medicine and health care in the first place.  Drs. Rosen and Hoang close with the following sentences: “We must encourage introspection, healthy relationships, play, openness, and joyous, creative expression. We must spawn a generation of doctors who are not afraid to love” (142).

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David H. Rosen and Uyen Bao Hoang

 

 

Re-humanizing Medicine Review

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The American Medical Writers Association has published a review of Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine.

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You can find the full review at this link. Below are some excerpts from the review written by Debamita Chatterjee.

“Re-humanizing Medicine by David R. Kopacz is an incisive reflection on the existing medical practices of an increasingly corporatized world. At the same time, it seeks to teach the medical and health care community how to correct that dehumanized outlook by being more compassionate and holistic.”

“Considering the absurdly frenetic pace of modern medical practice, this book does an excellent job of nourishing the soul of practicing physicians first, thereby helping them to regain their humanity. This, in turn, may translate into a more humanized treatment of patients and, ultimately, establish a pathway to a whole new paradigm of medical practice.”

“This book helps us to understand, appreciate, and correct the wrongs of modern-day medicine by inspiring us to be more connected—to be more human.”

 

Reviewer: Debamita Chatterjee

Debamita is a graduate of the University of Rochester in biomedical sciences. She has written for the University of Rochester Medical Center and journals including eLife and The Scientist.

Spirituality Today Book of the Month: Walking the Medicine Wheel

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Spirituality Today has selected our book, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD, as Book of the Month!

Spirituality Today is based in the UK and focuses on “Challenging Paradigms and Expanding Consciousness.”

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You can read the full review of the book at this link.

Excerpts from the Spirituality Today review.

In Walking the Medicine Wheel its authors offer an approach to repairing the shattered psyches of PTSD suffers through a number of different healing modalities. These are essentially anchored within and around the mandala of the Medicine Wheel of Native American Tradition – a map through which initiates can more closely understand and appreciate mankind’s relationship with those natural forces that permeate through the world of spirit and the psyche of man.

This framework is remarkably similar to many Western psycho-spiritual constructs and has a particular resonance with ideas expressed by Carl Jung in his philosophy of personal individuation. Here the concepts of the Four Directions within Native philosophy and the Four Functions in Jungian analysis merge and complement each other.

…within the pages of this book such sufferers may well discover a vitally important lifeline…the ideas presented here should demonstrate to everyone that opportunities for personal growth can emerge even from the darkest recesses of the sort of fractured mindset that trauma creates.

This book has been beautifully produced and has a real quality feel to it. The inclusion of the remarkable visionary artwork of Native American Joseph Rael has resulted in a publication that carries with it an energy that stimulates the soul of its reader along the way.

…a publication with a warm heart – one that beats loud and clear from within its pages and which I feel reaches out to those suffering in pain and torment as a result of the nightmares derived from their military service.

In short, Walking the Medicine Wheel is a remarkable and highly impressive collaboration between two insightful, spiritual-warriors ― two hardened veterans of front-line psycho-spiritual conflicts whose combined approach to the challenge of trauma has created a deeply moving and very humbling publication indeed.

Thanks Spirituality Today for the review!

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Link to our videos on Walking the Medicine Website.

 

Review of Marsha Snyder’s Positive Health: Flourishing Lives, Well-Being in Doctors

Positive Health

I first met Marsha Snyder, MD, MAPP, an American psychiatrist, at the Health of Health Professionals conference in Auckland, New Zealand, 2011. I have sat in on her presentations over the past three offerings of the Australasian Doctors’ Health Conference/Health of Health Professionals conference. Marsha sums up her years of work and personal experience in this book, Positive Health: Flourishing Lives, Well-Being in Doctors, published 2014 – the same year as my book, Re-humanizing Medicine. Marsha’s book adds to what I have been calling the counter-curriculum of self-care and compassion revolution in health care.

Snyder

Marsha describes a curriculum that builds on positive psychology, which she studied under Dr. Martin Seligman for her Master’s degree at University of Pennsylvania. She creates an expansive curriculum of positive health and builds upon evidence-based principles of resilience and positive psychology to transform “physician ill-being” into well-being and flourishing.

Marsha describes five themes for her book:

 
1) The “cause of ill-being in medical students extends beyond the students, into issues with faculty and administration.”

2) Many “physicians who are troubled or burned out relate some of their difficulties to ethical issues in the system.”

3) There is a need for “understanding, defining, and teaching of resilience skills to physicians.”

4) The “creation of well-being in doctors and the rest of society by incorporating the science of positive health.”

5) Medical “training and practice must move out from an outdated pathology-based model to a health-based/prevention-based model,” (page 2).

Marsha adds in various exercises, including mindfulness, and discussion questions to the curriculum and stresses the need for “spirited multi-disciplinary teams.” She includes a chapter on “Spirituality and Well-Being,” defining spirituality as “a search for the sacred,” (240) and she reviews the links between spirituality and health. I particularly like the chapter, “Posttraumatic and Post-Ecstatic Growth in Medicine.” I was familiar with posttraumatic growth which describes the potentially transformative response to trauma, but I had not heard of “post-ecstatic growth,” which describes how highly positive experiences can also lead to transformative growth of “different areas of the self, including meaning in life, self-esteem, or social bonds,” (233).

Positive Health: Flourishing Lives, Well-Being in Doctors is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the need for self-care and personal growth in doctors and health care workers. Marsha’s focus goes way beyond limiting the negative to expanding joy and flourishing in the lives of those working in health care.

We Need a New Holistic Paradigm – “Re-humanizing Medicine” Review

Please check out the Courage & Renewal Blog post, “We Need a New Holistic Paradigm – Re-humanizing Medicine Review,” by Sandra Carter, of the Center for Physician Leadership Coaching.

Here is a quote from the review:

“If ever a path was needed, the time is now! Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: ‘Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.’ In this case, a must read for physicians is Re-humanizing Medicine by David Kopacz, M.D., who shines a ray of light on a positive path forward.”

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Thanks Sandra for your kind words and thanks Courage & Renewal for your support!

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Review of Mira Bai, by Saritha Gnanananda

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(2010 Kindle e-book)

 

“Sri Krishna alone is my lover. I have gone mad with grief.”

“I will have no peace of mind unless Sri Krishna comes to me.”

These quotes open Gnanananda’s book on Mira Bai, described as having “dedicated her entire life to God and endured all the difficulties of life. Awake or asleep, all the time she thought only of Sri Krishna.” Princess, widow, mystic, poet, musician and Hindu Saint, Mira Bai (alternatively Mirabai or Meera Bai) lived in the 1500s (1498-1546) in Rajasthan (the Northwest of modern India). She is known as a “the most renowned woman poet-saint of India,” (Daniel Landinsky, Love Poems From God). Gnanananda describes Mira as “the very embodiment of Bhakti (or devotion to God).” Wikipedia describes Bhakti as “closely related to Islamic Sufism, which appeared around the same time: both advocated that a personal expression of devotion to God is the way to become at one with him.” Gnanananda expresses this bhakti devotion with loving care of the subject of Mira Bai.

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This Kindle e-book gives a biography of Mira’s life, starting with her birth in a noble family. As a small girl she saw a wedding procession and asked what the bridegroom was and then asked to have one to play with. Her grandfather gave her an idol of Krishna and said “Take good care of him.” Another story tells of her wanting the Krishna idol of a holy hermit. The hermit was visited by Krishna in a dream and was told to give his idol to the young girl. When she was older, Mira Bai was married to a man whose family disapproved of her constant devotion to Lord Krishna. At this point, Gnanananda admits,

“It may seem strange that one should regard God as the husband and behave accordingly. But it is not a new thing in the Bhakti cult. There are several types of Bhakti (devotion). They are classified according to the relation that exists between God and the devotee.”

Vatsalya Bhava: God as Parent

Dasya Bhava: God as Master

Sakhya Bhava: God as Intimate Friend

Madhurya Bhava: God as Husband

Gnanananda states that Madhurya Bhava is the highest form of devotion for it includes all other forms of relationship.

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This type of devotional love of God has roots in Christianity, as well, for instance in the writing of St. John of the Cross, author of Dark Night of the Soul  (who lived during a similar time, 1542-1591) and John of Ruysbroeck  (1293-1381) in his book, The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage; or even the earlier Old Testament book, The Song of Songs in which bodily love and spiritual love are intertwined. A very nice book of poetry exploring the writing of poets from many religious traditions in regard to different forms of the divine love is Daniel Ladinsky’s Love Poems From God (2002). The Poet Seers website is also a nice place to visit for poems and short biographies of poets.

Mira was thought to be mad by her in-laws, and they attempted to sequester her, poison her, and tarnish her name. However, “she was known among the people as ‘a great saint,’” (Gnanananda). Her fame was such that the Moghul Emperor, Akbar the Great, (who was an integrator of religions) visited Mira in disguise and laid a diamond necklace at her feet. Although she refused the gift, Akbar (in disguise) said “I cannot take back what I have brought for Sri Krishna. Please do not refuse,” (Gnanananda). Thus, she was not able to turn away Akbar’s gift.

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However this gift made her in-laws even more angry with her and she survived several attempts to kill her. She sought refuge at a holy place, however the leading man at the site refused her entrance as she was a woman. She rejoined, saying, “I thought the only man in Brindavan is Sri Krishna. Now I see there is a rival.” Thus she outwitted the holy man as, “In the Bhakti cult the love of the wife for her husband is said to be the best form of devotion. According to this all are women in this world. God is the only Man,” (Gnanananda). This short book ends with a discussion of the disappearance of Mira, offering different possible ends of her life, for instance, that she was finally merged bodily with Sri Krishna, such was her devotion. This mirrors the story of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption bodily into heaven.

Mira Bai was a strong woman, poet, singer, mystic and Hindu saint. As a mystic, she argues for a direct communion with God and this was threatening to the male hierarchy, both religious and political. She is a champion for women’s (and all humans) rights to worship God directly and her devotional poems blend a physical sensuality and subversive, revolutionary, single-minded love of God which takes precedence over all other laws and hierarchies.

It is fitting to end with a couple of poems of Mira Bai, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.

A Hundred Objects Close By

I know a cure for sadness:

Let your hands touch something that

makes your eyes smile.

I bet there are a hundred objects close by

that can do that.

Look at

beauty’s gift to us–

her power is so great she enlivens

the earth, the sky, our

soul.

 

A Great Yogi

In my travels I spent time with a great yogi.

Once he said to me,

“Become so still you hear the blood flowing

through your veins.”

One night as I sat in quiet,

I seemed on the verge of entering a world inside so vast

I know it is the source of

all of

us.

 

Mira Knows Why

The earth looked at Him and began to dance.

Mira knows why, for her soul too

is in love.

If you cannot picture God

in a way that always

strengthens

you,

You need to read

more of my

poems.

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A Review of At Ganapati’s Feet: Daily Life with the Elephant-Headed Deity, by Janyananda Saraswati (David Dillard Wright)

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David Dillard-Wright is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at University of South Carolina, Aiken. He has a broad range of interests in the philosophy of the mind, bioethics, meditation (authored the book, 5-Minute Mindfulness and others), and in his latest book, he describes his experience and interest in Hindu ritual and meditation. At Ganapati’s Feet is a short, quick read at 99 pages. It starts off autobiographically, with Dr. Dillard-Wright’s story of seeing a friend’s statue of the Hindu god, Ganesha, and being drawn to the statue. He sought out his own statue and installed it on his writing desk as he worked on his dissertation (published as The Ark of the Possible: The Animal World in Merleau-Ponty) and began offering prayers as he worked to Ganesha. He eventually made a promise that if his dissertation were completed and published, he would write a book on Ganesha (Ganapati being one of Ganesha’s 108 names).

I, too, have a statue of Ganesha on my writing desk (a small return gift for loaning a friend a copy of Gandhi’s autobiography). Ganesha is a liminal deity, a threshold god, the first to be acknowledged on entering a Hindu temple Ganesha is often thought of as the remover of obstacles, and also a patron god of writers as well – having made a promise to complete a writing, and when he ran out of writing instruments, broke off his own tusk to use as a quill (which is why he is shown having one broken tusk). I had picked up a few elephant statues over the past few years and was very interested in the symbolism of removing and moving through obstacles. I came to think of my leadership style at times as an embodiment of this elephant energy when I hit an obstacle – not to overpower it by force, but to refuse to budge or be forced backward on any issue I considered crucial to gradually make advances on toward a clinical or administrative goal. This was kind of between putting something on the back-burner (essentially putting off until later) and having something on the forefront of one’s focus. I developed an ability to have continual awareness on an issue and whenever the smallest opening appeared, to take a step or two forward and then hold, until the next step was possible. This was a kind of medium to long-term planning, and in the meantime I would go about the daily issues and concerns.

One of the interesting facets of this short book is Dillard-Wright’s background of passing through the Christian seminary. His spiritual practice appears to have seamlessly incorporated Christian and Hindu belief and ritual. In fact, he writes that his Hindu practice has helped to bridge the Christian gap between the spiritual and the earthly, Ganapati, himself embodies the union of animal head and human body. His two wives, Riddhi (prosperity) and Siddhi (spiritual attainment) also bridge the common tension between material wealth and spiritual wealth. The book examines an integration of Hindu and Christian theology to arrive at an embrace of both the material and spiritual worlds. Even the split between human and divine is repaired as Dillard-Wright describes that the Hindu “gods represent the latent powers within ourselves; aspects of our true nature,” (10).

Rather than claiming to have found “enlightenment,” Dillard-Wright describes having “found tools to lighten the load,” through “seeing the negatives themselves as part of the journey toward liberation…to push oneself ever closer to the divine nature as it unfolds in this world. Eventually we come to regard ourselves not as separate beings, but as aspects of Ganesha’s nature. We come to be the removers of obstacles for others,” (14). He further writes that the “path forward for humanity, the only way that does not lead to destruction, lies in mutual service and submission,” (14-15). He thus finds in the heart of Hinduism the heart of Christianity. He presents Hinduism as being more accepting of other religions, as it is a polytheism. While most Christians do not consider the study of Hinduism part of the path to God, Dillard-Wright states that almost “every major Hindu saint has at some time read and appreciated the teachings of Jesus, and many authors have seen Jesus as a great yogi,” (16). This concept of religious tolerance, while a founding principle of the United States, is currently a topic of great concern – as intolerance, in general, appears to be growing in the Land of the Free.

After a discussion of harmonizing contrasts between Hinduism and Christianity, Dillard-Wright moves to an exegesis of the symbolism of Ganesha. His comments about the broken tusk, in particular, are of interest. While we often think of elephants as slow and ponderous, Ganesha represents the lighting flash of the creative mind, using his four hands to write four times as fast as someone using a single hand. His one remaining tusk represents “single-pointed devotion and oneness with his father,” (Siva) (31). Turning the broken tusk to his advantage, this “symbolism means that Ganesha takes defects and quickly makes them into tools, thereby overcoming them. The quickness with which he fights his adversaries and composes poetry he also pours into his devotee’s lives, making them quick and nimble as well,” (31).

The next section of the book explores mantras and spiritual aphorisms of Ganesha, such as “Regard everything as holy,” (63) and “When trouble comes, retreat into meditation,” (65). The remainder of the book focuses on the steps of a ritual practice of puja, detailing the prayers and sequence of devotions and movements in the ritual worship of Ganesha, including the recitation of Ganesha’s 108 names.

This is an interesting little book, about a big subject, Ganesha the elephant-headed deity. It details the adoption of daily Hindu practice by a man who describes himself as a Christian, and is also a professor of philosophy. His handling of the topic is open, honest, straight-forward and thoughtful. It is well worth the short time it takes to read and raises many interesting topics in integrative religion and spirituality.