Ramblings of an old yogini
I came to Indonesia because I had some business to do. Apart from being ecstatically happy to walk the streets of Bandung again after so many years I had to see if I could get rid of some of the old skeletons in my cupboard, doing some house cleaning, as it were. To proceed in life with the new, one has to first get rid of the old, so that one is fresh and unencumbered.
Seems a small task? Well, let’s begin at the beginning.
My father. His early death has always been a painful chunk out of my life, and consequently I used to idolize him as a child. Classical, would any psychologist tell you.
When my mother died four years ago, I suddenly had this sense of emptiness, of a second loss. Where, during my mother’s life, my dead father had belonged to me, now suddenly he belonged again to my equally dead mother. They were again together, and so I felt left out.
Lesson number one: Nobody belongs to anybody. Everybody belongs only to him or herself. Let go of people and the dependency on them, and learn to see each human being as a luminous, self-contained parcel, floating in an infinite Universe, alone in utter aloneness, and yet bumping into and joining with other balls of luminosity for a while, to again continue afterwards on this lonely journey through Eternity.
Some interesting perspectives here.
Like compassion. Where does compassion come from? From our own judgments, based on what others tell us or show us. Sad stories and our reaction to the sad stories, which have nothing to do with Eternity and the Great Journey. As such, compassion is a terrible thing, an illusion based on fear and presumptuousness. Fear of the Eternal, the Unknown, death, and presumptuousness in thinking that we know what is good and what is bad. Between these two they form a sandwich with the human being squashed in the middle, dripping tears.
I am sitting in my hotel room with the door wide open on the patio. It is pouring with rain, and the sound of the drops on the big leafed tropical plants is like music.
This is happiness – listening to the rain, smelling the smells of Indonesia, the sound of the Indonesian language drifting up to my room, thinking, thinking …..
My Indonesian childhood that has haunted my life up till now.
The pain of having been thrown out of the Garden of Eden into the cold and frosty streets of Holland. The sounds, the smells, the faces, that were locked in the cells of my blood in a static picture of a skinny girl bicycling along the streets, horse riding among the tea bushes, doing home work on the large, triangular, stone veranda of the house called home.
It is all there, walled-in by thirty-five years of living, of gathering new experiences, of learning new lessons.
But they are there, and the minute I peek through a hole in the wall, there she is, the thirteen year old girl, lying in bed on a winter morning in Holland, waiting for the familiar morning sounds, the peanut vendor, the tea vendor, that would not come, not this morning, not tomorrow morning, not ever again. Bicycling to school through snow, to pass another morning not talking to anybody, not saying a word, so that the teachers asked my mother if I was a little retarded.
White faces, blue eyes, big, slow, awkward moving bodies, big, slow, awkward moving minds. Looking backwards, always looking backwards, to a future which would never come back.
Now the skinny girl is a fifty-year-old woman, and there is work to be done. Picking up bits and pieces of myself off the streets of Bandung, out of the University gardens where my mother taught biology, listening to the echo of the laughter of a young girl between the drops of a tropical rainstorm, searching the faces around me for recognition, looks and gestures mirrored through the amber colored blood of a great grand mother in my body, my face, my gestures. Recognizing which gesture, which expression, which turn of a bone comes directly from this mixture of blood and memory. And always the tears, which are right underneath the surface, of love and regret mingled together…..
Met this man a couple of weeks ago, actually a friend brought him to my house. He told me he lived in the Himalayas most of the year, being more interested in spiritual Yoga than in Hatha Yoga.
Blue eyes looking into mine and quick flashes of smile, mainly around the mouth and some around the eyes. Not inside the eyes. The smiles come and go too quickly. A really good smile is slow to start and even slower to end. These smiles were like lightning ripples on the surface of the face, with the underlying muscle remaining cold.
My friend, who had brought him, seemed a little overwhelmed by him. He talked about swamis and yoga and bathing in the cold waters of the Ganges at four o’clock in the morning at an altitude of three thousand meters.
He also said he came to Europe every year for a couple of months. To teach, he said, because people asked him. I thought about the four o’clock in the morning dips in the Ganges and wondered. Hot water showers, down beds and Western meals might also have something to do with these visits. Being spiritual in the Himalayas is OK for a certain time, but I guess one needs a holiday from it occasionally.
Hidden messages. The word spiritual, as opposed to Hatha Yoga, frequently cropped up, with the underlying meaning that I was doing physical yoga, while he was on the spiritual path. In the Himalayas.
‘A romantic place to be’, commented another friend of mine, who is also on the seekers trail. He had tried it, being of an idealistic frame of mind. But being maybe a little more sober than the other man realized soon that being cold, damp, hungry and lonely at three thousand meters altitude was not much fun, and might result in death without achievement. So he came back to the hot showers and the down beds, defeated by the excessive romantic-ness of the Himalayan yoga trip.
Yoga, like everything else in life, is an attention trap, trapping, or corralling the attention of people within a certain fenced-off space, or mental (spiritual) corral.
The mind is more or less allowed to wander freely within the fenced-in area, but is not encouraged to jump the fence.
If we look at the world like a map, we see hundreds, thousands, of these corrals, where people are fenced in, having bartered their free roaming status for security against predators (i.e. other predators than the one who rules the corral), and three meals a day (psychologically or spiritually speaking).
All these groups of people, yoga practitioners, whether physical or spiritual, or others, that swarm around a central figure, the guru, the swami, the man (or woman) who knows what you don’t know, like bees around their queen.
I once had a bee swarm like that on the wall of my house. It was amazing, I watched them day in, day out. They would cluster around the queen so tightly in the evening that you could actually scrape them off the wall like a lump of sugar candy, with little lumps of bee clusters dropping off from the big lump, to immediately dissolve itself in so many bees buzzing to get back onto the main cluster again.
Then, for some reason, the queen died, and fell off the wall onto the ground, but the swarm kept covering her dead body on the ground, desperately clinging to the security of her scent, until the last bee was dead, two weeks later.
This fear of the fluidity of the world is so deep rooted that we will do anything, even kill ourselves psychologically, in order to turn that fluidity into a static mass, the static mass being the doctrine, the credo, the concept, the rule, the ‘us’ against ‘them’, the ‘my guru is better than your guru’.
And so we invent words like Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga, the first being physical yoga and the second being spiritual yoga. But both yoga’s are doings, whether it is physically or spiritually, both are doings. And it is precisely the doing which is the corral, the attention trap, which fences the doer off from the rest of the world. The keyword is doing. Anything we do is a trap, whether it is physical or spiritual doing.
It is not the thing one does which counts. Anything is only anything and, within the vastness of the universe, is equal to everything else. Neither is the one who does it that counts. What counts is whether the one doing it does it because he enjoys doing it, or whether he does it because he thinks is it important, thus giving it a higher status than everything else in the universe.
It is so simple. Nothing being more important or spiritual or true than anything else in the universe, just get on and DO WHATEVER YOU LIKE DOING BEST, WHICH YOUR NATURE DICTATES YOU, without labeling it higher or lower.
But wait a minute. With that I do not mean to say that you can do something that you like doing, but which infringes on the freedom and right to peaceful existence of another living creature. All the living creatures in the universe being equal they have equal rights to peaceful existence and freedom.
So, there you are. Do whatever you like doing best, but like bats flying on radar in pitch dark DON’t BUMP INTO OTHER BATS, physically, psychologically, morally or spiritually speaking, causing them to lose their control and fly into a wall instead of into the open skies.
The more, as a yogi (or yogini), we profess to be completely and irretrievably right-brained and un-interested in modern technology, like computers and such ‘material things’ (as if some God somewhere in the universe is busy putting labels on everything saying ‘this is material, this is spiritual’), the more people think that we are spiritual, even mystical, mysticism being a more intimate form of spirituality.
Right brain versus left brain, the good versus the bad, the high and the low, the divine world and the material world.
The prophet of the first one is the mystic gazing at the divine, the prophet of the second the man at the computer gazing at the screen, both vertically absorbed in what they are doing, screened off from the rest of the world, the only thing they have in common being that they get a headache if they do their gazing for too long.
All our lives we have been told that there is a divine world and a material world, separated from each other by an invisible Berlin wall, which raises some very basic questions, like: ‘WHO SAYS SO’?
Scriptures, prophets, saints, they all exist because other people have said that they exist, and so to believe the scriptures, prophets and saints, we have to first believe the other people. We can make this chain as long as we want, without getting anywhere, really, in the end.
Second basic question.
I think everybody would agree that the divine world belongs to the divine, so to whom does the material world belong? If it belongs to some dark entity, we are then left with two equally powerful and creative entities. If the so-called material world, however, also belongs to the divine, that makes it automatically also divine, and worthy of consideration, study and respect.
So, going out from that premise, that the universe is a yin-yang symbol with both worlds contained within one circle, I bought myself a personal computer.
Because, if you are only right brain, or, for that matter, only left brain oriented, then half the circle is missing, and one tips on one’s side, being lop-sided.
And so, clicking and double-clicking the mouse all over the screen, I say to myself:’ Hey, I have seen this before’. Double click on your icon and lo and behold, there it is, life size on the screen, just like in the movies of real life. Double click on an item of, say, twenty years ago, or two days ago, and lo, there it is, life size in front of your eyes, in technicolor, with full sound and A(utomatic) E(motional) R(ecall) to top it off. Much better than any computer, who may have the technicolor and sound recall, but misses the A E R.
In that sense, however, the computer may be better off than we are, because what he recalls is the unembellished truth, while our recollection is usually a rather confused affair, tainted by positive or negative emotions, that make us see things that are not there, or not see things which are there. Love and hate, happiness and sadness, are equally unreliable companions if it comes to seeing the truth.
I am sitting in Dago teahouse, looking out over the hill called Cimbuleuit. On the table in front of me is a black and white photograph of the same teahouse forty-five years ago. A little girl, all curly, sitting on the lap of her mother, also all curly, both of them a ninety-fiftyish look on their faces. Classical, straight out of an old Shirley Temple movie. In the background the same hill of Cimbuleuit, with more trees and less houses.
Once the emotions are stuck to your skin, they are difficult to peel off again. Because that is how deep most emotions run, skin deep. Only a few manage to worm their way in, to lodge themselves in your guts, where they slowly start chewing you, until everything you look at is seen through the colors produced by those emotions.
What we do to our mothers and fathers, turning them into toys for our monstrous egoism and self-centeredness. Blaming them for the fungus in us, as if one eternal soul can ever be blamed for the fungus of another eternal soul.
And so the fifty year old woman is looking at the little six year old girl in the photograph looking back at her with that 1950 ish look on her face which says:’Wait till I am as old as you are, then we’ll talk again’.
Now she is as old as I am, and we look at each other, and then we laugh and hug and say to each other:’Didn’t we have a wonderful childhood, all those adventures, thanks to my impossible mother, who could not sit still in one place for very long, and who made the whole world, material as well as spiritual, look like one huge toy shop to browse in and enjoy. Hurray for all the mothers and fathers and children in this world, and for the pathos of their dance. And hurray for my mother, who never feared of opening new doors, and kept her windows open in a 360-degree arch.
Once we have decided that our parents are more or less a failure and have outgrown the illusion that they are omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient, we start seriously looking for a surrogate parent who IS all those things and who will not fail us, in other words, who will obediently conform to the image that we have built of such a mythological super being. And thus the game starts all over again, but this time the stakes are no longer childish thoughts and feelings, but adult ones, and so the situation is more fraught with danger than before.
All this reminds me of that girl scout camping trip we made in the Pengalengan mountains north of Bandung.
There must have been around twenty of us, sleeping in sleeping bags on straw mats on the floor, to be woken up suddenly in the middle of the night by one girl zipping and unzipping her sleeping bag. On being asked what on earth she thought she was doing, she explained that she was practicing unzipping in the event of the arrival of burglars, so that she would be ready to flee in an instant.
Well, come to think of it, that is really what most of us are doing all the time, zipping and unzipping our sleeping bags to be ready for the burglars, if they come, when they come, to stand or flee.
Actually, some of us may keep the bag even permanently unzippered. It is not so much the material things that we are worried about, or rather not only. I think we are actually more worried about burglars breaking into our psychological storeroom, snatching away our beliefs, our convictions, our judgments, our gurus, our gods. Like drowning rats we cling to them for dear life, terrified to lose our raft and be swept away by the current of life, to be stranded on some God knows what kind of other worldly beach. And so every time the raft bumps over a stone, we mend the hole, getting wetter and wetter all the time.
Talking about getting wet.
I remember the day we took this little hike in the woods, in the middle of the night, when finally we realized we had gotten ourselves lost.
At that point the most boisterous of the group jumped in front and cried convincingly: ‘Follow me, I know the road’. So, like little lambs of Mary, we trustingly followed her, to be suddenly startled by a loud SPLASH, and there she was, sitting in the middle of the river, which she hadn’t seen, and which she didn’t know was there. To our fortune we hadn’t followed her too closely and therefore could enjoy the scene standing on dry land. Well, so far for this Follow-me-I-know-the-road business.
So, if you do want to follow somebody else, do so by all means, but keep your ears open for the SPLASH, which is bound to come, sooner or later.
Why did I come here, to walk the streets of this city for ten whole days? The past is a terrible burden to carry around, and the older you get, the more there is of it.
I am sitting in the Ice-cream Parlor on Jalan Haji Juanda, formerly called Jalan Dago. On the screen of the street outside they are projecting two films at the same time.
One is of the present, with hundreds, thousands of cars, honking, racing, going somewhere, going nowhere. The other film superimposed on this one is an empty Jalan Dago, a few becaks, a dog car with a tired pony listlessly pulling its burden. A couple of girls running along the street, one of them falling on her face every couple of minutes. Legs don’t work too well. Beriberi, a common children’s disease out of the Japanese prison-of-war camps.
How do we get rid of the past? I am looking at this double screen outside and think: ‘There must be a way of separating those two images, of putting them into two separate boxes, robbing both images of their emotional content’.
Because it is not the images that bother us. It is the emotional content that sticks to those images that bother us and which create that funny dualism. On the one hand we suffer under the impact of the emotions, on the other hand we cling to those emotions with a fierceness that defies any burglar who wants to take them away. And suddenly I am struck by a thought, and I am back at the corral again, with the leaders, the gurus and the systems. They are not meant to HELP us get rid of the past, but to PREVENT us from getting rid of the past, and the present, and the future. They are not meant to liberate us, but to imprison us.
There you are. I have done thirty-five years of yoga, following the system, and in the end I do not know how to use the computer, I have twenty-five thumbs when I have to drill a hole in the wall to put up a picture, and I cry all over the black and white photograph of the little girl sitting primly erect on the giant horse, under the fond gaze of her horse riding teacher.
My first guru. I worshipped the ground he stood on. When I was ten, my horse and I fell in a ditch, trying to jump over it. The horse had to be shot, the little girl was sobbing in the stables, and did the teacher show any sympathy? Did he say: ‘There, there, little one, cry your little heart out?’ No. Instead he had another horse saddled up, an even bigger one, and ‘Up you go, raise your leg, back in the saddle again, and off you go’.
Yes, I worshipped the ground he stood on. His face is number one on the list of faces filed away in the memory of the computer that sits in my head.
So, something went wrong somewhere, if I can’t even put a nail in the wall without bringing half the wall down, or use the computer, without getting into horrendous quarrels with it.
Reading through the Bhagavad Gita one comes across the phrase:’ Yoga karmasu kausalam’. This means:’Yoga is skill in action’.
I look suspiciously at my Black and Decker drill. Two thousand years ago the yogis didn’t have Black and Decker’s, but surely they must have had something analogous?
So, if yoga is skill in action, then something is wrong with me. Or maybe not wrong, but incomplete. Half the world consists of drills and computers. The other half is the breeze going swoooosh through the bamboo leaves outside my window, and the sound of the tropical rainstorm sweeping over the city, drenching everything and everybody in a matter of seconds.
We are back at the yin-yang symbol.
It is only by entwining the black and the white that we can draw the circle. And it is the circle that is important, but the circle can only be made by joining the two halves, by going beyond them, by making them so EQUAL that it does not matter that one is black and the other white.
It is by making everything EQUAL that makes the universe and ourselves whole, or holy. As long as things are not EQUAL, as long as one thing is more important than the other, more spiritual than the other, we are not whole, not holy, and the universe we live in is only half a universe.
While I am eating my lechee ice cream, the teenage girl next to me turns her head to look at me. Perfect almond eyes, set in a perfect oval face with perfect, smooth, amber colored skin. She smiles shyly at me, and I smile shyly back. I remember that these people already made me feel shy as a child. Next to their tiny, delicate bodies with the quick, nimble movements, I used to feel like a rusty locomotive going puff puff puff with every move.
Rrrrrrrrng goes the telephone in the hotel room and ‘Would- Miss Dona-want-to-go-to-Saung-Angklung-of-Pak-Ujo-your-driver-is-waiting-for-you-please’.
‘Yes, please, miss Dona very much wants to go to Saung Angklung, thank you, just give me two minutes to put on my jeans and I’ll be with you in a sec.’
And off we go in the minibus of the hotel to the village of Pak Ujo (Pak means literally Father and is used as a title of respect towards any older man) famous for his children’s performances of Sundanese dancing and Angklung music, bamboo instruments that are shaken to produce a sound similar to that of wind chimes in the breeze.
Little children holding the delicate instruments, the youngest child must be four, and the oldest fifteen. About thirty of them playing the music and twenty dancing, looking for all the world like tiny dragonflies, hardly touching the ground with their bare feet and up they are again in the air. Looking unreal in their bright colored clothes, obsidian eyes sparkling at the group of overfed tourists. A strange symbiosis. Again the yin and the yang.
In-between the songs and dances Pak Ujo sits beside me and we talk about dance and yoga.
‘I am a business man’, he says proudly, sweeping the hall with his hand, and, switching inconsequently to Dutch (those sudden switches between Indonesian, English and Dutch occur rather often and with startling abruptness) continues:’ De beste business is lief geven aan iedereen’ (the best business is to give love to everybody). Something went wrong with the Dutch grammar, but otherwise it is an interesting concept. I am imagining everybody in Wall Street:’Just one moment, please, ladies and gentlemen, could you all stop doing whatever you are doing for a moment and give love to each other?’
Up goes the Dow Jones, and the titles soar to dizzying heights. Quite a thought.
At the end of the performance the children all run into the crowd of tourists, each one grabbing someone to join in the dance, the big, white men and women in their too tight clothes, and the tiny amber dragonflies. Yin and yang.
I have to refrain myself from picking my dragonfly right up and kissing its oval face. Don’t be sentimental, Miss Dona.
But the children go to school with the money of the performances, and Pak Ujo goes back to his bamboo hut. His fee for the evening is Rupiah 15.000 (about eight US Dollar).
He is right. The best businessman is he who gives love.
A big word to tackle. Do I really want to go into this? It might get me into some deep water, and I might end up doing some splashing myself. Well, let’s take a deep breath and JUMP.
Shri Maharishi once pointed at a young girl, ravishingly beautiful, who was just passing him and his group of disciples. The disciples all looked at her with delight.
Along came an old woman, long past youth. Said Maharishi:’If your eyes can look at the young girl and the old woman in the same way, that is equanimity, that is yoga’.
If you love one person, and not the other one, it is not love, but self-interest.
If I love A, but not B and C, it is because A is giving me something that makes me feel good and cheerful, while B and C do not do that to my system. Not to even mention D, who makes me feel outright disgusted, maybe because he is doing something that reminds me too much of something that I am doing and of which I am secretly ashamed.
There we are again, back to the dualities. Love and hate, good and bad. The split universe, the yin and the yang not in symbiosis, but in opposition to each other.
It is not that I love A.
What I love is the feeling that A produces in me, the feeling of warmth and security and safety. The reassuring feeling that everything is fine and that the universe is proceeding on the right course.
And it not B that I hate, but the feeling that he produces in me of unsafety, of insecurity, of doubt. The terrifying feeling that the universe is not all roses, but that between the roses there are as many thorns.
Those feelings are the things that we love and hate. Not other people. How can we hate or love another person? How can we hate or love the unknown?
The greatest illusion in history is the phrase:’Know yourself’.
There is no way I can ever know myself.
I am a mystery, a total mystery, and all I can do is sit here, looking at the clouds in the tropical skies, and shout at them inside my mind:’WHAT AM I’.?
Note the wording. Not ‘WHO’. WHAT am I? What is this thing sitting here looking up at the clouds and being aware of them?
It is not the clouds that are a mystery. It is me being aware of them, which is the mystery. Me being aware of being aware of the clouds.
I am a luminous ball of awareness floating in something that I call universe. To get rid of the terrifying feeling of loneliness that this produces in me I am busy all my life giving names to things, creating thus the illusion that I know those things and that I know what is going on in the universe: Car, house, tree, flower, man, woman, God, all game names to cover up the fact that I am an unknowable ball of awareness traveling through an unknowable space, meeting all the time other unknowable balls of awareness that I call people to cover up the fact that I don’t know what they are.
Well, that was a long sentence. And a rather complicated one too.
The clouds have burst open and the tropical rainstorm is turning the holes in the road into so many tiny swimming pools for the ants.
The naming of things that are ultimately unnamable is the DOING that we do all our lives, and which creates the illusion that we KNOW, that we are in control.
To have the courage and the transparency to see and acknowledge that in reality we DO NOT KNOW, that we will never know, and to make our peace with that, is NOT-DOING or WU-WEI.
In that state everything is equal to everything else, being unknown and unknowable. People, trees, airplanes, nothing being more or less than the other, we then become aware of the substratum in which all this exists, which permeates everything and in which all things float like goldfish in a pond. Philosophers have tried to name even this: God, Love, Reality, Brahman, Tao, whichever you prefer.
Or one can leave it as it is, the Nameless.
Rrrrrrrng goes the telephone and ‘Would-Miss-Dona-want-to-go-to-Pabrik-Teh-of-Malabar-your-driver-is-waiting-for-you- please’.
This sounds like one of those repeating dreams or déjà vue, and ‘Yes, please, Miss Dona very much wants to go to the Tea Factory of Malabar, thank you, just give me two minutes to put on my jeans and I’ll be with you in a sec’.
This is where the repeating dream ends, because this time we are going into the high mountains of the Priangar, to the famous tea plantation of Malabar.
The Priangar, a name that sounds like magic in my head, the time that my mother and I went there for holiday, she to do nothing, I to do horse riding, living in this little bamboo hut in the mountains. It was Christmas, and there was guerrilla war all around while I steered my pony all day long through the teagardens. I remember the shooting, and the smell of tea, everywhere.
The car winds its painful way out of the streets of Bandung, through the impossible traffic, on the impossible pavement. Cars, cars, cars and cars. But above the cars the huge trees in magnificent explosion of bright orange flames: the flaming tree, the Flamboyant.
Nobody, who has never seen this tree, could ever imagine it.
Nobody, who has ever seen this tree, could ever forget it.
They are breathtaking, and it does not matter, all those crawling cars underneath them.
They are there, and their flames are a purification in themselves.
I am getting better at this. They are not showing double screen any more, or maybe only in short flashes.
As the car slowly goes uphill, one by one old things drop off and are left behind beside the road. The air gets cooler and it starts to rain, slowly, gently, almost excusing itself for doing so.
They are all there, the way they were forty years ago. The neat rice terraces stacked one on top of each other, an occasional water buffalo standing knee-deep in the mud. The miniature homes, some made of woven bamboo, some of lava stone, snugly tucked away among the greenery; the occasional chicken crossing the road right in front of the car. ‘Bikin satay ayam’ (I’ll make chicken satay), grins the driver, swerving however at the last second to avoid the confused creature.
And then, suddenly, we are in the middle of the tea plantation. Tea bushes everywhere, as far as the eye can see, women in bright colored shirts and straw hats picking the leaves and there, in the background, the mountains, covered in clouds.
Yes, it is all there. But something is missing. And I realize that there is no more double screen. There is only one scenery: the one in front of my eyes.
The view is breathtaking, and I get out of the car, staring, staring.
And then, out of nowhere, comes this feeling as if I am about to be exploded into a million tiny bits of Miss Dona as a tsunami-size wave of joy rolls over me, and over those bushes, and those gorgeous mountains.
Joy is not man made.
Happiness is man made, as is sadness, and anger, and contentment.
These are all man made, and under our control, if we put ourselves a little to it.
But joy is not man made, and is not under our control, will never be under our control.
IT comes and goes as IT wills, leaving its victim gasping for air, like a fish on the beach.
IT decides when to come, to whom to come, and when to leave.
The only thing it needs is space, a lot of space, all the space available. When there is all the space available, when there is nothing inside, neither of the past, nor of the present, nor of the future, when there is no dogma, no credo, no guru and no god, then, if it so wills, it will take you.
The Flamboyants are burning against the stormy skies as the tropical rainstorm sweeps over the land.