After the guru
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
The day before Thanksgiving I decided to leave Santa Fe and drive to the village of Chinmayo twenty-five miles to the north. Chinamyo begins the back road to Taos through tiny crumbling villages and local artisan galleries. It is the site of El Sanctuario de Chinmayo, a place of miracles and healings. As I drove the two-lane road that led down to the valley where the village was, the land seemed like the sea,rolling in colors of burnt orange, pink and beige. Its vastness and desolation was exhilerating. I imagined what it would be like to walk these lands, without vehicles or paved roads or GPS or directions printed out and laying on the seat next to me. It was for this space I’d left New York and come to New Mexico.
The next day on Thanksgiving, I sat across the table from two women I’d just met an hour earlier. The green and gold china and party favors in golden foil on the plates shone in the sun. My landlord’s 10 year-old daughter, Lola, and her friend, had tapped on my back door that morning and invited me to come to Thanksgiving dinner – if I didn’t have any other plans. Perhaps because two 10 year olds so politely invited me, I gave up the novel I was reading and said yes.
One of the women, Simone, was from a small town in England, here in Santa Fe to live with my landlord, Edward. Shayla was a middle-aged woman from Tasmania born of Indian parents. I’d not drunk enough to laugh at everything they said. I could feel the cloak of years of silence cover me, seen and not heard – and being seen was even questionable.
However, Simone wore a sheer dress of a bright olive green, a pretty color, one that I’d always liked. I’d had a dress like it when I lived in the ashram though most often hidden by a long pashmina shawl. She had unblemished, ivory skin and dark hair which fell in tight curls around her face and lightly brushed her shoulders. She teased and flirted easily, with a hearty, vivacious laugh and unblinking, assessing eyes. I was sure she’d be fun to get drunk with, if I still got drunk.
Shayla told me across the mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts that she was a skin care specialist who used shamanism in her diagnosis and treatment, setting the energies right to bring out radiant skin.
Later that evening I drove with an acquaintance, Marie, from the New York ashram I’d lived at for a number of years, to the zen center for an evening potluck. When we arrived at the small, unpaved parking lot and quickly found a parking space, she cried out, arm raised, “Sadgurunath Maharaj ki Jaya!” My skin crawled and my stomach twitched. Was it going to be that kind of evening? Why do so many spiritual folks chant a mantra, cross themselves in the name of Jesus, or spring forth with thanks to the master, the guru, whenever they find a parking space? And why had I extended this invitation for her to join me when she’d called me the day before and been a bit desperate to go since she was only visiting Santa Fe? Especially as I’d hoped for a fairly anonymous evening with vegetarian food and people I owed nothing to? However, I quickly silenced these thoughts for I had only been in Santa Fe two years and still had few people I would call friends.
Just the sound of Marie’s words brought an image of walking next to the guru, elegantly red-robed and looking straight ahead with occasional glimpses to the side of her, never moving her head. I felt again that unbalanced experience from the rhythm of her clockwork walk, rolling from side to side, and so hard to stay with. Instead I’d nearly always felt out of step, out of synch, trying to balance myself so I didn’t fall into her. As one of her many secretaries, I had tried so hard to please.
Then this memory disappeared just as it had appeared, very quickly.
I glanced at Marie as I parked and saw how small she’d become from her cleansing, purging diets, and felt my heart soften at her diminishment and the sincerity in her beliefs and desire for things to be good, perfect, sanctioned. When we did speak which was every few months on long distance calls to California where she now lived, I’d bring up climate change, or nuclear war, or how one in four children in New Mexico were hungry. We were like night and day, the way my mother’s twin sister, my Aunt Lorene, was night to my mother’s long-suffering day of optimism.
This contrast existed in my mother’s recall of my grandmother and her kindness, having had 11 children of her own starting at age 16, and then adopting orphans in the county whose parents had died or abandoned them. My grandmother wore the halo of a saint until during one of our Sunday meals together, my Aunt Lorene spoke up with her eyes big and flashing, a look of horror on her face, “Don’t you know, Kathleen, that having all those kids nearly killed mom? She never had a chance. Men just do what they want, no matter how hard it is on the woman. Why on earth would anyone have so many children unless they had to? And all those dirty orphan kids sleeping on the floor with the house smelling of wet underpants, and having to step over them to get anywhere!”
I hadn’t thought myself to be like Aunt Lorene but that comparison jarred me uncomfortably into some new territory of understanding.
"Well, you know the guru didn’t sleep much for those 25 years she was traveling and teaching,” the conversation continued as we drove through the dark, narrow streets of Santa Fe towards home.
“That's not true,” I answered, trying to sound reasonable even as I felt the warmth of anger begin to move through my veins. "She had a lot of people working for her constantly. They're the ones who got 2 hours of sleep a night and nearly died from exhaustion.”
The hairs on the back of my neck bristled like an angry cat and then feeling almost immediately guilty for my harshness, I continued, “But I did hear a fascinating panel of Jungian analysts at the Center for Wholistic Living speak about how we have to face the darkness individually and as a collective, and then come together to respond creatively.”
The conversation died, as I once again tried to show off some other perspective, not yogic, not spiritual. Despite my attempts to find some personal integrity and honesty in others, I was still unable to completely show off my own.
The first time I wrote about my Aunt Lorene was in a writing retreat. I had studied with this same teacher several times over the past seven years. She was confident and assured as a teacher and with a passion for writing and literature. However, I also felt an open door-closed door quality, an approachable one moment-unapproachable the next, quality about her. I saw her at the zen center for the late Thanksgiving potluck.
I turned with my plate from the dessert table and saw her standing right next to me, with no one else around, an opportunity to speak. I thought I saw her give a tiny smile when she saw me, one which I experienced as a bit mocking and intimate. I made a fast choice and spoke to her clumsily, spontaneously, mentioning the name of Shayla the skin care specialist shaman who I’d met that day at my landlord’s Thanksgiving dinner. She told me she had met this same teacher years before, liked her quirkiness and if I ever was in touch again with her, to please mention her name. I tried to step back from the claims I made in speaking so boldly. I said I’d only taken writing retreats with her but we weren’t like friends. Still, Shayla gave me her card and said, “Just in case” and smiled.
So when I did mention her as we balanced our plates before finding a place to sit, she looked at me blankly, said nothing and shook her head no. I quickly retreated, and repeated out loud her gesture as an affirming question, “No?” and we walked our separate ways.
Most often she didn’t remember me, understandable given the number of students she has had. Still, when facing her I usually felt like vapor disappearing into outer space. Her dark and bright eyes seemed to look out at something over my head or at a face peering just behind me. Perhaps she knew that I was not quite there with the Zen folks though I felt my body taking space on one of the navy blue round cushions we sat on for meditation. Instead, I often retreated into the Catholic school-girl, the battered yoga student, reaching inwardly, desperately, for air, for space, in what felt like suffocation. Most often, I smiled and was silent.
However, I did approach her during a break at one of her writing retreats in Santa Fe. I told her how much I liked one of her recent books about her zen teacher and discovering his hidden affairs with fellow students, something she’d learned about after his death. Her face lit up and lifted towards me when I thanked her for writing it. She sighed loudly and said, “I lost my community because of that book.” I responded that I thought it was respectful. She agreed that yes, she thought it was too, and thanked me again.
I felt tongue-tied, the exchange was over though I’d wished for more. I’d so much to say but found myself with nothing to say. I couldn’t find the words for my experience of groups and disappointment and new, painful understandings. In those long moments of awkward silence, I felt again what it had been like when I discovered the truth of decades-old abuses by the founding guru of the group I’d dedicated myself to, of his molestation and abuse of young girls and women in India and abroad. And of how confused I’d felt about his successor, a woman my age, who I’d gone to precisely because she was a woman I’d felt would understand the assault I myself had experienced only a few years before meeting her and who represented a new start in its aftermath. Instead, I discovered she had lied continuously about her teacher, defending him, and had lied directly to me about it when I’d worked as one of her staff.
The old dissociation settled in. The twin sides of my brain cross-wired and disconnected. I stood in front of her with a black hole in the pit of my stomach. i began falling into it until another student came forward and took her attention.
I tried later in another class to connect with her, and it seemed that we might – I’d shared a piece I wrote about my Uncle Elmer and Aunt Lorene which had made her laugh – though my presence once again wasn’t strong enough to elicit my name for her. When I did approach her, she looked at me with her wide open stare and I could say nothing, but smiled uneasily and walked away.