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Practice, practice

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Jul. 25th, 2013 | 07:42 am

Recently a friend asked me about the spiritual practices associated with the Amma org. My reply turned into something of a polemic, but in the course of writing it some memories began to resurface and that clarified some things for me.

One of the things I found difficult when I was trying to make Hindu practices the center of my daily spiritual life was the lack of common practices across sectarian divides. In Islam, on the other hand, there are the five daily prayers in Arabic, whether one is associating with teachers such as Shaykha Fariha or Shaykha Amina on the one hand, and (name some ultraconservative shaykh or imam) on the other. While there is a diversity of approaches in Islam, there are some common elements to all of them. This can have the effect of sustaining a dynamic image of diversity within unity (although it doesn't always work out that way, at least not easily).

Although Hindusim would seem to be more compatible with a "democratic" (i.e. Western liberal) perspective, its approach to diversity can be rather superficial. For example, when I would go to the local Hindu temple, I sometimes found the atmosphere interesting and sometimes conducive to deeper reflection or intuition, but I didn't have the experience of temporarily laying aside differences and focusing on prayer, as I used to experience even at mainstream mosques. Among my favorite times in mosques were the times before the formal prayers, where some people would be doing sunnah prayers, some reciting the Qur'an softly to themselves, and some sitting in silence.

In Islam, I have found the "journey" from the particular to the general, and back again, easier to achieve than in Hinduism. There may be one's particular shaykh(a) or tariqat, or even one's personal ideological take on Islam, and then again there may be collective prayers in various contexts, etc. Wtihin the Amma org, there is Amma as the obvious focus, but it was not so easy in my experience to move from that focus toward one's chosen deity, and from there to a more universal sense of spiritual presence. Aside from mentions in some of the bhajans, there is very little representation of particular deities within the org. In terms of its general ethos, however, there is a rather ordinary sense of puritanism about the org that seems more Vaishnavite than anything else. Typical middle-class Vaishnavism--trying to live a "decent" life and hoping for good fortune--seems to be the common standard for most Hindus that I know, so those attitudes tend to prevail within the org, even though Amma is supposed to be an incarnation of Kali, who is clearly a Tantric deity. My attempts to connect more deeply with typical forms of deity worship (simple at-home pujas, etc.) were not particularly successful, and there was no real support for that kind of thing within the org. Just singing a Kali-themed bhajan once in a while at satsang didn't seem to satisfy that need.

Some of the limitations that I found in the Amma org may have to do with the fact that it is a relatively new organization (although it certainly references older traditions). Although there is some recognition of Amma as a figurehead in some yoga studios, there is not much recognition at Hindu temples. Even within the local Hindu temple, there are tensions between the Vaishnavite and Shaivite priests, with the Vaishnavites being in the majority. Thus, if one is drawn to Kali and there is no image at the local temple, one may try to associate her with the image of Durga, or try to connect with Kali indirectly as the consort of Shiva via the Shiva image but, given the effective marginalization of the deities on that side of the temple, even the connection to Shiva can be difficult to establish in that context.

On the other hand, the sense of mutual non-recognition (or disregard) among Hindu sects is something I have found among tariqats as well. I don't know where I got the idea that different tariqats were supposed to hold one another in positive mutual regard, although it does seem that there has been some positive cooperation between NAJ and Pir Zia, so far as I can tell. (Even the two branches of the Jerrahi order in North America seem to have very little to do with one another.) Perhaps my habitual tendency toward "accommodationism" is at fault here, but when I have met people from other tariqats--including during my period of exploration, after I had received initiation from Javad Nurbakhsh and before I had settled into a local NAJ group--I have respected their efforts in setting up a ritual space for the practice of zikr and have gone along with the form in which they practice. I may even have enriched my knowledge of their tradition by reading about it on my own and/or by asking them for information on it. But when I have tried to bring my own experiences into the discussion, it typically goes nowhere.

I don't know where I developed the idea that people were supposed to share on the basis of their own experiences for the purposes of their mutual growth and development--rather than each individual or group remaining right where it was before they even encountered one another--but I have so often been disappointed in this respect that I realize now that it has become something of a litmus test for me: if I try to share some information and it is received badly, or is ignored, then it appears in retrospect that I have already made a decision to leave, even if I don't act on it immediately. This is how I feel about the (relatively) local Sufi meetup group. Although I felt some kind of response to the practices initially (even though it was basically reciting along with a CD), there wasn't any real space for communication. When I followed up afterward with the leader by sending him a link to some information on NAJ, there was no response. Then there was the time that a meeting was cancelled and I didn't receive notification, even though I am a registered member of the meetup group. By then, I had discovered some Bosnian devotional music. I listened to that in the car to and from the yoga studio where the Sufi group gathers on the night that the meeting had been cancelled. I also chatted with one other person who had not been informed of the cancellation either. That, evidently, was my zikr for that evening. The next time we gathered was when the group leader gave his dumbed-down version of what Sufism was about, which I bitched about here. (I should have known that, once I started complaining about the quality of his discourses, that that was probably it for me.) Once I started fasting, I immediately turned inward, realizing that what I had wanted so badly this summer was a period of retreat with no social obligations, so I just stopped responding to the meetup reminders one way or the other. It feels like too much of an obligation to RSVP in the negative, and thereby to possibly invite questions as to why.

On the positive side, as I have begun to re-read Atom from the Sun of Knowledge, I find that there is a familiarity to the flow of energy I feel when I read, and that is enjoyable. I am also noticing some aspects of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen's rhetoric in places in Atom (18,000 universes, heavy emphasis on Muhammadan Light, etc.), which are things I haven't seen as prominently in Muzaffer Effendi's work. It seems to me that these may reflect South Asian influences (via BM) and those traits, in turn, reflect back on some of the Shaivite reading I had done, even though I didn't have much of a ritual context for the ambience of clarity and light that that can bring up. I am noticing that, through the experience of Hindu devotionalism, which I found to have to have a fluid, "liquid light" aspect to it, I have come to a place where devotion to Muhammad has feelings and images associated with it in ways that it didn't have before. Unlike with Amma devotion, however, devotion to Muhammad doesn't dominate the entire experience, but flows back into a more general experience of openness to Allah, which is background, container, and direct experience all at the same time, and which may pass through devotion, but seems to transcend those feelings as well.

When I reflect back on the time, now 9 years ago, when I decided to change the "form" of my spiritual practices to ones that seemed to be more in harmony with the norms of the Amma org, I now see that I had adapted inwardly to that environment well before then. 2003--10 years ago--was the initial "summer of Amma" for me, and I seemed to understand inuitively that participation in that org could involve a lot interpersonal dependence. In the spirit of David Smail's work, rather than try to isolate the risks involved in that situation in terms of some inherent, individual flaw such as a tendency toward "codependence," it might be more useful, in moving forward, to regard those experiences as responses to a particular environment--perhaps as characteristic responses that are supported or encouraged by the nature of the environment itself. On the one hand, in a guru org, the particular "gift" that is offered is a kind of spiritually intimate contact with embodied deity. But without an actual, day-to-day interpersonal relationship in which to ground itself, the arousal of a desire for spiritual intimacy can play itself out emotionally and psychically in fragile, unstable, and ungrounded ways, and this may account for the disruption of previous relationships to spouses, friends, family, etc., and the sometimes rapid and intense attempts to reattach those feelings to people within the org, "incestuously" as it were, that seem to be frequent experiences in the org (as witnessed, for example, by a number of personal stories in the online ex-Amma group). Typically, those reattachments go nowhere in a real sense (i.e., beyond the context of the programs, retreats, perhaps at the ashram as well), and they may include painful experiences with people who have patterns of strong temporary attachments to people in the org, followed by emotionally violent ruptures. If indeed the things I went through were expressions of my embodied relationship to that particular environment, I don't think it's likely that I could have "corrected" the "pathological" aspects of my relationship to it through individual efforts alone--vigilence, discipline, therapy, etc. It's probably more useful just to note that there are characteristics to the way in which I responded to that environment and that, once I have lost confidence in the idea that I can get it work positively for me heading into the future, it may be better to try to opt out of that environment if I can.

I don't know if any of the above will likely make sense to anyone else, but it's a bit of what I've been experiencing recently. I think it's actually quite a rich and active experience, which is why I'm sticking with the idea of being "on retreat" spiritually, until such time as (perhaps) there may be some social extensions of my experiences that come about without my trying to force something to work, just because I have the notion that that's what I'm supposed to do.



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