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September 15, 2003

More Adventures in Vedanta-land

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

A busy day on the M.-Blowhard-goes-Indian front, what with a morning spent at a Bikram yoga class (here's a posting where I rave about Bikram yoga), followed by a visit to New York's very own Vedanta temple for a Sunday service (and here's a posting where I rave about Vedanta -- be sure to read the comments).

My yoga skills, you won't be surprised to learn, are still beyond rudimentary. Well, why not be frank: I must be one of the most inflexible healthy people who has ever lived. Bending over and touching the floor? Not likely: how about bending over and touching my knees? I haven't been able to sit on the floor cross-legged since I was ten, at least not comfortably. I clutch my ankles like a drunk holding onto a bottle; the tensions in my knees, hips and lower back are so powerful that I consider it a triumph when I manage to prevent myself from snapping over backwards like the spring on a mousetrap.

Now that I attend Bikram classes once or twice a week, I've grown perhaps an eensie bit more flexible, as well as more tolerant of the sauna-like heat. What I find strangest about spending an hour and a half exercising in a room whose thermostat is set to 100-105 degrees isn't the sweat or exhaustion, or the way even my muscles and tendons become semi-pliable. It's the way emotions run riot.

You know the feelings you have while exercising? Ones you usually barely notice: discouragement, aversion, a brief high, distractedness, boredom, weariness, thoughts about mortality, etc. The Bikram heat amplifies them enormously. And what with yoga postures themselves being designed to cleanse your emotional as well as your physical being, the combo of the heat and the postures often leaves me feeling distraught and exhausted, the way I do after I've had a strong emotion. (My theory is that men -- at least men of my ilk -- are built to be able to withstand no more than one major emotion per week.) I feel absolutely wasted for an hour or two after class, like I'm coming down from an intense hallucination. Then the despair passes, and I feel great -- as well as creak- and ache-free -- for about 48 hours.

Maybe this means that yoga really is cleansing me of negativity; or maybe it's all made-up, and simply a function of the heat and the effort. No matter which, I'm finding attending Bikram yoga classes more helpful psychically than the many years I invested in NYC-style psychotherapy. I also notice that I'm beginning to find what yoga people call "a little space" in the postures.

Did you know, by the way, that "yoga" doesn't refer only to physical postures? Most Americans don't realize that yoga is a whole approach to life -- breathing, philosophy, meditation, eating, and conduct, as well as stretching and postures. (Each one is considered to be "a yoga"; the postures are a particular yoga known as Hatha Yoga.) The physical-exercise part of yoga, at least as I understand it, is less about gettin' some good exercise than about preparing the system for spiritual experience. Actually, the yoga attitude seems to be that, since the Spirit is present always and already, the only thing that's really up to you is whether or not you're open to his/her presence. Hence, the spaciousness that yoga postures encourage.

Anyway: sweat and exhaustion, limberness and pleasure.

And then it was off (in the company of The Wife, who was earning major brownie points) to a Vedanta service. (Here's the website of the Vedanta Society of New York. It's full of essays and links -- fun and interesting things to explore.)

Our visit was a semi-comic but moving experience. Semi-comic because The Wife and I both found it hard to understand more than the occasional few words of the swami's talk; his strong Indian accent confounded our ears. He's clearly an intelligent and interesting guy. But -- given the philosphical / religious, meaning-of-it-all nature of his talk -- listening to him was an exercise in the tantalizing and the frustrating. It came across a bit like this: "garble garble garble the presence of the Divine means that garble garble garble if you want to realize happiness you have to garble garble garble the great secret of it all is merely that garble garble garble ..."

Comparing notes afterwards, The Wife and I giggled over how we'd spent the hour feeling like we were on the verge of learning something revelatory -- but on the verge only. Yet the marvelous thing was that we wound up having our own wonderful talk, a good couple of hours about this, that, and the cosmic Everything -- the kind of watching-the-clouds-go-by talk you almost never stumble into after leaving college, yet in this case pleasantly and enjoyably informed by a few (ahem) years of adult life experience. Very sweet, very moving, and very stimulating. That's the Vedanta Effect, by the way. It opens your brain up.

A few notes:

* We were surprised by the number of Indian-seeming people present at the service. Why? Because very few had attended Vedanta services in California. Here in NYC, more than half the 80 or so people present looked to be of Indian descent. (And a cultured, high-end, thoughtful bunch they seemed too.) Another reason for our surprise was that we're both under the impression that Vedanta, as we know it in the States anyway, is a tailored-to-the-West thing -- that it's Hinduism made more essential and abstract, and with a lot of the comic-book voodoo skimmed off. Oops, did I just offend someone? Apologies. Yet here were a lot of actual Indians at a Vedanta service, and they were looking completely at home.

* Why don't more people dig Vedanta? It's like Buddhism in the way that its good speakers and writers are able to talk directly about what's going on in your head and heart at this moment. First-rate Buddhists and Vedantists also seem familiar with your deepest thoughts, and to be able to stand there next to you and examine and discuss them. Vedanta's advantages over Buddhism? Well, to me anyway, it seems more open and more forgiving, and sexier too. I'd think many people would find it pleasing and helpful.

* Part of what I love about Vedanta is its unforced quality. It seems to be completely uncoercive, to apply no pressure whatsoever -- yet it still maintains a strong identity. Vedantists don't proselytize; they barely seem to make any effort to let other people know about the creed. Vedanta services have this no-hustle quality too. They're orchestrated and ritualized but they aren't souped-up. Certain inevitable things just seem to happen in a certain order. A swami-talk somehow gets made. There's no jacked-up energy; even the swamis don't seem to want to bother projecting charisma. Nothing's presented as any big deal. You're there with a bunch of people who have gathered together to acknowledge a few essential things and to reflect on them a bit too. And then it's over. You aren't striving to haul yourself up onto a higher plane; instead, you're sinking into what's going on, into the moment. Why? Because what's here now is the cosmic consciousness, and you're opening to it. Or perhaps you aren't -- that's ok too.

I don't quite know how this works. Nothing much happens yet a spell is still cast; if you respond to Vedanta, a service can do an amazing job of exemplifying what it preaches. No, wait: that word "preaches" is wrong. Too oomph-y. "Discusses" might be better.

* Come to think of it, I wonder if I'd call Vedanta a religion at all. It doesn't ask you to pin your faith to a mythology, and it isn't dangling promises that you'll transcend the here and now. Why would you want to, given that the here and now is itself part of the Divine? Vedanta -- which combines self-help, philosophy, religion and science -- seems happy for you to make use of it as you see fit. Or not.

* A while back, I was swapping emails with Rick Darby. Rick seems to have more austere tastes than I do, and he seems to prefer Buddhism to Vedanta -- we were comparing notes. And Rick at one point wrote that he was glad to hear that I was "finding inspiration" in Vedanta. I've been mulling over the phrase "finding inspiration" ever since. Initially, it struck me as wrong for what I find in Vedanta, which is a vocabulary and a set of stories and metaphors that make it possible to discuss things that to me are important. So exploring Vedanta for me isn't about finding inspiration, at least not in the usual sense of feeling swept away or transported; it's about finding yourself in the now, so to speak. Yet as I type these words I finally think Rick's right -- that perhaps what I'm finding in the drop-into-it-whatever-it-is Vedanta approach is simply the kind of inspiration that suits me.

* A final, superdeep question: Why, when people gather together to attend to some presentation, is there always at least one person present who has brought along a crinkly plastic shopping bag? And who then proceeds to rustle through it a few times in the course of the presentation? Don't these people know how irritating and loud that noise is? I should be less coy: In my experience, three out of four times the person with the crinkly plastic bag is a woman. Is the reason the crinkly-bag person is likely to be a woman simply that women are more likely than men to have just done some shopping? Or might there be another explanation: that there are a certain percentage of women who, for whatever reason, love making rattly, crinkly sounds? Just as -- and here's a late and probably futile attempt to dodge accusations of sexism -- just as there seems to be a certain percentage of guys who simply need to laugh too loudly, and who have a taste for bellowing?



posted by Michael at September 15, 2003


What did you just say? Sorry, I can't hear you, I'm busy crinkling my bag.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 15, 2003 11:09 AM

I hate bag crinklers. I could almost become violent about them. Which I suppose is opposite of what Vedanta is trying to accomplish. I think there are just some people in the world more preoccupied by what they want---the thing at the bottom of the bag---than they are concerned about being a socialized creature. Like people who turn left into a gas station, and then stop dead just inside the driveway, leaving the left-turner behind them stuck crosswise in traffic. They never seem to notice any other driver until they are honked at.

Posted by: annette on September 15, 2003 2:36 PM

I work for one of the large banks in the country. The new merchandise catalog for that bank has just published its fall 2003 catalog. One of the items listed is a "Zen relaxation bath" complete of course with bank logo on it. I think Buddha has just become mainstream.

Posted by: annette on September 15, 2003 3:00 PM

Just a quick quote on the oft frustrating "pin your faith to a mythology" component of Christianity:

"Sometimes we find ourselves focusing on whether Jesus' birth stories are historically factual. Was Jesus really born of a virgin? Was there really a special astronomical phenomenon at the time of his birth? Did wise men bearing gifts really come to the place of his birth?

For some Christians, whether or not these stories are factually accurate is crucial. In their minds, the stakes are high: the truth of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus. But this debate puts the emphasis in the wrong place. For the truth of these stories is not dependent on their historical accuracy. Rather, these stories are "poetry plus, and not science minus," to echo a Swedish proverb." Marcus Borg

I grabbed this quote about a month ago so I'm not sure if the site is still correct.

Posted by: laurel on September 15, 2003 9:10 PM


The main early proponent of Advaita Vedanta was a guy called Shankara, who lived in the late eighth and early ninth century. He was a monist, and his enlightenment is the full realization that your soul is identical with Being itself (i.e., Atman is Brahmin). And so is everyone else's soul, especially the souls of enlightened people and gods. So the pantheon did stay in place, but not like it had been before.

I think it's BS, BTW.


I'm not sure in what sense something can be "true" if someone made it up one day.

Posted by: Aaron Armitage on September 16, 2003 12:49 AM

Hey Annette -- Next thing we'll probably see will be Buddha on crinkly plastic bags ...

Hey Laurel -- So you take the Christian thing metaphorically? That's interesting. I've tried looking at it that way but it never worked for me. But I blank out generally when faced with Judaism and Christianity. Respect 'em, but try as I may they never resonate for me. They seem to inhabit a different cosmos than the one I do. When you do take the stories and iconography metaphorically, do you find they become helpful? In what ways?

Hey Aaron -- Yeah, I know a bit about the history of Vedanta in India. But I'm pretty sure -- happy to be corrected here -- that the Vedanta that we have in the States is, simply as a practical matter, something that's been a bit tailored for the west. In other words, I had no idea that there were Indians who had much use for U.S.-style Vedanta. The Vedanta crowd that I ran into in California, for instance, was almost entirely white. But the crowd in attendance here in NYC was more than half Indian -- interesting. Any idea what US-style Vedanta means to actual Indians? And which kinds of Indians respond to it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 16, 2003 2:33 AM


From the terms of your praise for Vedanta gatherings, I'm curious if you've ever visited a Quaker meeting. I haven't myself, but I've always wanted to. I even looked up the their meeting place in Manhattan. The plainspokenness, the moment of silence, the tradition of pacifism -- it has always sound quited interesting and civilized.

Then one day my girlfriend went to a friend's Quaker wedding in the mid-west, after I had filled her full of stories about the magic of the Quakers. And she asked them about the silence, and the pacifism, and the taking turns at leading the service. And they had no idea what she was talking about.

It turns out that most Quakers belong to a newer sect that covers much of the mid-west, and they are basically fundamenalists.

Posted by: alexis on September 16, 2003 3:32 AM

Well, it's VERY helpful for me to take certain stories metaphorically. For one, I don't have to throw out the baby with the bath water. When I was a young adult I found I was slowly falling out of love with my faith. A big reason was all the "myths." Who could mature as a Christian without leaving their brain outside the church doors at some point? To consider that certain stories speak metaphorically allows me grow in a faith that is yes, in my cosmos! (Ha!)

Taking some stories metaphorically also adds a new dimension to my faith. It moves me from a legalistic belief system, where every word means what it says and every sin is counted, to one of where compassion leads the way, and an open arms "come all to the feast" attitude can be found.

Hmm...I could go on and on at this point. Blah blah blah. Nice to dream about, worthy goals to pursue. Just don't dare criticize my hair color! I might lock you out of my feast for good! Ho hum.

Posted by: laurel on September 16, 2003 7:21 AM


Hey Aaron -- Yeah, I know a bit about the history of Vedanta in India. But I'm pretty sure -- happy to be corrected here -- that the Vedanta that we have in the States is, simply as a practical matter, something that's been a bit tailored for the west.

Eh, probably. White Americans don't have any ancestral respect for Vishnu or whoever that the Vedantists have to accomodate. I'm taking an Eastern Philosophy course, and that's pretty much all I know.


Taking some stories metaphorically also adds a new dimension to my faith. It moves me from a legalistic belief system, where every word means what it says and every sin is counted, to one of where compassion leads the way, and an open arms "come all to the feast" attitude can be found.

I'm curious which denomination you grew up in.

Posted by: Aaron Armitage on September 16, 2003 3:59 PM

When I first read the post about M. Blowhardís emotional response to stretching and sweating and possible connections between this and a warm feeling for Vedanta, the first thought that popped into my pointy little head was this: what other exercise have you done?

My own tomboy opinion is that that olí debbil the sense of self requires a sense of other including the otherness of the world you run and jump and swim in so that if you donít push your body a little bit, your mind suffers. Suffers may not be the right term. Perhaps I should say if the self you are trying to know isnít sore and banged up once in a while, you are not getting the full picture of who you are and what the world is.

Yogaís main advantage, I think, is that you canít do it half-assed.

Posted by: j.c. on September 16, 2003 4:50 PM

Aaron...I've regularly attended various Protestant churches over most of my, soon to be 40 (!) years. I'm currently the member of a moderate to liberal Southern Baptist Church that aligns itself with the CBF. (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.)

Okay, I've told you mine. What's your sign?

Posted by: laurel on September 16, 2003 8:07 PM

I'm a conservative Southern Baptist and, as the name of my blog indicates, a Calvinist.

Posted by: Aaron Armitage on September 17, 2003 3:26 AM

J.C., Nifty observations about life as a physical being, thanks. I'm a fairly active middle-ager myself, probably especially for an arts geek. Running, swimming, tennis, this 'n' that. Much happier (and probably much more pleasant) when I'm spending regular time living in the body than when I'm not. What are your preferred sports-ish activities these days? I'm finding that yoga gives me a little something interesting that my other activities don't. Given my usual history with these things, I'll probably either lose interest or hurt myself soon. But I'm enjoying it at the moment. Have you been a yoga person yourself?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 17, 2003 11:55 AM

I do a lot of yoga, ride my bike, ride horses but, for whatever reason, am not swimming much or lifting weights this year. Free weights and yoga have a lot in common, actually.

My query about your history with getting sweaty was based on watching people who had never exercised before finally staring a program and finding religion.

Posted by: j.c. on September 19, 2003 10:06 AM

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