"Love is the opposite of judging.."
- Ma Jaya
Transyogini: The Passing of My Beloved Guru
I am sitting in the car on the way back to Atlanta. Back from what was probably the most intense weekend of my life. Typing this on my iPhone is a little cumbersome, but I feel like I need to put this into words before the details slip away from me.
A few months ago, my beloved Guru Ma Jaya Sati Baghavati had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I had only met Ma in person twice, and we had emailed each other a few times. When we first met, about a year ago at the Atlanta Spring Intensive workshop, she made it clear that she had taken me into her heart, and that there was nothing I could do about it. Since then I’ve always felt a strong connection to her.
The news of the cancer sent a shockwave through the community, but we were all hopeful (and perhaps also a little in denial) that everything would end up okay, and we collectively sent out healing energy by chanting and meditating. Om Dum Durgayei Namaha! Especially since she was doing so much better in the last couple of days we were hopeful that things weren’t critical or that she might even win the battle for good. So when we got word that her health took a turn to the worse it was a shock for me. On Thursday came the announcement from our Swami — if you want to see her one more time, you better come down now.
I left work early on Friday, packed a suitcase and met up with two friends to make the 8+ hour drive down to Sebastian, FL. We got on the road late afternoon, I was driving the first leg, squeezing through the slow Atlanta rush-our traffic. But once we cleared the city it was smooth driving. Two hours into the trip, the setting sun was coloring the trees in an intensely soft red, touching my skin with her warm rays, it came to me. I knew. This was going to be Ma’s last day. I don’t know why, I cannot explain how, I just knew.
I drove on through the Magic Hour into the night. Everybody was quiet, but my thoughts were racing. What would happen when I got there? Would I have an opportunity to see Ma? Talk to her? And if so, would she say anything to me?
In desperate need to calm my mind, I tried to meditate. The highway was pretty empty, I had set the cruise control to just under 80, matching my speed with the car about 1000 feet in front of me. The slightly moving red taillights posed a perfect aim for single focus concentration, I gazed out at the center, everything around it blurred into the background. Together with Ma’s River Breath, a deep ratio breath that I currently practice as my nightly pranayama, I got pretty still in my head.
Okay, at this point I need to add a short disclaimer: please do not try this. Playing with your breath while operating a vehicle, especially at high speeds, is definitely not safe… and in retrospect I regret doing it. I could have hurt others and myself.
Suddenly I heard Ma’s voice in my head. She sounded like she was in the next room with the door closed (despite me sitting in a car at that moment), and while I could clearly hear that it was her, Brooklyn accent and all, I couldn’t understand what she was saying. The only thing that came clearly through was: “Use the breath!” — repeatedly. So I did, river-breathing even more deeply, trying to relax into the moment, quieting the nagging voice that tried to tell me that I’m just making this shit up, and at the same time desperately attempting to clear up the audio in my head. My two passengers, up to that point quietly dozing off, suddenly both woke up and started a conversation. Ma’s voice in my head slipped away, and I stopped the pranayama.
Did I imagine this? Did I make that shit up? Perhaps. I guess I will never know… and at the end it doesn’t really matter anyway. About an hour later, I was still at the wheel and we were approaching Jacksonville, we got the news via text message. Our beloved Guru had passed.
A sharp jolt of pain ripped through my heart. I got numb. After a while the tears came, and I had to concentrate on the road. It’s not easy to drive with eyes that are overflowing.
We got to the ashram around two in the morning. While the weather was clear all the way down, it had started raining like crazy just minutes before we arrived. It truly felt like the sky was crying. Later I heard that an unseasonably strong thunderstorm appeared over the area just after Ma passed, and we were experiencing the remnants of it. We quietly walked through the dark from the parking lot to Dattatreya house, the main building. Listening to the rain and the distant noise of the frogs from the nearby ponds, I thought: wow, you finally made it here — just too late. And over my anticipation of the arrival, an eerie emptiness filled my mind.
Wet from the short walk, I entered through the side door into the kitchen adjacent to the temple. A handful of people were still around, many of them from the Atlanta ashram. It felt so good to see friendly faces. After exchanging hugs and being introduced to a few of the residents, I stepped into the temple for a few minutes. The mood was calm, and everyone looked very exhausted. I had seen so many pictures of this place, most of them taken during darshan with Ma. I had never been here before, but I was home, and I wanted to just lay down on the carpet and cry… but I was too exhausted and numb, and we needed to get back on the road. They were wrapping up for the night, and tomorrow morning we would be given the opportunity to pay Ma a last visit.
After a few hours of rest (with a little sleep mixed in) at a nearby motel we were back around nine-thirty. There is always seva to do at an ashram, so goes the saying. Together with a few other chelas I found myself in the kitchen, armed with several dozen roses, plucking away. We were filling white trash bags with lots of beautiful red rose petals. I felt a little strange — I had never done this before (it’s actually very easy, once you get the hang of it) and somehow it didn’t feel quite right to destroy such a beautiful creation of nature. But then, I knew exactly what these petals were going to be used for. I felt (as if I needed any more proof of that), that by assigning me with this important task, I was instantly integrated into the community. A humbling sense of honor.
More people started to arrive, and our Atlanta Kirtan Wallas started chanting and drumming. After the roses were all plucked bare and the table cleaned, I went over into the temple and joined in. Singing felt good, and it let me forget that I hadn’t had any breakfast yet, but just after a few minutes I was called in to say my last goodbye to Ma. I was led through a side door from the temple into Ma’s private area, along what seemed to me like a maze of interconnected narrow hallways, stairs and rooms, all filled with an incredible amount of beautifully arranged stuff… books, CDs, statues, stuffed animals. The last room upstairs was the bedroom, and I got in line behind a handful other people. I spotted my Swami in the door to the bedroom, she was acting as the gatekeeper, greeting, ushering, hugging the chelas. Someone handed me a handful of rose petals, the ones I helped plucking earlier.
When I was next in line, Swami took my hand and told me to wait. Looking around the corner I could already see Ma laying there on her bed, decorated with flowers and rose petals. So beautiful and resting in peace. I have to admit, at my tender age of forty-two I had never seen a corpse before, so I did get a little nervous (not that this made any sense). Swami prompted me to step forward, and I knelt to my guru’s feet for one last time, praying to the One who opened my heart by reaching right through the thick wall I had built around it for decades… and the tears started to flow.
I’m not quite sure how I made it down again, the one thing I remember is hugging Swami. I eventually found myself back in the kitchen with some coffee and a cookie. The next hour or so I spent wandering around the compound, visiting all the beautiful temples and soaking in the spiritual energy of the place. Ma may have left her body, but I am certain her spirit was, and still is, present there. Later I returned to Dattatreya house and re-joined the kirtan. By then the temple had filled up quite a bit, and many of my friends had arrived. We hugged, chanted and cried together.
Around two in the afternoon we started preparing for Ma’s last journey. Our brave Wallas, playing for almost five hours straight by now, got up and slowly started their way outside to the parking lot, where the white minivan of the burial service was waiting. Bells were passed to the people on the way out, and some of the swamis blew their conches. The order was to make lots of noise, and that we all did! Drumming and ringing and chanting and clapping and shouting and crying we lined up along the street, and after Ma’s body was safely loaded into the van, we all followed it out to the main road. It was wild.
For me, who had (up until fairly recently) almost never cried, keeping emotions tightly hidden under a thick layer of insecurity, guilt and shame, this was as liberating as it was intense. I just let it all out, let myself go. I carried my wounded hard proudly open. Now I truly know what that means.
After the van had disappeared, everyone walked slowly back to the main area. A late lunch had been prepared for us in the dining hall. I don’t remember exactly what it was, and it’s not really important, I just recall it was intensely delicious. A few of my Atlanta friends had told me about a special place — a temple dedicated to Ma’s teacher Neem Karoli Baba, which was an old railroad car hidden in the woods. I needed to see this! A friend showed me the way, and soon enough I found myself climbing up the stairs of an old, wooden bogie in the middle of a green jungle.
I immediately fell in love with this place, although when I entered the cabin I freaked out for a second, because this figure of a snake that was lying on one of the little tables looked way too real. After getting back my bearings, I sat down on the little seat cushion and just relaxed. I hadn’t been able to do my spiritual morning routine, so I decided this was an excellent opportunity to catch up on some breathwork.
When I sit by myself, I still have difficulty entering a deeper state of meditation. It comes much easier when I meditate in a group, mostly because there is guidance, and the combined energy of the more experienced meditators creates a kind of wave that I just have to catch and surf away. This time it was very different. To keep with the analogy, the surf was so strong I had never experienced before. This place was so soaked with shakti that I slipped into meditation almost effortlessly. At one point I thought I could hear Neem Karoli Baba talking to me, and a strong feeling of peace covered me like a blanket. I knew that Ma was home with her beloved teacher, and I was filled with happiness.
I sat there for almost two hours. My legs fell asleep, which I kind of acknowledged, but I didn’t really care. I knew I was supposed to be at the dining hall at seven, but I had no sense of time. And again, I didn’t care. A couple of times I surfaced, thinking that I probably need to go now… and I acknowledged it again and returned to my meditation. It was like hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock, rolling over and falling asleep again — only better.
Eventually I made it back through the woods to the dining hall, and luckily they were running late, so dinner hadn’t started yet. My mind was in a strange place, and I wasn’t really able to communicate much. When the kitchen finally opened, I got in line, filled up my plate with more delicious food — pasta and salad — and sat quietly among all the other people to eat.
The rest of the evening was kind of blurry… I remember talking to some people but I mostly wandered trough the darkness. Around eleven we drove back to our motel for another largely sleepless night. I was exhausted and tired, but at the same time deeply charged.
Sunday morning we had another delicious meal, and I got to know a few of the residents in person, some of whom I already knew via email or Facebook. Kashi ashram is such a magical place — I did not want to leave. The only part that made leaving bearable was the thought that this kind and loving community extends beyond this place to pretty much all over the world. I am so grateful to be part of it. Part of Ma’s life’s work.
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