Grief is a sacred journey

A Spiritual Path with Heart

Gayatri Devi (Vedanta Centre photo)

Gayatri Devi (1906-1995) Vedanta Centre photo

Gayatri Devi was close to sixty when I met her in the 1970s. She was small, dark-eyed, and bubbled with joy and laughter. She wore a white sari with a cloth draped loosely over wavy graying hair. I was drawn like a bee to clover.

Friends had told me about a spiritual teacher who focused on devotional practices (bhakti) rather than philosophy. Mataji (Honorable Mother) led the Vedanta Centre in Cohasset, Massachusetts and another center in California. She was a monastic, ordained to teach Hinduism and spiritual practice in the Ramakrishna order. In 1940, her teacher Swami Paramananda made a bold move and named a woman—young Gayatri Devi—to lead the US centers after his death.

Anthony Damiani, my spiritual teacher near home, focused on philosophy. At that time, his meditation instruction was austere. Sit on the cushion. Look at the mind. Don’t move. Even if your knees scream. I liked the challenge, but spiritual practice felt dry. I longed for more.

swamiji1

Swami Paramananda (1884-1940) Vedanta Centre photo

In 1974, my husband Vic and I went to Cohasset for a fourth retreat. We took our four-month-old baby. Residents and visitors gathered at a long table on a glass-walled porch for meals. The food was vegetarian with an Indian flare. Mataji beamed at the head of the table while residents passed our baby around and cuddled him.

“This is delicious,” Mataji called out to the cook who’d made lunch that day.

“Ma, look at my new shoes,” a young woman said showing Mataji her sandals. Really? She showed her spiritual teacher her shoes? Mataji was Ma on every level.

Ramakrishna, 1836-1886 (wikipedia)

Ramakrishna, 1836-1886 (wikipedia)

The cook presented a platter of vegetables and rice to Mataji before serving others. “Thank you, Ma,” Mataji said looking into her devotee’s eyes with her hands palm-to-palm and a smile. Every kindness was an act of Divine Mother.

During meals, people discussed gardening and spiritual practice. They shared ashram stories and enjoyed the food. Mataji asked for news about anyone missing.

Vic planned to take care of our baby so I could meditate, but a devotee volunteered to babysit. “It’s no problem,” she said. “I’m nursing my baby, too.”

“Ma, we wrote a new song,” a student announced at the end of lunch.

“Play it at Bhajan,” Matiji said. Bhajan means “sharing” in Sanskrit. A spiritual ritual of musical, poetic, and devotional sharing.

Mataji at Wisdom's Goldenrod ~1976

Mataji with EllaMay Damiani at Wisdom’s Goldenrod ~1976

After dinner, we gathered around a fire. Forty women and men sat on the ground or wooden benches. A few women nursed babies. Men carried children on their backs. Devotees spoke and sang in a free-form musical flow. A few danced.

Mataji didn’t care who was Brahman or Buddhist or Christian, first-time visitor or life-long devotee. She welcomed the mix of Western and Hindu-inspired music and prayers accompanied by Indian and Western instruments.

I rocked our baby on my hip and swayed to the music, tired, but ecstatic. My full feminine self, including my milk-laden breasts, felt at home here.

“What draws you to Gayatri Devi?” my teacher Anthony asked when we returned from Massachusetts. He seemed curious rather than challenged.

Mataji at Wisdom's Goldenrod ~1976

Mataji with Center kids at Wisdom’s Goldenrod ~1976

“I love the music, the candles, the prayers, and the chanting,” I said. “I love the focus on mystical devotion. When I meditate at the ashram, I feel settled, open-hearted, and quiet.”

I don’t remember Anthony’s words, but our daily meditation at the philosophy center gradually changed. Anthony lit incense as he always had, but also played spiritual music from many traditions before we sat. In time, he included inspiring quotes, prayers, and sacred passages.

By 1980, the heart-centered ritual that drew me to Mataji was part of my daily practice.

***

Have you had teachers who showed you the value of heart-centered spirituality? I imagine mothers and grandmothers, wives and daughters, as well as men and women spiritual teachers. Falling in Love with Marion Woodman: 2003 is about my relationship with another teacher who transformed my life.

17 Comments
  1. I have never had the privilege to participate in some of the wonderful spiritual gatherings as you have Elaine. I’m learning so much about them vicariously through you. What a blessed life you have experienced. 🙂

  2. Such a lovely and positive counterpoint to recent news, Elaine. It is good to remember the strong feminine role models in our lives that have affirmed a sexuality and a spirituality that is holistic and humane, and that we can choose such leadership. I will carry this into my work today.

    • I agree, Paula. I needed to recall Gayatri Devi and what I learned from her. Counterpoint is the right word. Mataji went through many difficulties (I was told) as the first woman ordained to teach Hinduism in her Ramakrishna Order. Ramakirishna wasn’t patriarchal, but you know what happens when a group of entitled men think they’re in charge of the one true doctrine. She offered acceptance and Heart.

  3. Though my devotional practice is different from the description here, I can truly embrace wholeheartedness, my special word for 2016.

    In answer to your question, the trio of my mother, grandmother, and aunt have shown me the feminine face of God, for which I can be eternally grateful.

    • Marian, through your writing, I know enough about your female lineage to have some sense of what you learned from being with this powerful feminine threesome. I’m glad you’ve had good teachers close at hand with one still on this earth. The details of my devotional practice change over time, but Mataji taught me that opening the heart is essential.

  4. Thank you Elaine – meditative and deep for me. The profoundness of the mundane in among the sacred as manifested by Mataji. . As I sit here at my desk looking out at my garden and beyond and see those purple blue jacarandas against the blue sky, I’m reminded of the beauty all around in amongst the muck and grime …

    • Susan, it’s been forty years since those visits to Mataji’s ashram, but she taught me heart lessons that lasted for life. I remembered her loving energy and acceptance of “what is” as the political scene here became ugly beyond belief. Thanks again for letting your readers know about Joe’s death.

  5. Such a rich spiritual life shared with good friends. And all those mothers and babies in the picture. I’m in awe.

    • Lots of feminine power around Mataji. The men seemed to stand back a bit–except Vic who was raised by Italian women. My sons and I aren’t in the photo. Not sure why, but maybe we were late. That sounds like me.

  6. That sounds like it was a wonderful experience.

    • It was one of those things that happens in a life. I didn’t know how important it was until many years later. I’m sure, in her quiet way, she fought hard to keep her position in a mail dominated religious order.

  7. Hallo Elaine,

    When i went to school in the early seventies for the first time I was so exited! I was going to learn about life. But I only learned language and mathematics. Useful, but very dull. At high school i sometimes skipped a class of a dull teacher who only talked about things that I could read at home in the books and I went to town. Yes, i was skipping school but I did not learn the things I longed for. I longed for the knowledge to understand people. Why did they react in certain ways? What did they want most out of life? What was the purpose of mine? Nobody could or wanted to tell me.
    Unfortunately i did not get to meet a teacher like yours in real life. Oh yes I visited a lot of spiritual teachers who tried to teach me how to meditate. But the teachers who really taught me about life I met in my dreams. A girl I met in my dreams when I was 16 told me to get behind the wheel of my car (I did not have a license at that moment so the dream stood out for me). I met gods and goddesses in my dreams, i had lessons about dreams and astrology in my dreams (with no memory of the lessons only that mentally satisfied feeling when you wake up). Thanks for your blog, I am always inspired after reading it.

    • Thanks for telling me this, Susanne. I enjoy learning more about you. My desire to find more in life in my early 20s coincided with meeting amazing teachers before I knew I was searching for a teacher. In 1967, my first and most influential teacher taught his students many world philosophies, meditation, and Jung. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a strong focus on Jung, astrology (one of Anthony’s books was ‘Astronoesis’ which used spiritual and psychological principles to understand the roots of astrology), and dreams. Recently, in an old box that haven’t been opened in 40 years, I found a dream journal from the 1960s. Now, most of my main teachers have died (Anthony, Jung, Sankaracharya and many more), retired (Marion Woodman), or have become so well-known they are inaccessible (Dalai Lama). I haven’t felt the same pull toward new teachers as I felt when younger, although I enjoy spending a weekend with someone who focuses on meditation practice. Gayatri Devi taught me important things about lunar energy and the importance of ritual. In later years, Anthony leaned more in those directions until his death in 1984.

      Your dream reminds me of this: I had a power dream of the Dalai Lama at least thirty years ago. Before he turned into a dancing woman (don’t you love dreams?), dream Dalai Lama told me exactly what I needed to do with my spiritual practice. Dream me said, “I’m so glad someone is recording this because I’m so blissed out I’ll never remember the details.” The dream went on, dripping with powerful feminine symbolism. I laughed when I woke up because I didn’t remember the details and there was no recording. And no magic shortcut!

  8. What beautiful experiences and teachers you’ve had in your life! Unfortunately, I’ve not had a spiritual teacher that I have been able to interact with or ask questions to but I did come across an author that opened my eyes and I definitely consider her to have showed me “heart-centered spirituality.” Her book is called “The Light” and the author’s name is Judith Lambert (http://www.judithlambertbooks.com/). I found this story to be surprisingly riveting. Her story takes both reader and character out of their respective comfort zones, pushing the envelope of what is believed, understood and sought after on the topic of Religious Self-Awareness. Just as she was required to rise up and out of her dream to pursue this quest, she needed to physically remove herself from what was familiar to gain a deeper understanding of the whole system of faith itself. I felt that, whether intended or not, that this was a clever metaphorical tie-in. The story also transcends religion; anything worth pursuing may require some uncomfortable first few steps and that dynamic is captured eloquently within this work. It’s a very heavy, deep and real topic but ultimately asks the reader to embrace spiritual unity… We are all connected 🙂 It’s a lovely message!

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Karen. The Light sounds like a book I’ll love. I just looked at her website and am also drawn to the book about Mary. I am spiritual, but I don’t follow the rules of any one religion. I’ve searched for teachers in my life–and I have been fortunate in finding them. Sometimes they’ve come my way without my asking. Extreme good fortune! Now, I do more reading and listening than traveling to meet teachers. In my area near Ithaca, NY, they sometimes teach near me. I’ve gained so much from Pema Chodron since my husband died in 2008, although I’ve never met her in person. I’ve read her books but especially enjoyed listening to her on CDs. My favorite was “Don’t Bite the Hook.”

      Yes to spiritual unity and our deep connections.

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