India In Me
There's no doubt that spending my earliest childhood in southern India was a life-shaping experience. All my earliest memories are of India, the land, the smells, the warm tropical nights, the monsoon. Each time I've returned to the tropics as an adult, these earliest childhood impressions surge up again. When I lived and studied in Java, Indonesia, on a Fulbright grant to study gamelan music as a composer, I had many flashbacks and memories come up. It's fascinating how much memory is tied to smells. The smell of rotting fruit under a tree by the side of the house. The smell of enormous, sensual, sexual tropical flowers in all their glory, and the scents being carried more powerfully when the air is heavy with humidity. Whenever I visit a tropical room in a conservatory here in the Upper Midwest, that rooting-vegetation smell, sometimes like old bananas, sometimes like eucalyptus mixed with fig and freshly-turned humus, takes me back. My friends might turn up their noses, but to me it's a scent of home.
When my family returned to the USA, when I was almost seven years old, returning to the Upper Midwest, to the Great Lakes state, Michigan, where I was born if not familiar to me in any memory yet, it was a shock to the system. I was beyond disoriented. It spun me into a shock so profound that I felt both numb and frozen. For one thing, it was cold here all the time, even in late summer. My body still prefers langorous tropical warmth to winter's bitter cold, and luxuriates whenever I can have a sauna or spend sunbathe shirtless or nude on beach sand or granite boulders on a hot late-summer afternoon. I spent my remaining childhood and young adult years, living in Ann Arbor, on the northeast edge of town, going wild each summer, riding my bicycle everywhere, wearing as little clothing as one could get away with, almost always shirtless, tanning each year by summer's end to penny-brown. We're a family of redheads, but I was a strawberry-blond thanks to my mother's Norski side of the family, and I could tan while my sister never could, but just burned. I gloried in the summer heat. People who don't live here often don't realize that, while the Upper Midwest can get terrifyingly cold in midwinter, it can also get very hot in summer. In northernmost Minnesota, some years there can be a 140 degree temperature swing between that week every July or August when the thermometer climbs to the triple digits, and every January when it can sink to 40 below. I've always felt most alive in the heat, most comfortable in my skin. My bad knees stop clicking when I climb stairs. The sweat rolls down your ribs and thighs like baptism.
When we returned to the USA, it was a return to a country, a land I didn't remember. My parents told me we were going "home," but it was to a home of which I had neither memory nor knowledge. A place I felt no connection to. I often still feel like a visitor rather than a native. In fact I've spent more of my life overseas than the average American, much more. That shapes both perspective and attitude.
How do you separate out what's innate and what's environmental? Was I already a shy boy when I was first thrust into the American public school system, finding it hard to make friends, wanting only to be liked but too self-conscious to be self-confident and secure? Or did I become shy because I felt so alien? Nature or nurture? What makes you that way? I know that I was already socialized to converse with adults by that age, as I had no nearby friends my own age in India; we saw each other only rarely. I remember that I was always more comfortable talking to adults than to my age-mates, a feeling that endured into my twenties. Was I already an introvert? Probably. Making friends was doubly hard because I was dropped suddenly into this alien and unknown context, and had to figure out how to adapt on my own. What I loved about school was learning new things on a daily basis; I was a knowledge sponge, absorbing everything as fast as I could. What I hated about school was the people I had to interact with, many of whom I couldn't figure out how to trust.
Imagine, if you will: You're approaching seven years old. You've never in your life seen a television set before, much less watched TV. You've never heard pop songs on commercial radio before. Your parents are both musical, your mother professionally trained in classical music, your father a gifted amateur who's an opera buff; so you've heard mostly classical music and opera on the antique wind-up Victrola record player, usually during and after dinner. Pop music? What's that? You've also been to both Hindu and Muslim weddings, and heard the music associated with those. Otherwise, it was the wheezy pump organ in the church, or the occasional piano. You have nothing in common with your so-called peers in your age category. Not even your language, since you grew up in a relic of the British Empire, surrounded mostly by Canadians and Brits and Indians; you vocabulary is Anglo-Indian, and you drink tea. Soft drinks were a marvel, a world of nose-tickling fizz never before explored. You played tennis on the neighborhood courts in India, when the family was in the hill country, but you've never seen a baseball or basketball before. You love to swim, and love to be in water, but you're otherwise not much interested in sports. It's not that you're not athletic, but that there isn't much common ground. How can you take seriously a game like football where the ball doesn't even bounce properly? Boxing still seems too vulgar to call sport. You're pretty good at volleyball, though. Still. What do you do? How do you cope? Who do you make friends with? Who can you talk to who can understand you, really? Shared experience in relationship is the root of empathy. How do you learn to empathize with aliens who have no idea what you're talking about? Add to all this the teachers quickly singling you out as being one of the brightest kids in their classrooms. No wonder you got beat up and bullied for so many years. Being the teacher's pet was only part of it. School was a glorious trauma for years. The bullying didn't really cease until high school, when for reasons unknown the captains of the high school football team decided that they liked me and suddenly I was under their full protection. I even got invited to the popular crowd's parties a few times, for the first time ever.
Just to be clear, earlier in life this became a spiritual wound, something that forced me to go deeper inside and explore my own experience and inner landscape to find touchstones, when none were provided in the outer world. It was a deep wound, and long an inarticulate one. I still don't really believe that most of my friends can really understand this aspect of myself, so I don't talk about it often. It was a wound. It's not so much of a wound anymore, though. A great deal of it has been healed. And that healing came via self-understanding, by that soulful spelunking that was also necessary refuge. There's always more to discover, of course. Only a fool thinks he knows himself completely. Just to be clear, it's a wound that no longer dominates, that marked me but which I learned from, and which I learned to overcome. There's a scar there, not a seeping sore. I do still sometimes get stuck in acceptance: in wanting to be loved, even in situations in which that desire is foolish. I catch myself at it far sooner than I used to, and do it differently now, after catching myself; that is most of what I can say.
So I've never really felt like a born and bred American. I've always felt a little alien and disconnected to the social structures of the USA. Some of them I like and have grown to align myself with. Others I can only approach as if they were alien microbes viewed under a microscope. I often feel like an immigrant rather than a native. Often I feel a lot of empathy for immigrants, for refugees, for displaced persons, many of whom have survived far harsher circumstances than you or I could ever comprehend. I feel like an outsider in my own land; as I once formulated it for an academic paper on ethnomusicology, an insider/outsider, one with a foot in either perspective, always walking that borderline without ever feeling completely in either camp.
The land of North America itself, though, I immediately connected to. The land itself is what keeps me here, connected and rooted to its beauty and power. The land keeps me alive, and nourishes me in ways other powers rarely do. The land of the Great Lakes region speaks to me as if indeed it were my home. Those times I can best listen, I feel at home here. Just as the mountains of Wyoming and the Southwest also speak of a certain kind of home to me; as does the Pacific Ocean, whenever I am near it. The Pacific and the Indian Ocean are not separate, and I can stand on the shores of California and feel my way across the long water to those beaches near Madras, and north, where I played as a child. I have photos of myself surfing in quiet shallow waters on the east coast of the Indian peninsula; had we stayed near an ocean, rather than the Great Lakes, when I was a child, I might have continued surfing. When the tsunami struck Madras in 2004, it was doubly wrenching for my family because that was our part of India, the part we knew well; some of those beaches were ones we had explored.
And I carry India in me still. My experience of India, which is not a native Indian's, but that of a long-term visitor. Still, children arrive with no preconceptions. They have to be taught their prejudices. Hatred is not innate, no matter what else is, even fear. So children can feel at home even where they know they're not, and where their parents are clear foreigners. How much can a child go native? I don't know; but I suspect more than most adults imagine.
I have an affinity for the Hindu gods of southern India. I feel at times closer to Shiva or Ganesh than I do to any of the Christian saints or symbols. I'd have to call myself a post-Christian: raised in a Protestant faith, a rather intellectual one to be honest, but not attached to either the institution or how it shapes the liturgy. I feel closer to the bhakti poets with their songs to the Lord of the Meeting Waters than I do to gospel music; while I view "contemporary Christian" pop/rock as a chasm of contradictions. (A heavy metal handbanger song about Jesus as your personal savior? It makes one's head spin.) I'm more drawn to individualistic spiritual explorers than to mass worship of any kind; more drawn to monks and mystics than mega-churches. I carry an image of Ganesh in my truck, in his role as Lord of the Crossroads and Remover of Obstacles. The truck feels naked without Ganesha's soothing presence on board. I have a personal altar in my living room, which has both Russian icons of the Sacred Heart, meditating Buddhas, and a large statue of Shiva Nataraj, the Lord of the Dance.
What's the thread that ties all this together? I'm being too revealing in even mentioning any of this, but I've come to believe that it's part of India in me: an eclecticism and open-armed approach to faith that is experiential rather than dogmatic. If you consult the historians and anthropologists you come away with the impression that India is a muddle of thousands of local gods, each expressing something larger behind their local face-masks. Hinduism is decentralized and both regional and local. There is no One Abiding Creed, one set of ultimate truths that everyone can agree to. It's a collection of accumulated local faiths that grew and merged, and overlapped somewhat while still remaining local and personal, both small and large at the same time. Some theologians would no doubt argue with this impression, but in practice it holds a great deal of truth. Different versions of the same gods, arising in infinitely varied manifestations, scatter the landscape.
In the continental USA, I feel many local gods in many places. Some places have a strong spirit to them. A mountain seems to look back at you, when you contemplate it. The bluffs above a glacial lake seem charged with electricity. Viewing the sunset from a natural stone bench above the ocean, trying to catch the green flash, is charged with portent and meaning. How is this different than the Japanese Shinto sense of the kami, the gods and spirits that inhabit specific sacred locations? How is this different from the Native American sense of gods in the landscape, a common thread to several tribal nations no matter what else they might differ on?
This feeling, this universal human instinct to perceive and protect what is sacred in one's own backyard, is a thread that runs through every faith, even the big organized institutional religions; the local spirits might be frowned upon, or they might be acknowledged by being re-labeled as saints or angels. The action of spirit is always personal and local, specific and universal simultaneously. God is a verb. In "religions" which are more sets of gathered myths and traditions than anything formalized and dogmatic and centrally-controlled, this awareness is simply more overt and obvious. It's at the surface of faith, rather than concealed behind a mask of conformity. The individualism of Native American spiritual traditions has become rather well-known; choice and vision are closer to the surface of social awareness. This kind of spiritual practice, local and personal, is why I often joke that I prefer dis-organized religions to those well-organized. Many of the re-invented, or re-discovered, neo-pagan faiths such as Wicca show this style as well. Although one does note that many Catholics converted to Wicca still tend to prefer high-church organized, formal and dramatized rituals over spontaneous kitchen-witch private magick. Perhaps it's all what one grows up with, that sets those preferences. If you're a kitchen-witch in spiritual preference, are you also one in the kitchen, and in your creative work? You see how all this might tie together, more products of personality and early experience than we often care to realize?
Is my worldview more inclined to see the local spirits this way, because of my childhood in India? It seems possible. I do believe it's true that my experience opened up in me the awareness of its possibility. And travel does broaden one's perspective, a cliché that is true at its core. Most people I've met who've traveled extensively do have a different perspective on life than those who never leave their local gods behind. I don't claim to have been specially enlightened by my travels—and yet, there is a difference. Perhaps it's an simple as having more images under one's belt with which to make synergies and comparisons.
And India was where I had my first visionary experiences. I can remember several numinous and liminal experiences that starting ringing through my life as a child. I was probably five when they started to happen; but perhaps they had always happened, and I wasn't sentient enough, as young children are not, till age five to be able to remember them now. I sometimes tell people now that I was five when I first started seeing angels, because it gives them a word whose context and frame of reference they can comprehend; but in fact I don't think of it as seeing angels, or seeing dead people, or whatever, but of having encounters with the local spirits and local gods.
"Vision" is a misleading word because a visionary experience is full-sensory, somatic, spine-tingling, often incredibly sensual, and involves your whole body, your whole spirit, your whole being. It's not an intellectual "Aha!" nor some safely-distanced sight-experience like watching a movie on a big screen twenty feet away from your nose. You're inside it, not looking at it from a safe distance. Rilke wrote Every angel is terrifying and he was absolutely accurate; he also wrote Beauty is but the beginning of terror, and this too is also accurate; although it is often misunderstood as fear of personal (ego) annihilation, although in fact what one most fears is one's inability to share one's experience with others without being completely misunderstood. There's a reason many mystics can't talk about what they've experienced: this is one arena in which words fail utterly. Poets' biases about the power of language aside, even the old Celtic bards knew that there were things they had no adequate word-horde to convey. After beating your head against the stubborn wall of incomprehension for awhile, some decide to stop; and they simply go silent. Not me, though, in my willful and arrogant desire to share; I can't seem to shut up, struggle as I constantly do with the inadequacy of saying anything at all. Why? Because I've seen the look in the eyes of the silent ones, that look haunted with light rather than shadow, that you'd miss unless you've shared the numinous experience of being immolated by the Light. Someone needs to talk about it, for those who can't or won't.
I was trained early in science. I tend to take an experimental and experiential approach to spiritual belief. I base what I know on what I've experienced. I don't accept a lot of received wisdom, and what I do accept I test first against my own cosmology and experience. It's a mystic's way, a shaman's way, a practical way. A way in which spiritual technology lives side by side with Mystery, in which Mystery is accepted rather than denied or attacked. Any faith that gives you all the answers, or tries to, should be looked upon with distrust. Everything is always provisional, and Mystery will always envelop the rest of life.
I was a boy in India when I first started having visions. My first connections to the natural world; hearing the rocks thinking; seeing presences that no one else could see. In India, the world started to open up around in me in ways beyond understanding, expanding and enveloping my small life in something very large and powerful.
I remember one afternoon, when I was supposed to be napping in my room, I snuck out of the house and went over to the laundry area—cement basins and tubs and wash areas, where the servants for all the houses in the compound washed clothes and linens. It was a hot, humid Indian afternoon in the dry season. I snuck into the tubs, there was still a little water dampening the stones, and I took off all my clothes, just to feel the heat of the day on my skin. It was sensual, hot in the air, the stone cooler under my backside. I was blasted with light. I gradually felt overcome with and enveloped by bright white Light. Time seemed to stop. All the sounds around me seemed to recede into the far distance. The Light became everything. I felt tingles of energy all through my body, and I felt everything on my skin, the air, the sunlight, the cool damp stone under me. And in the growing silence, which seemed to last a very long time, I felt something like a smile standing behind the Light. It lingered a long time, then everything faded away back to normal. I sat there flushed, feeling very tired and still. Eventually I put my clothes back on and snuck back into the house, went back and laid on my bed and eventually had a genuine nap. Very little clock time had passed. This happened when I was about five years old.
I remember walking down an aisle of stone statues carved from huge blocks of living rock, a sacred aisle behind the temple of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, in southern India. Many of the statues were carved from boulders and cliffs already there. Life-size statues of elephants strolled down the aisle, in between miniature temples, palm trees, and more. It was dusk. I ran ahead of my parents and our Indian guide, ran down the aisle to tis end then turned to look back and waved. For a moment the light seemed dark and dense, and I couldn't see or hear anyone else; as if they had all gone down another path, and I seemed to be alone. In the purple light of dusk, just after sunset, the elephants seemed to come to life, and walk forward. The carvings were so life-like already, this wasn't much of a leap. Nonetheless they seemed to stride towards me. Then I blinked and the vision was gone, my parents were there again in the aisle, several yards away, and sounds returned, and the light of dusk returned to blue rather than purple. I was probably about 6 years old when this happened.
In India, as a boy, I began having visions. They followed me, and stayed with me. I soon began to realize I was experiencing things other people weren't. They weren't dangerous, and no harm was ever done. It was always full-sensory, often sensual, somatic, kinesthetic, smells, tastes, and hearing—never just sight. Things altered to something else, then returned to normative. There were other events. The common thread that has run through them all, throughout my life, is the experience of overpowering, actinic Light. And silence, in some form or another.
When my family came back to the US, all of this came with me. I was put in public school, and I learned how to learn, always teaching myself more than the classroom alone intended. I learned to discover and research on my own. If something interested me, I pursued it as far as I could. In middle school, I began to read about comparative religion, looking to understand the visions, to find some context for them. To try to understand what was happening, who I might be. That course of study eventually lead me towards panentheism, towards the earth-based spiritualities and faiths, towards shamanism, towards affirmation rather than rationalization. And I begin to think, now, that this is India in me: a cluster of local gods, both immanent and transcendent, both particular and universal, local yet omnipresent. Principles rather than persons. Presences and powers and principalities, very much engaged and alive and active, not distant and removed. No wind-up universes set in motion by some absconded clockmaker. In India, I remember seeing temple festivals and ceremonies in which people were fully engaged, fully participant. Neither abstract nor discorporate, but somatic, direct, personal, touching. Moving, as Spirit moves in all things.
Mysticism has been defined as direct experience of the Divine, without mediation or the frames of received dogma. Mysticism has been described as the core experience of all great religions; the institutional structures are what are local and specific and culturally-bound, while the experience itself is a universal human birthright. Its tropes and patterns and concepts appear everywhere, over and over again. Did India make me a mystic, or would I have had visions at that young age no matter where I was? Nature or nurture? What I do believe is that my childhood in India opened that door to awareness earlier in my life than might have happened elsewhere. It provided a context and framework that intellectual Protestant faiths do not. It may have made me more open, more aware, more available to that Light. In India, a Light breaking through was likely to happen anywhere, anytime. The very land is infused with millennia of sacred action, sacred music and dance, temple worship. The air and ground are so alive.
So, nature or nurture? I'm not sure it matters. Still I carry India in me, an open and inviting door. I carry those many local gods around in me, as Masks of God, presences felt and familiar. The memories last beyond time and place, and connect as one this land I live on with that land I once lived on. I see the same forces everywhere I go, the same patterns and powers. What is universal is very particular, and what is very specific to this place partakes of what empowers that other place. It's the oneness that is made up of the many. The many emanations that arise from the One.
(Previous Spiral Dance essays can be found here.)