I once saw a fascinating interview of John Cleese, conducted by BBC Television. One of the most interesting things I took away from it was the idea of comic timing. Mr. Cleese gave the example of a particular “Fawlty Towers” episode in which the hapless anti-hero, Basil, is driving somewhere in a tearing rush when all of a sudden the car breaks down. The viewer sees Basil inside the car hitting the steering wheel and screaming. But it sounds as if we ourselves are standing outside the vehicle, and we hear his voice slightly muffled. Mr. Cleese explained that he and the other directors discovered that it was much funnier hearing him scream from inside the car, than if we were right beside him.
After screaming at the damn vehicle for a good two or three minutes, Basil runs off and returns with a tree branch and starts hitting the car with it. Mr. Cleese explained that it took him a long time to find the right size branch. A little tiny branch wouldn’t have worked; and a much larger branch wouldn’t have been funny either. In humor, everything has to be just so to work. I realized from what he said that humor is almost a kind of alchemy; a good laugh is the gold, so difficult to synthetically reproduce.
How I admire actors and writers who can be consistently funny! I suppose Matt Groening and Gary Larson are my two favorite comic book artists because of their incredible deftness in turning jokes into mirrors which reflect back a different world than we’re accustomed to seeing. A shameless Dr. Who nut, I’ll always admire Tom Baker as the greatest Doctor Who incarnation for who else could evoke such dignity and at the same time such lighthearted joy with a simple smile? Mark Twain’s novels and short stories poke fun at human stupidity (“I’ve heard that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”), but they also teach us a lot about life. He embodies a sharp, sometimes breathlessly brutal style that makes us laugh in spite of ourselves. And Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis, is undoubtedly the funniest book I’ve ever read. I felt ten years younger after I finished it, and a whole lot wiser to boot.
Last night some actors performed a play based on one of Sri Chinmoy’s short stories. All of the actors forgot a lot of their lines, and so the whole play was somewhat ad-libbed. The actors had a lot of fun, and we had a lot of fun laughing with them. Sri Chinmoy, the author of the material, didn’t seem disturbed at all at what a total hash the actors were making of his material. He smiled with us, and he seemed gratified and happy that even such a “spontaneous” performance of his work could take away all of our mental troubles.
I remember one Simpsons episode in which Homer Simpson slaps the television set because the comedy program he’s watching isn’t funny enough. If these stories don’t make you laugh, don’t blame your PC. Just get a Mac.
“Humor is the prelude to faith and
laughter is the beginning of prayer”
(Niebuhr, Discerning The Signs of the Times 1946)
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, best known as the author of the popular Serenity Prayer, poses an intriguing notion for us to consider with his words linking humor, laughter and prayer. I must confess that I mostly associate spiritual growth with utmost seriousness. The traditional approach to becoming more virtuous and working towards what feels right can sometimes get rather dour and self-righteous. I shake my head as I think of the times that I have needlessly berated myself for my various faux pas while trying to become a better person. And I might not be in such solitary company when I ponder how easily I judge others by a much stricter yardstick than I am inclined to apply to myself.
So is it really possible that humor and laughter are closely related to the true pursuit of the sacred? One common element of humor is incongruity and the juxtaposition of things unexpected or surprising. Picture the immediate smile that rises within you when the apple cart is turned on its head, e.g. a dancing bear or a large gruff man pirouetting in a tutu! Niebuhr, in his book, Discerning the Signs of the Times, offers this type of incongruity as the connecting link between laughter and prayer, “Humor is concerned with the immediate incongruities of life and faith with the ultimate ones” (Niebuhr 1946). An open heart and mind to the small incongruities of life can actually help us grapple with the larger cosmic ones.
In her discussion of religion and humor, John Carroll University theology professor Doris Donnelly expands on this relationship between incongruity and faith, “…on the journey of becoming what we were meant to be, we need to let go of preconceived notions, plans, schemes and patterns. We need to suspend logic. A new order of meaning takes over and we need to be humble enough, and have a sense of humor enough, to accept that” (Donnelly, Divine Folly : Being Religious and the Exercise of Humor 1992).
Laughter rising from humor that shakes up our sedate notions of the expected becomes a threshold for the doorway into a heart humble enough to receive God. Donnelly states, “Holiness is about self-discovery and God discovery. For those discoveries to happen, it is necessary to get out of the way, to loosen our grip, to lessen our need to control, and to let God be God. A sense of humor helps the sanctification process because it encourages us not to take ourselves too seriously. Taking ourselves too seriously deals a lethal blow to holiness” (Donnelly 1992).
Early Twentieth-Century British author G.K. Chesterton, explains in his 1908 work on theology, Orthodoxy, the necessity for escaping from self-centered seriousness,
“One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness… It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”
Indeed Chesterton sums up this concept with his much quoted maxim that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy 1908)
This “selfish seriousness” is another synonym for ego and pride. And many theologians find pride to be one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to making your life a pilgrimage towards greater union with God. In his following poems, author and spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy warns against pride in relation to one’s spiritual quest:
“My Lord Supreme
Has repeatedly told me
That of all our undivine qualities,
Our pride is undoubtedly and absolutely
“Is there anybody on earth
Who is not inwardly,
If not outwardly proud of his existence?
He is proud of his existence,
He is proud of his existence”
(Sri Chinmoy, Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees Part 5)
While humor comes in various stripes and some forms of humor stem from pride, the self-effacing variety helps us combat pride. When we feel secure enough in ourselves to admit our foibles and mock our own pretensions, a leveling effect results between oneself and others. We remember the essential equality and divinity of humanity and downplay the notion that hierarchies of worth deserve credence. And we are combating the often unconscious tendency to perceive the world through a self-centered lens.
Fuller Theological Seminary professor David Augsburger extrapolates on these aspects of the relationship between self-effacing humor, hubris and humility with great insight,
“Humor teaches us humility; humility inspires our humor...Humorous humility sees the foolishness of putting on airs, so it smiles at its own pretenses; it recognizes the pettiness of comparing ourselves to one another, so its tongue is always thrust into the cheek of pride...It feels its constant inner tug toward self-preference that is insidiously opposed to concern for the other; so it shakes its head self-effacingly when speaking of goodness or stepping up to any moral high ground” (Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship 2006).
Thus, humor has great potential in both nurturing humility and sidestepping pride. Since even the conscious cultivation of humility can be fraught with contradiction (doesn’t pride creep in if one thinks of oneself as humble?), humor allows a true embrace of humility without concern that your attempt goes to your head.
I can easily recall many occasions within my own spiritual community, as a student of Sri Chinmoy, when a funny play on moral or spiritual themes lifted me out of whatever mental troubles I suffered from at the time. A knee-slapping innocent joke effectively serves the same purpose. I find that lightness and humor go a long way towards shedding my old inherited stereotypes of a judgmental and vengeful God up in Heaven with a white beard and lightning bolts!
All this food for thought on humor and humility adds deeper understanding to Sri Chinmoy's following words on the healing power of humor in spiritual growth. He states, "A sense of humour ought to be cultivated by everybody every day, for a sense of humour is nothing short of a wisdom-tree. This wisdom-tree serves us, feeds us, illumines us and protects us" (Sri Chinmoy, Emil Zatopek: Earth’s Tearing Cry/Heaven’s Beaming Smile 1980).
So now when you crack a smile and share a laugh you just might be cozying up to humility instead of making pride your unconscious bedfellow. And in that spirit I end with the words, “Did you hear the one about…”
Rhode Island - USA
Augsburger, David. Dissident Discipleship : A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor. Brazos Press, 2006.
Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. Dodd, Mead and Co., 1908.
Donnelly, Doris. Divine Folly : Being Religious and the Exercise of Humor . Theology Today, Jan 1992, Vol. 48, no. 4
Niebuhr, Reinhold. Discerning the Signs of the Times: Sermons for Today and Tomorrow. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946.
Sri Chinmoy. Emil Zatopek: Earth's Tearing Cry And Heaven's Beaming Smile. Agni Press, 1980.
Sri Chinmoy. Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees, Part 5, Agni Press, 1998.
Humour is most convincing and most effective when it is unsought, when it comes to us like an unexpected guest. When we discover humour in the daily scenarios of our lives, if something in the cosmic arrangement of them suddenly strikes us as amusing, funny or even hilarious, it makes us feel that life is more than merely chance circumstances, but an ever-changing, meticulously crafted work of art designed by a Master Architect. That this Architect is not bereft of a keen sense of humour is something we soon discover, too. The story below, experienced by two people I know personally, is one of the many testimonies to life's inherent sense of humour.
Two friends were backpacking in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands south of Spain. They were enjoying the beautiful weather, even in mid-January, and the gorgeous scenery on their various hiking trips through the rugged, mountainous countryside. There is a famous mountain on Tenerife called Mount Teide, which with an altitude of 3,700 metres (12,000 feet), is Spain's highest mountain. Mount Teide offered a hiking opportunity the two friends did not want to miss. However, a special permit was needed to be allowed on the mountain and bureaucracy would have it that this permit could only be obtained in the capital, many miles away. Since their longing for the view from the top of the mountain was persistent and strong and they did not want to waste an entire day travelling back and forth for the permit, they decided to forego the civil servants and conquer the mountain first thing tomorrow morning, before the mountain guards arrived. Love of nature triumphed over civil obedience.
On the following morning just before sunrise they left their hut, which was located near the top of the mountain, and began following the trail up the mountain. It was a taxing climb. But the glorious summit rewarded their early morning efforts with a stunning and breathtaking view. They drank in nature's beauty and splendour, revealed by the golden sunrise, and quietly came back down before anyone noticed. The remainder of the day - more than a remainder in fact since the day had just started - was spent hiking around the mountainous area, climbing boulders and a few minor peaks and logging a fair number of miles before they got back to their hut. By that time the trail up Mount Teide had already closed and a few mountain rangers were standing alone in the vast countryside, enjoying evening's beckoning hand at the end of their working day. The two hiker-friends went up to them. One of the friends, who spoke fluent Spanish, was curious to know why a permit was needed to climb Teide and why it was so inconveniently unobtainable right here at the foot of the mountain. The rangers kindly explained that the preservation and protection of the mountain were the cause for having the permit and not wanting to have too many people climbing it the reason for having it many miles away in the island's capital. People were welcome, but not truckloads at a time. The hiker-friend pulled a sad and disappointed face - hiding his glee at having cleverly surpassed governmental regulations that very morning - murmured a "too bad, but all right, I understand" and said goodbye.
Suddenly however the rangers yelled at them to stop and called them back. Making indulging and inviting gestures with their arms they conveyed their goodwill, saying: "Go ahead, we don't mind. You should see the view from the top, it's beautiful. Go, we won't say anything to the authorities" And then they smiled out of the goodness of their hearts.
So there you had it.
The friends first tried a polite refusal, mentioning all their activities that day (save one) and their resulting fatigue, but the mountain rangers would have nothing of it. Besides, their half-hearted refusal in no convincing way matched their previous expressions of sadness and disappointment. In the end they had no choice but to thank the men deeply for their kind offer and to climb up to the top for the second time that day. It was a straight-up trail without any turns and without a chance to escape, so they had to complete the entire climb in order to save their faces. And after that of course the descent. It was one of the most fatiguing
days of their lives. I'm sure Someone had a good laugh over it, though.
The Hague - The Netherlands
Saluti, Signor Buffon! The fate of game wasn’t in YOUR hands. Only the ball.
Out of the estimated 2.2 billion people of our earth who were literate (or rich) enough to be able to follow the developments of this year’s football world cup (maybe I should write it with Capitals before some moderate English fans break my windows ?) in Germany there is none who would not know what I am talking about. But for the sake of my friend XXX who is a veteran defender of France, I better explain things a bit as she doesn’t watch soccer games. Actually it is for my own sake, too. Leaving this title unexplained would otherwise end me duelling with her, eye to eye, as usual whenever I dare criticise something French or – even worse – praise anything German. She loves France and French just as much as I adore Germany and Germans, which makes it very easy to find a topic for a pre-heated conversation whenever we get together.
So, my dear buddy, I cautiously remark, that I am very well aware, the French have never lost anything at all. Looking back all the way to the Big Bang they are flawless, perfection incarnate. It is only that sad little bit of a game in the latest World Cup final...
Now the time is ripe to share with only and only, in exclusivity only our refined little community of readers why exactly it happened so. A first hand secret delivered only to you dear fellows in the hope that you will understand me.
The outcome of the game has nothing to do either with Materazzi or with Zidane. I am the one at fault. I have to admit that it is my life-long connection, very special tie with football that played a major role in it. That needs some explanation again. Here comes the story!
This sport and life-style came into my life at a tender age when I first had to witness my dad monopolising the family’s only black and white TV and old radio for whole evenings while my mum was confined to a silent exile either to the neighbour lady or at least out in the kitchen. My dad was a real professional: he managed to simultaneously watch the Cuba-Soviet Union game on the only TV channel we had in Romania while listening to the Hungary-Trinidad game at the Kossuth Radio Hungary.
As a child I wasn’t forced to do anything, I had a free choice to decide with whom I would stay. Since staying with my mum would always involve either some housework or some scolding, or worst comes to worst, both at the same time, it was very easy to choose my father’s safe company. In the bedroom I was allowed to do anything I wanted as long as I didn’t make noise AND above all, didn’t walk in between my dad and the TV. I could even support the opposite team, as long as they were not some age-long historic enemy from some country inimical to Hungary.
Then during the half-time interval I would sneak out into the kitchen and filch some of my mum’s freshly baked cookies for daddy and myself, completely famished after 45 minutes of intense stress. There was nothing more relieving than discussing with a full mouth at the top of our voice the latest off-side moves and corner kicks. The only difficulty was the fact that our TV being an old black and white machine we sometimes had to learn all the numbers and names of the players if the two teams wore uniforms of some similar colours.
Thus, by the time I grew ten years old I could recite the full list of those time’s Brazilian players including the reserves.
Back to school age: this is how it happened that I introduced football to our literature class in school. Our teacher was desperate for she was going to have an upcoming visit of high ranked inspectors. She was due to hold a Hungarian language and literature class in front of these VIP guys and us, the average type of rural adolescent hardly able to distinguish a poem from a theatre piece. And we were supposed to give nice, clever answers to her questions. This is what we had never done before and that could not be rehearsed enough. Then the poor lady came up with the idea of teaching a class about the various slang and jargon of just about everything but literature and grammar. It was my turn to come up and I am so proud to have saved her life! She wanted us to reproduce some 5-10 minutes long discussion in any specific jargon. We would then read this out as nice examples of how a specific ‘language within the language’ sounds. All I had to do was to reproduce 10 minutes of any soccer game I listened to at the radio, spice it up with all the expressions such as corner kick, midfielder, penalty mark, offside offence, etc. and to speed my speaking pace up. By the time I finished reading my imaginary game commentary all the boys in the classroom were nagging their nails. Above all, the inspectors were enthralled, too. So they gave a good mark to our literature teacher and I went home with the confirmed conviction that football was indeed a very good thing!
I never lost this deep conviction, but as I grew further I had other ventures in my life and ignored the fate of championships and cups. It was at the 2000 UEFA European Championship that this passion was revived. I was staying at a French friend’s place in Southern France. It was therefore very easy to get the fever that left no one of the 60 million citizens de l’Hexagone unaffected. I fully shared their joy and enthusiasm except when it came to littering as a form of celebration. I was in France and les Français defeated Italy 2-1 in the final after a golden goal by France's David Trézéguet. This is a key sentence, keep track from now on.
Then I came to work in Swedish colours and as such came the ominous game when Sweden defeated Hungary 2-1 in Budapest on April 2, 2003. This was a tournament leading up the 2004 European Championship. Although I was in Hungary at that time, I was a Swedish government employee and sat in the Swedish guests’ sector, wore their colours and supported their team surrounded by a hundred other blue-yellow football fans. I supported them and not my own compatriots, because I really loved Swedes, – although in my own country – I spent an average of 12 hours per day among them, I shared their joy and passion over the game AND I definitely found their team better than ours. All in all, I could say, I was IN Sweden and I had the chance of seeing the Swedes win. This is another key sentence, watch out.
In 2004, during the actual European Championship I happened to be in France the day when – guess what ? – the French won against England. Key sentence noticed ? This is a game that deserves more than a mere mention. Being stuck at work in yet another country I haven’t got much to see of this championship, but the very day France was playing against the UK I was sitting in a car along with four French friends, driving from the sunny Mediterranean to a gloomier Lorraine and listening to the live radio broadcast of the game. It was June 13, 2004 and Estadio da Luz in Portugal was crowded as we judged from the background noise. Not to be able to watch a game with both Zidane and Beckham, Barthez and David James on the field, not to see when David Beckham misses a penalty (!) was a disaster. Thank God, we were coming from a Joy Day that compensated us beyond measure. In any case, the French weren’t doing well enough to win the game, until – towards the end of this desperate game – my friend Christophe turned back and asked specifically me about which Indian God is to be worshipped in the genuinely disastrous advent of one’s favourite football team being on the verge of losing.
After a little time of reflection I said, ‘well, try Krishna, he likes games and fun stuff’. This was in the 89th minute of the game in which the only goal so far scored had been the UK-player Lampard’s goal in the 38th minute! As a good patriot Christophe immediately started loudly worshipping Krishna in order to save l’honneur de la patrie and in less than 2 minutes we heard the 62 487 people (plus the 5 of us in Jean’s Renault sliding on a deserted highway between Macon and Lyon) yelling as Zizou the great scored a goal! Krishna has always been so kind to whoever sincerely asked Him. But Christophe quickly remarked in his second litany of prayers that another French hit would be highly necessary in order to make the Frenchmen win this yet 1-1 game against the age-long enemy. It was enough to utter Krishna’s name once more and again – in less than two minutes – in the 3rd minute after this adrenalin-producing form of modern torture called “penalty kicks” started, the ball kicked by Zidane was again missed by the English goalkeeper!
At this moment did I only realise that I had actually wished a British victory! And stupid me, instead of asking Krishna myself, I gave out the secret clue to someone who supported the adversaries. Anyway, I was in France and the French just won! (Key sentence to be remarked.) I adopted the joy of Jean, Christophe, Francoise and Claire. I only made a little remark, admitting that I actually supported the English team MORE. This was like dropping a bomb, followed by deep silence for reflection over the consequences. Then came the judgement: I should perhaps consider hitch-hiking as an alternative to riding a French-driven car and dropping treacherous sentences like this!
I quickly withdrew my impetuous statement and insisted on the fact that it was Krishna, the dearest and bluest of all Gods who made this French victory possible. And it was none else but me, who revealed the secret: whom to ask in distress during soccer games.
But above all: I was in France! In the country whose team was – by consequence – bound to win.
This latter fact only got confirmed a year later, in 2005 when at the end of May I happened to be in Turin, Italy the same afternoon Juventus Torino met Cagliari in a nearby stadium. No need to go in detail, Juventus very nicely won 4-2 if I remember well, after all I was right outside their own home-stadium.
The conclusion was now very clear: all that is needed for a football team to win a game is for me to be in their country!
Thus, totally incidentally I went to Switzerland in the middle of June and that very Friday evening was the birth of a nice Swiss victory over Korea. I hope the injured head of Philippe Senderos and of his Korean counterpart (“coup de boule”) is by now OK.
I thought of using this secret capacity of mine when it came to supporting my 2006 World Cup favourites: the German team. I am really sorry, my beloved Germans, I was simply unable to travel to Germany in the evening of the 4th of July. My only excuse is that I was NOT celebrating at the American Embassy but rather stuck somewhere in Luxembourg with a friend and a laptop that had broadband connection to the Internet live streaming, only to discover that the Eurosport channel preferred to broadcast a billiard contest on the evening of all evenings! I think this caused them a very bad karma. I will talk to Krishna about this. To say that I was desperately angry is an understatement. I reached home only after the second half of the game started and after some search I found a German radio station broadcasting it live. But I couldn’t be in Germany. Obviously, however excellent die Deutsche were, they didn’t make it to the final. I hope I will be offered an Italian Gelato next time I visit my friends in Padova or Milano.
Now I only had to think well, where I should go on the 9th of July 2006: Thionville or Turin, Metz or Milano. I was just pondering over this in the train between Strasbourg and Thionville when my mobile rang. It was the aspiration-heart of France that called me! Francoise, mon amie bien-aimée de Nancy called me to say that she managed to find me an affordable flight ticket to Tokyo. She spent a considerable time searching the Net for cheaper flights for me as I had complained to her that I was unable to go to a very important meeting in Japan. Both her and my other friends from Nancy considered it vital that I go to Tokyo and Hiroshima and represent them there since they themselves could not travel. And her heart of sacrifice was ready to spend time searching for cheaper flight tickets for me, while I simply relinquished and went hiking in the Swiss Alps instead of learning Japanese! Had it not been for her aspiration to push me through fate and see me landing at Narita Airport at the right time, I would not be in the position to say that in less than a month I covered over 30 000 kilometers AND I would have missed a lifetime experience.
After having spoken to her I rushed to Luxembourg and quickly purchased the mentioned ticket to the mentioned flight, no, not to France, not to Italy, but to Japan via Zürich. I withdrew myself from the ball-game and commended the last game of the World Cup into God’s Hands. By now we all know that God likes games a lot. That’s why He invented them for us to watch and participate. What he doesn’t seem to like is when we provoke each other’s anger or we forget our own greatness, stumble at the last hurdle and make head-butts on another player instead of kicking the ball.
We had science, art, humor so far… Whoever of us (authors) can guess what topic our dear Mahiruha will select for the next issue can win valuable prizes including a dedicated original brand-new edition of the Tokyo-Osaka train timetable, recent colored pictures of the holy Fujiyama mountain’s north slope with my dear friend Sharani in the foreground, and furthermore the secret recipe of Japanese spaghetti sandwiches.
Sitting here in a cold winter sunshine, pondering what to write, I’m inclined to trawl back through memory for a few light-hearted stories of our path. Every day such charming things beguile us, moments and memories that appear then melt away like tiny alpine flowers that bloom on a mountain after rain then as suddenly disappear. So these are a few such flowers, plucked from the faraway places of the mind before they fade – may the rain come and memory gather the tiny blooms.*******
I first saw Guru at an evening meditation in New York, sometime in early 1981. There was white light all around him and something far away stirred in my memory, a pleasing feeling of recollection and of coming home. I stood afterwards in the school corridor down which he walked on the way to his car and in those few moments I think something quite significant happened. Guru looked at me and smiled very beautifully – his eyes flickered up and down and he was looking at my heart centre. I could feel something happening there, a block removed, a small explosion of feeling. After that I never worried about how to meditate any more – I felt it had all been taken care of, an initiation of some kind, and that meditation was really a gift or an act of grace. I just had to be willing to keep trying and be available.
Our teacher has a great sense of humour. But you would need to when you have oneness with the suffering of the whole world. A tiny example – once during a function we had some delicious ice-cream prasad and we all filed by the tables groaning under the weight of this perennial favourite to help ourselves. Several boxes were left over so Guru called out ‘Greedy people come and have more.’ Nobody moved. So Guru smiled very sweetly and said ‘Alright, willing helpers please come and have more.’ Of course hundreds of ‘willing helpers’ surged forward and in a short time dispatched the remaining icecream. Greedy? – no! Obediently willing? - yes!
On another occasion I presented 800 chocolate- covered marshmallow ‘fish’ from New Zealand, a prasad or ‘blessed food’ item. Guru had one, then another. He liked them. There were 300 left over so I stored them in their boxes under my bed, savoring the prospect of a second popular ‘fish’ prasad. At night I would often reach down and take a chocolate fish as a late night nibble – finally a sense of mounting guilt and declining health resulted in my again presenting the fish for prasad. But this time Guru glanced at the chocolate fish and made a face. ‘Are these fresh?’ he asked. ‘Reasonably fresh,’ I answered evasively. ‘How fresh?’ Guru asked, smiling and unrelenting. ‘They don’t really go stale’ I replied. ‘They are in sealed boxes.’ ‘How fresh are they?’ Guru asked again. ‘Well, I’ve had them for three weeks’ I replied, coming clean. Guru poked them with his foot. ‘Dead fish,’ he said and made a face. It was my first lesson in prasad etiquette.
I’m one of those disciples who never have any ‘spiritual experiences’ – but when others regale me with their amazing true-life experiences, I tell myself consolingly that I just don’t need to. But wait! When I was brand new to the path, for a whole week I saw auras everywhere, white, blue, yellow, gold, green! About that time, too, I remember another experience that was quite something. Guru had completed a large number of paintings one day and was presenting several to a handful of his students, a gift honouring some special service each had provided. My good friend Simahin was one of these and he wandered happily among the many paintings that were there on the carpeted floor – and instantly fell in love with one above all the others. What were the chances of Guru choosing that one for him? Very high, it seems, for when he stood in front of Guru, Guru immediately selected the one Simahin secretly wanted! Simahin brought it back to our adjoining seats and sitting next to him I looked at the painting. Then I was falling into a huge deep blue sky filled with stars, drifting away into the universe. The blue and white splashes of colour were a portal into another universe and I was falling, falling, falling through a tranquil endless blue vastness. I was floating away into a vast inner sky and I never wanted to come back.
When Harshani, our eldest centre member became a disciple in Auckland, she had many experiences. In classes she would come up afterwards and say ‘Who is that beautiful Indian man seated near you on the floor?’ She could clearly see a young Indian yogi figure meditating there – and I would confess that I was not privileged to share this experience, much to her surprise. I asked Guru about this and Guru said ‘Who did you say it was?’ I replied ‘I said it was you, Guru, or one of your emanations or inner beings.’ Guru simply smiled and said ‘Very good!’
Harshani had whole conversations with other subtle beings, and once during an all night run on Mt Eden in Auckland, two conversations with the soul or spirit of the mountain. It came to her as a luminous, clearly visible being. She was so excited and rushed up to tell me. ‘It was a tremendously great spirit, with all colours’ she said. Sometimes when people have a childlike heart, or purity, or have developed a special receptivity they can have these experiences.
Guru often talks about divine protection and over the years I’ve shifted from new disciple disbelief to grizzled veterans full-blown acceptance in my views on this nebulous subject. With reason too. In 1990 I drove headlong into a concrete bridge column at 100kms an hour on the Auckland motorway – dressed in full clown regalia on my way to a kids party – and with no seatbelt on. The wheels fell off, glass covered hectares of highway, the engine ended up in the passenger’s seat. Through a world of flying glass, spinning sky, the sounds of the car tearing itself to pieces, I could feel an irrational calm and a sense almost of God’s arms around me, a clear and tangible feeling. I crawled out of the wreckage, with not a scratch or bruise, so peaceful I could have given a spontaneous meditation class to the arriving medics. My red foam clown hammer lay on the motorway, my box of tricks scattered all over.
Once, alone one evening in our house in Auckland, Subarata saw a very large man with a club trying to get in one of our windows – she yelled at him but then he tried to force a door. She sat at her shrine and prayed intensely for protection. Faith is such a powerful thing! After some time she heard very clearly a voice saying to her, three times, ‘you are protected, you are protected, you are protected.’ Then the intruder went away. She was so excited and thrilled by this experience, all her fear vanished. She was so elated by the voice of her unseen guardian.
In Malaysia I had a rendezvous with a bolt of lightening, a direct hit. Unconscious and stunned, I lay on the wet road, an electrocuted tourist, my eyes closed, a circle of solicitous villagers jabbering away and peering down at me. That year 138 people were killed in this region by lightening strike – but I happily survived. These experiences hint at other forces in our lives where spirit and grace prevail over matter and logic – enough to nudge a skeptical mind along a new course.
Sometime in the early 90’s I sat in a hotel room in Atitlan, Guatemala, feeling incredibly depressed. Playing soccer earlier that morning I was depressed. Eating breakfast – depressed. A mid-morning nap, avoiding everyone – depressed! In our hotel function room I sat up the back, avoiding Guru’s scrutiny and the banter of friends. Guru had a bag of sweets in his lap and was tossing them out, a playful father. Suddenly he stopped, glared at me with a fierce concentration, then began hurling wrapped sweets at me with incredible velocity. I felt a jolt inside and sat bolt upright. The sweets were whizzing by me, a barrage, bouncing off the seating and ricocheting away like hurtling bullets. I couldn’t believe it! Relentless, Guru threw one after another, firing away, a wild fusillade of candies. Then I caught one and Guru stopped. I held it in my hand and started laughing – Guru started laughing too. Suddenly my depression went away. It was quite extraordinary. He had known how I felt and banished this force from my mind in such a remarkable way. After that I felt happy and grateful to be on the trip and didn’t allow depression back to rule my mind.
I’ve told this before, but it’s quite funny. In Australia, I found myself on stage, midway through one of Guru’s concerts, in a small group of disciples each of whom was to recite to the audience an inspiring aphorism. I had memorized mine, but also wrote it down on a small folded piece of paper, placing it reassuringly in my pocket just in case – we all know how tricky the mind can be! When the person next to me began his poem, he suddenly forgot the last lines and had to retrieve a similar prompt from his own pocket. A wave of panic flooded over me and suddenly I had completely forgotten how my poem even began – I could feel the eyes of the audience boring into me. Then I remembered my written copy and I retrieved it, with great relief, from my pocket.
My turn came and I surreptitiously opened up the folded paper, concealed in my palm, smiling all the while at the audience. Glancing down I prepared to read – but there in the palm of my hand was a $20 note!
Later I told Guru what had happened and he asked me ‘What did you do?’ ‘I made up a poem, Guru,’ I replied. ‘You made it up?’ Guru said, ‘It was very nice.’ And he gave me a twinkling smile.
Some years ago the father of one of our Auckland disciples died – ‘passed on’ is a better term, for as Sri Chinmoy mentions, the secret of life is that there is no death. The disciple-son mailed his father’s photograph to Sri Chinmoy, asking his spiritual master to bless the father’s soul and help him on his way. Some weeks later, in a vivid dream our Auckland disciple saw his father playing tennis with Sri Chinmoy, a clear event on another plane of consciousness, so real that he woke in the morning feeling greatly reassured. Sri Chinmoy was surely showing him that he would take care of his absent father (who incidentally loved tennis). That same morning he went out to get his mail – and there among his letters was the photo he had sent to Sri Chinmoy weeks earlier. It had been returned on the morning of the dream, and on the photo Sri Chinmoy had drawn two little tennis racquets.
Auckland - New Zealand
When you’re writing an article, and you’re not sure how to begin, it usually helps to start by talking about how you were assigned the article.
Take this one, for example. I’m only doing this because Mahiruha said “Please write something humorous.” Of course, I was more than happy to try – but what did he want me to write about? “Anything.”
So I start this article in that tried-and-true method: making it clear that it’s the editor’s fault if it doesn’t work. Unfortunately, as Mahiruha knows, nobody falls for that one. So I just have to find something useful to talk about. This is, of course, a good opportunity to talk about any number of world issues, from global warming to kids who eat too much junk food. But no, that’s too depressing. This is supposed to be humorous. How about politics? No, too depressing. Celebrities? No, too… depressing. Giraffes? Actually, I find giraffes EXTREMELY funny, but as nobody agrees with me, I won’t mention them.
Quickly, I rush to the newspaper, to see what those humour columnists seem to write about. The silliness of politicians, mainly. And celebrities. (Very few of them write about giraffes. I could only count four or five columns about giraffes, which is a shame, because they were all hilarious.) Otherwise, their favourite subject seems to be the silly behaviour of their children. Yes, kids are truly amusing. In fact, I’m seeing so many columns about funny children that I wonder if these people actually KNOW anybody else. Is having kids a prerequisite of a newspaper job? All I can say is that, if they’re making so much money out of discussing their children, they’d better leave a generous inheritance.
I don’t have any kids, which leaves with me nothing to write about – and if a writer is not inspired by anything, his work might be readable, but it won’t exactly be Shakespeare.
A pity, because I get a lot of emails from aspiring writers saying, “Noivedya, how can I be the new Shakespeare?” (Actually, nobody’s ever asked me that, but they really should.) Well, I’m glad you asked (even though you didn’t). As far as I can tell, there are five things that Shakespeare did to achieve his greatness:
1. Invent a bunch of new words.
Remember when your mother scolded you for saying nonsense words? You can point out to her that Shakespeare himself invented countless words, from “academe” to “zany” (and he even invented “countless”). This must have really confused people in Elizabethan England, but probably made them think he was really smart. So if you want to impress people, you can say “Greetings, I’d like to zamzibunk my pastiforene indackle, but corun with immungunous and extra mayonnaise.” Before long, you will be mingling in the highest literary circles.
2. Don’t tell anyone who you are.
At last count, most people in Elizabethan England (from the Queen down) have been credited as the “true” author of Shakespeare’s plays. From what I can tell, the logic of scholars is that very little is known about Shakespeare, so he was probably too dumb to write his own plays. In fact, Shakespeare was so dumb that some people reckon that it was actually Christopher Marlowe who wrote most of the plays – even though Marlowe was dead. One thing for sure: Shakespeare is a far more enigmatic celebrity than, say, Nicole Kidman. There was NO magazine coverage of his wedding, and nobody even knows who designed his clothes.
3. Steal all of your stories.
Or most of them, at least. Shakespeare stole almost all of his plots from other people’s books. Of course, if Shakespeare was really Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe or Queen Elizabeth or Lawrence of Arabia this situation becomes even more obtuse.
4. Don’t give too many stage directions.
No, keep them to a minimum. Let the actors work all that out for themselves. Stage directions are for losers!
5. Spend all your time at the pub.
Have you ever been to Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town? It’s a nice little hamlet, not too far from London. Its main attraction (apart from the authentic postcards) is the large number of old-style pubs with signs saying “Shakespeare drank here.” I’m not sure which one was his favourite place, but apparently he went to all of them – so no wonder the Queen, Christopher Marlowe and all those other people had to write his plays for him. Shakespeare himself was too busy quaffing ale and singing boisterous folk songs with his drinking buddies.
Obviously, you probably need to do a few other things before you can truly be Shakespeare. For a start, you’ll need to legally change your name. But otherwise, all of this might be a good start. Hopefully, that has taught you how you can follow in the footsteps of the greatest writer in the English language (apart from Dr Seuss). I suggest that you now take quill to paper (or use a pen – they work just as well) and start writing your masterpiece, with plenty of invented words and a great storyline. And if you run out of ideas, hand the whole thing over to Christopher Marlowe.
Canberra - Australia
“Do I have to repeat the third grade again?” I asked the assistant principal.
“I’m afraid so,” she replied, “you still have yet to learn how to multiply.”
I bit my lower lip and ran my fingers through my beard, wondering what in the world I was going to do.
“You know,” I said, “I’ve been in the third grade for twenty-seven years. I just think it’s about time for me to do something else.”
The a.p. looked out the window at the late afternoon sun. The red-gold light almost made the fluorescent light in the room unnecessary.
She ran her fingers through her graying hair and said, “You’ve already earned your doctorate from the Sorbonne through correspondence courses, yes?”
“Right,” I said.
“And you’re in charge of auditing the township’s financial data?”
“Well, I can’t multiply, so I just add everything and use my calculator whenever I have to times something with something else.”
“Uh-huh, and you’re thinking of running for mayor?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I’ll have to hide the fact that I’m still a third-grader.”
“Mahiruha- why can’t you learn to multiply? That’s all I ask of you. It will shame the school if we let a child-”
”-an adult-“ I interrupted.
“Fine, whatever- an ADULT graduate who can’t multiply. Please, please make an effort this time.”
I smiled and promised I would.
“Then take a smiley-face,” she said, peeling a sticker off some paper and pasting it on my shirt.
“This is my first smiley face in almost thirty years!” I said, shocked and happy.
“You deserve it, Mahiruha. And even if you don’t pass this time, you’ll definitely get an A for effort.”
I was about to walk back to the classroom when the assistant principal called my name.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I stammered, “but I don’t want to miss milk and cookie hour.”
“Mahiruha, forget milk and cookie hour. I have a secret to tell you.”
She stood up and walked around to the front of the desk and whispered to me confidentially, “It took me fourteen years to pass sixth grade. I just couldn’t memorize the Gettysburg address until one day-“
“It clicked!” I yelled joyously.
“Yes, it clicked! And it’s always with me…”
Her eyes assumed this gooey far-away-look, and she recited with a great voice, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself!”
“Wow, that’s really impressive!” I said, amazed.
“If I can do it, Mahiruha- so can you!”
“Yes, I can! Definitely I can!”
I walked out of the office hugely inspired. I just wondered uneasily, somewhere in the back of my mind, how long it would take me to get through algebra.
Philadelphia - USA