One day several years ago, I found myself sitting in the courtyard of my guru’s ashram in a small North Indian village, taking the sun, drinking chai, and watching a family of monkeys dance around a few bags of rice, trying to grab some tasty morsels for their breakfast. Bells were ringing in the distance and the sweet smell of marigolds and incense were mingling with the pungent aromas of spicy Indian food as the chill mist of morning slowly dissolved into the afternoon warmth. I found myself smiling at the futile efforts of the ashram manager shaking his stick at the persistent family of monkeys. That Basmati rice just looked too delicious!
This beautiful temple to the monkey god Hanuman has always evoked a deep emotion in me as it’s the place where I first met my guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and the course of my life was radically changed. Whenever I visited here I would find myself in tears, sometimes crying at the love I felt, but more often crying out of loneliness and longing, emotions that had been my companions since childhood. Somehow, the memories of my guru’s vast and loving presence always seemed to open the floodgates of pain in my heart, releasing deeply hidden feelings in a rushing torrent of prayer. But on this day, listening to the old women endlessly chanting “Hare Krishna”, I was drifting in a cloud of contentment.
Sitting next to me was my chai partner, a very old and perpetually smiling devotee known simply as ‘Papa’, who had been with Maharajji (as devotees call Baba) since the 1940’s. Papa’s leathery, toothless face always seemed to shine, even with his declining health, and his eyes held the gleam of one fixed on the divine, one who frequently received visions and visitations from his long deceased guru. Suddenly Papa turned towards me, his face uncharacteristically severe, and told me in his tremulous voice to go into what used to be Maharajji’s bedroom and sing eleven “Hanuman Chaleesas”. This popular chant is a 40 verse prayer to the monkey god, Hanuman, “The Remover of Suffering”, and was one that Maharajji always loved to hear.
I, as usual, was feeling lazy and so I was a bit reluctant to move into that cold room and force myself to sing for an hour. After all, I was already in a pretty good mood. Why spoil it with what seemed like effortful ‘sadhana’? Like many of us, I often resist doing the things that I know bring healing and peace to my being. But Papa pushed me, declaring, “It’s the very least we can do! He who has given us everything-what can we give back to him? Just our songs and our gratitude.” There were tears in Papa’s eyes as spoke, so to please my old friend, I quickly grabbed my harmonium and went into Maharajji’s room to sing.
When I entered the room I felt a change come over me. Perhaps it was the elaborate display of flowers on what used to be Maharajji’s bed; or the softly flickering oil lamps; or the wafting incense; or the huge photo of Baba gazing deep into my soul. But as I was singing, my voice bouncing off the whitewashed clay walls, I began to imagine the beloved of my heart lying there, simply enjoying…. I had been in the habit of doing my ‘spiritual practices’ for myself, my own salvation, my ‘enlightenment’, sometimes even my sanity. But now I found myself singing as an offering of thanks, as an expression of the deepest gratitude for a love and grace given totally without condition. Singing just to bring joy to the one who is, for me, the source of all joy. And my heart began to open in a way it had never opened before.
Papa gave me something that afternoon which is still growing inside of me.These days I make a point of saying “thank you” to God and to my guru every day, not just the fun and easy days, but every single day. Thank you for my life, my breath, my love, my challenges, my suffering, my happiness. When I can remember to offer my songs, my work, my heart, as a gift, without expecting or demanding anything in return, I can rest for just a moment in the sweet ocean of peace. And it seems there’s always more to be thankful for….