Writing memoir requires us to stand in the fire of truth. This means holding ourselves accountable to seeing what’s true about our lives. Part of my process as a book coach is to point clients to ways they can write with a more open heart. Writing well about our life requires us to open our hearts. When one’s heart is open, we see what’s true and we see the inherent beauty of life. We can write from a place of wonder and generosity instead of from blame and shame.
Here’s an amazing thing about the human heart: you don’t need a field guide to learn how to open it. If you let it, life will open your heart for you. If, at first it doesn’t happen, rest assured that life will give you a second chance.
A few years ago, I came down with pneumonia and I was bed-bound. It was a dark time. Breathing was hard. I was heartbroken after another breakup and living alone in Boulder, Colorado. At 50, I was no longer a spring chicken. Thanks to antibiotics, I wasn’t in danger of dying, but I sure felt like I might. Merely walking down the hall from bed to kitchen left me gasping. Taking a walk up the street was out of the question. The six-week illness was one of the loneliest times of my life—and looking back, it changed me in an important way.
During one of the darkest nights when I felt panicked and alone, I set Spotify to the music of Krishna Das, America’s leading purveyor of Indian devotional music. His deep baritone sends vibrations deep into my chest cavity. His chanting in Sanskrit allows me to connect with a place inisde me that isn’t part of the physical world. This place, if you can call it that, feels immense, sacred. When I go there, I don’t feel anxious. I feel safe.
One night, as I lay in bed, listening to “Sri Argula Stotram (I Wanna Know What Love Is),” I began to reminisce about a reporting trip to India a decade earlier. After I’d finished my work in Bangalore, I’d flown to Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, a place so holy that devout Hindus go there to die. I wanted to see this place. I wanted to feel the sacredness for myself.
On my first morning, I’d descended the great stairs to the Ganges and hired a boatman to take me upriver to the burning ghats, where bodies are brought for cremation. I stood on a high platform, shrouded in smoke. I silently watched the body of a young Indian woman being brought into the fire area and lain on the intense, open-air blaze. Too young to die, I remember thinking, as her silky black hair was consumed by fire.
As I lay in my bed with pneumonia, memories of Varanasi grew more vivid. I remembered how confused I’d felt watching the woman’s body burn. Though I’d always known myself to be very empathic, almost to a fault, I couldn’t muster a single feeling of sadness during the cremation. I tried again to connect with a feeling that might be considered appropriate for the circumstances. Nothing. And then I figured out why. The pills I’d been taking for recurrent depression were blocking my feelings. I was completely numbed out. I’m not talking about a few pills. In those days, under doctor’s orders, I took twelve different medications, a total of 22 pills per day. How this happened, I’m not sure, except that every time I visited the doctor, he added more pills to my regimen, and never took any pills away. Eventually, the medications became a bigger problem than depression. Their side effects blunted my spirit and stole my intellect. I couldn’t speak without slurring. I couldn’t walk without stumbling. Worse, I couldn’t feel my own heart. You would think I could have noticed this before India. I guess I was sort of aware of the toll the pills were taking. But it took this heightened moment of witnessing the cremation on the banks of the Ganges to really see how compromised I was. It was years ago now, but it remains a difficult, confusing time to even consider. As I write this, I am filled with grief and anger. Anger at the doctor who prescribed this chemical cocktail. Anger at myself for taking them. Grief at the seven lost years that I’ll never get back.
Halfway into the Krishna Das song, the Sanskrit chanting ends and he croons in English: “I wanna know what love is./I want you to show me.” That’s right! The sacred chant turns into the cheesy 1970s rock ballad by Foreigner. The sacred and the profane become one.
I knew all about how Krishna Das became a kirtan singer. In 1970, Krishna Das’ name was Jeffrey Kagel. He was the lead singer in a successful rock band when he met and became enthralled with Ram Dass, née Richard Alpert, a former Harvard psychology professor who’d been fired along with his partner, Timothy Leary, for introducing students to LSD and doing psychology experiments that strongly resembled parties. Ram Dass had spent months at an ashram in the Himalayan foothills of northern India, at the foot of Neem Karoli Baba, a yogi and guru who taught that nothing else mattered but love. This guru changed Jeffrey Kagel’s life and rechristened him Krishna Das. The key to happiness was not fixing yourself, the guru taught, it was simply learning to be love. Soon Krishna Das was living in India, walking around in a maroon one-piece dress living as an ascetic holy man. I was fascinated by these stories. Being love. Is that possible?
Love had long been a mystery to me, as it is to most people I know. Growing up, I’d observed my parents’ struggles with love. I left my childhood home confused. No, baffled is a better word. As I listened to Krishna Das sing on that dark night of the soul, I realized that love has been my lifelong obsession. I don’t give my parents all the credit—I’ve had plenty of my own struggles related to love, including two marriages and two divorces. Since then, I’ve been on hundreds of dates. I’ve had many relationships, and a few one-night stands. I left them all confused. What was love? Suddenly, I understood why Krishna Das tacked the Foreigner song to the end of his chant about love. “I wanna know what love is. I want you to show me.” Love is a mystery to most of us. I didn’t realize then, but Krishna Das was exposing me to Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, chanting, and love. His love guru was actually coming through my phone. Today, Krishna Das claims, “My guru taught me everything I know about real love. Guru loved me from the inside. When you’re exposed to that, it’s transforming. We’re used to affection being handed out when we’re good little boys and girls. When we smile and laugh and do the right things. But this is very different from that.”
In other words, real love is self-love. Period.
People believe in much stranger things. Seriously.
This week, Jody, my girlfriend of nine months, and I, will travel to India for a yoga retreat at a remote hill station near the Nepal border. Of course, we will spend some time sightseeing and practicing yoga postures, but the retreat’s focus will be learning about the Bhakti path. Jody and I plan to spend some time at Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram. Americans are doubtful, even fearful, of spiritual gurus; examples of gurus taking advantage of people are everywhere. But many of the men and women who spent time with Neem Karoli Baba say he was legit. They were changed in his presence. His other famous disciples include Lama Surya Das, a New York-born teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Daniel Goleman (mindfulness expert and author of Emotional Intelligence), Larry Brilliant (epidemiologist, tech CEO, philanthropist, author), Rameshwar Das (author). After the guru’s death, many other leading American businessmen caught the Maharaji bug, including Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom went on pilgrimages to Maharaji’s Kainchi ashram. This small man had a big impact on American spiritual and business culture. These students came home and became important thought leaders in business and spirituality. With 40 million Americans practicing asana (yoga poses) at home and in studios, the impact is clear.
“For virtually all of these people, being with Maharaji was the single most important thing that happened in their lives,” meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg has said. “I don’t know too many in that community who look back and say, ‘nah, it was nice enough but I was young and foolish.’ It remains totally essential to the core of their being. It’s quite remarkable.”
In India, I will be in foreign territory in more ways than one. The Bhakti notion of love isn’t a transactional love that takes place between people, it is about getting in touch with the love that exists within us. We remember that we are love. In more modern terms, Bhakti yoga is about learning how to love oneself. A lot is written about that topic, and what’s written can feel glib and meaningless. Life coaches carrying on about how they love themselves and how you can too. Since I’m somebody who seeks truth, in any form I sniff it out in, I want to know what love is. Could Bhakti yoga teach me anything about love? I can’t wait to find out.