The One Thing That Is Important

Christopher Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980.

I’ve been imagining coming up with a class in which we’d explore Chris Isherwood, Ram Dass, and especially  The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna… but I can’t think of anyone I know who’d be interested, well, except maybe Yulia.  

I’ve found more provocations this second time around from Isherwood’s testimony to Swami Prabhavananda …

She was someone you could rely on absolutely.  [That’s Joanie in eight words!] 

By meditating in our temple, I had discovered in myself a strong devotional inclination which I had been suppressing throughout most of my adult life.  [I’d resisted bhakti for a long time, but it seems I have softened in the last decade; darshan and kirtan help, as does meditation on Sri Anandamayi Ma’s teachings.]

Swami’s attitude was like that of a coach who tells his athletes that they must give up smoking, alcohol, and certain kinds of food, not because these are inherently evil, but because they may prevent the athlete from getting something he wants much more—an Olympic medal, for instance.  [Like the experience of intermittent fasting.]

Everything else, including your scruples about your conduct, is vanity, in the last analysis. Never mind what other people think of you. Never mind what you think of yourself. Stop trying to tidy up your life. Stop making vows–you’ll only break them. No more tears.   [One of my favorite books in the Bible is Koheleth: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”]

But he must know perfectly well what my humility really is—the other half of my vanity. It is so cozy and relaxing to play at being the lowest of the low, within his circle—which one tends to make me feel all the more sophisticated and superior in my attitude toward uninitiated outsiders, especially when they are literary intellectuals.  [This reminds me of La Rochefoucauld: “L’intérêt parle toutes sortes de langues, et joue toutes sortes de personnages, même celui de désintéressé.”]

[The activist] is unwilling to face the truth that his activity is chiefly symbolic; its material consequences of the people he is trying to help can’t possibly be foreseen and may sometimes be disastrous.  [Merton’s letter to Forest: “You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell you the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes.”]

Meanwhile, nothing prevents me from doing the one thing that’s important—make japam [Repeat the mantram when noticing feeling agitated, seeing it’s three minutes before class starts, taking a walk down Chouteau Avenue, reading Matt Taibbi’s Substack, starting the car, washing dishes after dinner, appreciating a lull in a conversation, putting a stamp on an envelope, and a couple score of other possibilities!]

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