T.A.O. & Yogananda©

25 April 2010

Jessica Maxwell


Four months ago, on a cold and Celtic night, two friends and I decided to call it for the country: We have officially entered the Era of American Spirituality.

We weren’t prescient. Every poll in the last five years has shown that 80% of Americans consider themselves “spiritual, not religious.” And last December, the Los Angeles Times reported a new study showing that we create our own personal spiritual practices drawing from Eastern, Middle Eastern, Western, and Native American traditions. The new American Spirituality is what my Aussie-Thai chef pal, David Thompson, calls “a happy squash.” This global goulash is, in fact, a melting-potluck of sacred expressions that gives the power back to the people whose ancestors created them in the first place. What could be more RAH?

Buddhist chanting, Hindu meditation, Native American sage smudging, old-fashioned praying to Jesus. You name it, someone’s doing it.”

So reads the introduction to Roll Around Heaven, and this holy happy squash really is the book’s leitmotif, the eternal refrain to its theme-song of peace. Wise western churches honor this emerging multi-cultural spirituality with adult education classes in Buddhism, or by inviting Palestinian imams to preach. But my friends and I wanted something else, too. Something more intimate. Something more ours. On the spot we created a new spiritual book-and-study club. Joan, a professional energy healer, named it “Tomes and Oms,” which we noted spells “T.A.O.” Next we invited four of our most spiritually committed women friends to join us and each emailed back:  “Yes!” calling the T.A.O. a “prayer answered.” Katherine, a Farm and Forest Specialist, asked if her sister Lisa, a jeweler, could join, too. But of course!

We met at Tom’s and my home for a “planning tea.” There was such agreement on our vision that you’d have thought we’d done this before. (Maybe so?) We all wanted to study one spiritual tradition at a time and we decided to meet every three months to allow time for reflective reading. Meetings would include appropriately thematic potluck dinners and we’d meet on Sunday afternoons and stay as long as it took. We would create a T.A.O. altar to honor our spiritual tradition du jour and we’d all bring altar offerings. We’d select a favorite passage from each book to share and arrive with possible opening and closing prayers…and with one burning question apiece.

Waiting three months for our first official T.A.O. meeting was torture. But we’d chosen Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi as our debut book and you could study the good yogi’s life for decades and still not fully grasp the depth of its teachings. So we were all set. By 4 pm on Sunday, April 18, the tea table was set with my best antique china and Victorian silver tea service (described in Chapter 26 of RAH) along with swoon-inducing bouquets of white and French purple lilac from our garden and lots of beeswax candles, all laid out on a tablecloth dotted with tiny birds-of-paradise embroidered by Indian orphans, a treasure I’d bought at the shop that supports the orphanage while I was on the Mumbai trip that produced the India chapters.  Tom’s splendid fire was ablaze in the fireplace when everyone arrived, and an altar fit for a Hindu temple waited on the other side of the room, decorated with flowers, fruit, Indian lotus incense “guaranteed not to give headache” and unlit colored votives for members to light. Gazing out on the scene with bemused calm was the serene visage of Yogananda on the cover of my well-loved copy of Autobiography of a Yogi that stood at the altar’s center on cake stand.

I think he likes being on a cake stand,” Joan noted. T.A.O. members arrived laden with baskets of offerings. Soon the scent of homemade coconut curry filled the air and Yogananda was surrounded by marigolds, a crystal, sweet pea seeds, and a sprig of fresh nettle. “Doesn’t that sting?” we asked, alarmed. Carrie, an artist, waved us off. “Oh, I love nettles. I love that they grow after winter when no other food grows. They’re a recognition of the shift of the seasons, the turning of the wheel—all that. I love that they’re a wild food I’ve gathered myself…and I just love the taste of them.”

We gathered around the fire with flutes of sparkling lemonade. “French,” I apologized, but no one cared. Katherine opened the discussion: “I loved the book, but I have trouble with things just manifesting.” Understandable from a well-grounded naturalist. “Well, you saw a castle in the sky,” challenged her sister. “That’s true,” Katherine conceded. “So did you.” “I did,” Lisa agreed. They were, we learned, little girls walking with their mother when Katherine, and then Lisa, looked up and saw an actual castle (“Well, more like a big manor house.”) rising out of the clouds, just as my own sister had seen our father’s face in the sky after I had, as reported in RAH. “Well,” I offered, “and you know Yogananda’s chapter about the saint who manifested perfume? I’ve done that.” Stunned looks. Then grins. “Let’s try it!” We closed our eyes and imagined the fragrance of flowers on our hands. I sniffed my palms. At first there was nothing…then, there it was. “Smell this!” I said excitedly. A light rose-jasmine scent was noted by all. Thus was Katherine’s manifestation issue officially closed.

We moved to the table for supper and an opening prayer by Joan, read from Yogananda’s Where There is Light. “Man has come on earth solely to learn to know God; he is here for no other reason.” A perfect T.A.O. affirmation…with a slight pronoun adjustment. JoAnne, owner of our local indie bookstore, manifested little red squares of Flying Wish Paper which we inscribed with wishes, rolled tightly, then lit on fire…and shrieked when they took off for the ceiling like smoking rockets. Our sub-continental feast was anchored by Katherine’s fabulous curry and Lisa’s dilled yogurt raita and perfect homemade apricot chutney, flanked by Carrie’s super-fresh cilantro-crowned cucumber-tomato-avocado salad, and lentil dishes from Joan and Nancy, a social worker who works with abused children. Sylvia, a leadership trainer and businesswoman, had brought hummus-like chatpata chana, babaganooshesque Baingan ka Bharta, and a package of tasty chickpea chips called Papadi whose logo was a genie’s lamp emblazoned with one word: “Deep.”

Two hours later we returned to the fire to continue our deep discussion over Indian wedding chai and my Guilt-Free Chocolate Cake with “Ganesh Ganache” and cardamom frosting. It was then that Sylvia shook us with a single question: “How do you know that what you’re praying for is God’s will?” Lisa added that she didn’t think God even listened to small personal prayers. Our many emails from RAH readers proves that the question of how to pray plagues nearly everyone. Like the Holy Pig Farmer, Yogananda tells us that we are all “holy children of God,” and should pray as though we’re addressing “a holy parent.” Do not, both of them admonish us, “pray like beggars.”

Joan reminded us that Yogananda once prayed from early morning to noon to hear the voice of god. He prayed and prayed, willing “to even die praying” until he thought his “brain would split.” His prayers were answered when Babaji, “the yogi-Christ of modern India,” knocked at his door with the divine message Yogananda needed. I added that I, myself, used the Brain-Split Method of Prayer when our former house wouldn’t sell. “I’ve only done that twice,” I said, “once to heal the paralyzed squirrel in RAH, and the other to sell that house because the stress was doing Tom in. We had two full-price offers in five days….after two years—two years!—of nothing.”

So what was it, we wanted to know, that made these prayers work? “Intention,” said Sylvia. “Power,” said Joan. “Asking on the behalf of others,” Lisa offered. “And only for things that are truly needed,” added Katherine. “Pure will,” said JoAnne.  “And devotion,” Nancy and Carrie said almost in unison. “Yes!” I said. “And with absolute surrender and absolute insistence…because you are a holy child of God and there is nothing left to do but to pray.”

By ignoble whips of pain,” Yogananda explains, “man is driven at last into the Infinite Presence, whose beauty alone should lure him.”

And that, we agreed, is the real reason for human hardship, and also the reason we had decided to create our little circle of spiritual friends devoted to celebrating the Mystery together, for the joy of it.

- Oink! –