Tuesday, February 19, 2008

New York At Last

I find prayer distasteful.

Right out of the blocks, the person praying is in a position of weakness. The only thing I could ever pray for was conscious oneness with the Divine. That's pretty much how I started and ended my daily meditations. Other than that, I couldn't ask for anything.

I wanted to go to New York for the August (1982) Celebrations so badly, however, that I almost held my nose, got down on my knees and begged. Almost.

I wanted to go to New York so badly; I just wasn't going to be denied. Falling entirely within the last weeks of my summer vacation from school, dad couldn't deny me my first chance to attend Celebrations. So, he consented to me joining Charlie and Prakash in a cross-country trip in the Saab.

On the appointed day, Prakash and Charlie picked me up at my dad's house and we were off, driving north through Oakland to link up with Interstate 80, which eventually took us east. What a long drive! My pre-conceived idea about the size of the country ended in eastern Nevada.

We drove pretty much straight through, stopping only a few times at KOA campgrounds to shower up. We all seemed to get along fine and the car was a dream. Prakash was reluctant to let Charlie and me drive, but he couldn't do it all himself. He repeatedly chastised us about our poor shifting technique, and constantly implored us to keep the speed down. But once he dropped away to sleep in the back seat, we'd open her up.

At about 90 m.p.h., however, the Saab's turbo would kick in with a subtle whine. Prakash was tuned into that turbo-whine like a terrier to a dog whistle. When he heard it, he'd wake from the deepest sleep to peer at the speedometer needle, which by then would be quickly dropping back below 90.

We got to New York in three days. Our first stop: Guru Health Foods and its owner Ashrita Furman. Among his many other responsibilities, Ashrita was in charge of organizing the housing for the hundreds of visiting disciples who would converge twice a year on Jamaica, New York for Celebrations. Ashrita told us that once Celebrations started (we had arrived two days early), there would be no rooms available locally for new disciples like me and Charlie. Instead, we would be checked into a hotel about an hour away on Long Island. For the next two days, though, he'd find us rooms we could crash in. The hotel thing didn't sound good to me and I thought there must be some way to secure a room locally, but I knew nobody. And besides, I couldn't be too bummed: I was in New York!

I eventually got directions to a house just around the corner, where a local New York disciple agreed to let me sleep on his floor for two days. He was a tall, dour faced man who would later play an important part in my development. His name was Sahishnu, which means "patience."

Celebrations were a whirlwind. Aside from the very last day, my memory of that first New York visit comes in just broad brush strokes: the oppressive heat and crowded conditions, the cicadas, the disciples from all over the world, and the frustration I felt at arriving at functions late and having to leave early in order to take a chartered bus with the other hotel-bound disciples.

As far as I remember, the schedule for celebrations was pretty much the same each day. First, hours spent each morning at Guru's private clay-surfaced tennis court watching him play, followed by prasad. Then a luke-warm lunch cooked by rotating crews of visiting disciples served at Goose Pond Park. After that, we headed over to "Progress-Promise," the large meditation hall for the New York area disciples, where the various visiting centers would put on skits, sing devotional songs and put on other wholesome entertainment (followed by more prasad).

The evenings would usually end with more of the same at the auditorium of the local grade school (P.S. 86). There were also some significant departures from this routine, including a parade held throughout the local neighborhoods; the 47-mile race, an ultra-marathon held in and around Jamaica High School; Sports Day, an Olympic-like track and field competition for the disciples; and Guru's birthday on August 27, an ultra-marathon length function usually held at an auditorium on Long Island somewhere.

It was both exhausting and exhilarating. And on our last day in New York, Guru spoke to me. We were at Progress-Promise, the meditation hall. As usual, it was packed and I was standing in line, slowly inching up towards the stage where Guru was sitting in a throne-like chair, silently meditating as the disciples filed by to grab the blessed treats set out in front of him. As I approached with a well of gratitude in my heart, out of the blue, Guru said, "What is your name?"

I didn't understand at first and there were so many people there that it didn't occur to me that Guru was speaking to me anyway. So, he repeated himself, this time making reference to my old center: "Hey you, from Santa Cruz, what is your name?"

I was dumbfounded. "Joe," I said.

"Joe? Joe, very good. How old are you?"

"I'm 17, Guru," I stammered.

"Seventeen? Very good. Where's your friend," he asked.

Where was Charlie? I turned around, scanning the crowd in a bit of a panic, but couldn't see him. I don't remember if I called out to him or if some other alert disciple did, but Charlie waved from the very back of the auditorium. Guru then said, "You are a very good boy. I'm very proud of you."

As Guru walked off the stage and towards the back of the meditation hall to leave, he spotted Charlie and stopped and said a few words to him, too, which I couldn't catch. Later that day, Prakash, Charlie and I loaded back into the Saab and began our journey home.

I remember nothing of the trip back.

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