Posted by: MC | February 18, 2013

Awareness is Tattooed and Riding a Harley

Arunachala sunrise 2-18-2013

In a week of exceptions — a meteorite crashing through an otherwise ordinary Russian sky, a Pope resigning for the first time in 600 years – an unlikely story of a racist street fighter turned modest-but-powerful spiritual teacher beloved by people of all walks of life seems right in line.

For context, I’ll tell you about this picture.  This is the sunrise earlier this month over a mountain in southern India.  Surrounding Mt. Arunachala is the bustling city of Thiruvannamalai.  The city is considered smallish by Indian standards – only 150 thousand or so people.  It is also considered a sacred place.  That status is due to the presence of Mt. Arunachala, recognized as a holy place by sadus and sages who have taken retreat there for untold generations.  In the last century, this status has only elevated based on the presence of one particular sage, a man named Ramana Maharshi who lived on or at the base of the mountain from the late 1800s until his death in 1950.

Maharshi was and is a powerfully holy man.  He made his way to the mountain in his late teens following an unbidden experience of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual question, “Who dies?”  This seemed an odd question for a soccer-playing, somewhat slacker Hindu kid to be asking, but there it came on the floor of his uncle’s home.  He lay his body down sensing his death was eminent and found the answer, “no one.”

Ramana had seen pictures of Mt Arunachala in books and always felt a pull to the mountain, but it was when he had this experience that he … well, he stole his brother’s college tuition money, took the train to Thiruvannamalai , walked up the mountain he now considered his teacher, entered  a cave and proceeded to sit for 17 years – in silence.

Ramana was, and for many is, a profound spiritual teacher.  The few words he said in his life have opened the awareness of millions.  His question again and again, “who are you really?”

Just over a half a century later, in the Federal Corrections Institution in Sheridan, Oregon a group of inmates requested opportunities to meditate and to inquire into this question.  “Who am I, really?”  For four years in the late 90’s and early 2000’s I went four times each year to sit with these men.  Yesterday I spent all day with the man who, as an inmate, had initiated this practice and study.  My dear friend Cody had just arrived back from two months on Arunachala.

From Cody I hear stories of his past — when he was in and out of prison and in the news for almost 20 years “for being a thug,” he said. “I hurt people who hurt people.  Played the crime game.” Cody was raised poor and white in California.  He was brutally mistreated by his caregivers in ways that are unnecessary to catalog here except to say he grew up deeply distrustful and with a fury explosive enough to blunt the aching and persistent expectation that he would always and only be rejected.  There’s no excusing the things Cody did and he has paid dearly with state and federal prison time and the consequences inevitable in a life that may never exclude these facts.

Yesterday, Cody spoke again about his last time in prison. He had realized he was in a monastery if he wanted to make it that and proceeded to devote that decade-plus to serious and pretty much ceaseless investigation of Self, the source of being.  He’s never stopped.

My friend, Cody has tattoos – lots of them.  He rides a Harley when he can afford gasoline.  Being an ex-offender, finding jobs has been hard in the ten years he’s been out.   Limited income has also made for stints of homelessness, but Cody has never stopped his spiritual investigation.

A longer-than-usual construction job in the late fall made possible Cody’s saving enough for a flight to India where, for two months he walked in the footsteps of Ramana Maharshi.  “Something about India,” he said. “It forces you to come up against every belief you have about life – the good and bad, fair and unfair.  And if you’re there with nothing, you still have more than lots of the people who live there all the time.  Still those people are so kind.  There just wasn’t the tension there is here.  All those people and garbage and cows and everyone still makes eye contact and says hello. “

We sat at a Starbucks in Walnut Creek, California.  Quite the re-entry spot for Cody.  It was a brilliantly sunny and warm February day.  I went in for a restroom break, and when I came out Cody was chatting with an East Indian couple.  “That’s because you were in holy places,” they were saying. “There’s plenty of competition and tension in the big cities.” India, like the Bay Area, like any bustling economically centered covey of humanity, falls into the trance of being busy to get, to have, to control, to avoid.

Here’s the thing.  I sat yesterday in my pretty privileged life as writer, scholar, teacher with a man who most people in this country would look at and avoid.  And he – a Harley riding ex-offender covered with tattoos sat with me.  As we sat he spoke of a love essential to every passing moment, to every being as every being.  But he really didn’t have to describe it.  His presence radiated it.

Each roadway of a life may only be traveled by one person.  Each is more complex in the pain survived and the riches it holds than can be seen from superficial assessment.   With luck each roadway’s unique contours — the forest paths, the boulders, the deserts, the storms of ice or fire – at some point, with luck, these obstructions stop us – they open, even splay us to the point of recognition that there really is only stardust here – only love that makes any sense.

This is what Ramana Maharshi taught.  It’s what Cody teaches.  And In a week of meteorites, in another week when more children and other innocents have lost their lives in ongoing war in Afghanistan, Syria, in too many more places on earth, I am grateful to and for my friend, Cody.  “Sometimes when people scowl,” he said, “I just smile and say, ‘Yep.  This is what awareness looks like.  I’m just you looking back at yourself.”

This tattooed, Harley riding ex-offender is a man worth listening to – an anchor in the capricious weather of forgetting who we are and what is real.

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