I learned a new word last night: Dharana. At least, I think that’s how you might phonetically spell it. Because I am a writer, I collect words, roll them around in my mouth like marbles, swallow them down. Dharana is a word that came up in a spiritual awakening program that I went to last night which drew on Eastern religious philosophy, primarily Hinduism. I never would have expected my cynical, skeptical self to be seated in front of a guruesque teacher-- lit up by candles and a halo of spotlights--speaking about bliss, inner divinity, and luminous self-transformation. Of course, my initial impulse was resistance. How could I yield to this woman before me, dressed all in white, seated cross-legged on an imposing red velvet armchair like some imperious pasha? What exactly could she say to me?
The last time I went on a spiritual retreat was in High School when I attended a Catholic Christian Awakening weekend—what I mostly remember about those three days, besides the fetishistic “Save Yourself and Your Soul! Save Sex for Marriage!" cheerleading, is the creepy button we were supposed to wear over our heart: a yellow smiley face surrounded by the words, “God Don’t Make Junk.” The cutesy lapse in grammar summed up the saccharine sweet approach to spiritual enlightenment and therapeutic self-examination. Besides, the only buttons I wore then were those advertising The Sex Pistols and The Clash (of course, I was a johnny-come-ten-years-too-lately to those bands, and a suburban Catholic school girl to boot, so my bad-ass punk self had more to do with hairspray bottles filled with vodka and the ladder of cuts and scars that traveled my forearms than any real safety-pin through the nose rebellion).
But last night, I made a leap of faith, along with two hundred other people, and listened to the guru.
“Shiva,” she said, “is the supreme god who is also the divine self that is in all of us. Shiva is the god of mercy and compassion, protecting us from pain and suffering. That divine self is bliss. And isn’t that what we long for? To be connected to the source of all that is light and joy?”
I looked down at my hands folded in my lap, at the white scars that crisscrossed my forearms. So much pain and self-loathing written permanently on my body. And the absolute unease I was feeling in my body, having just eaten dinner and wanting to purge (a simple salad which might as well have been a ten pound, ten layer lasagna). If I felt any spark of the divine within, wouldn’t that be enough to stop the self-mortification? To put it in earlier terms, wouldn’t I recognize that I wasn’t, in fact, “junk” but holy, indeed?
“Longing,” the guru said, “isn’t that what we long for? To feel self-compassion and self-love?”
Yes, I thought. Yes, yes, yes.
“The Kundalini Shakti,” she said, “is the natural energy of the self which is usually cloaked by the mind of thought and which is waiting to be awakened. God-consciousness, enlightenment, and self-realization are all part of the kundalini shakti. The awakening of the kundalini shakti brings pure joy, pure knowledge, and pure love.”
The mind of thought, the mind of thought, the mind of thought. The wheels turn and turn and turn but I go nowhere. That’s been my problem these days with all the destructive manic rumination. The thinking and over-thinking and chaotic thinking and recriminative thinking—it takes up so much space and energy that there is little room for joy and love. The manic thinking is vituperative, it festers, infects me with its debilitating disease. Dis-ease. There is no rest, no easing of ITs attack. For instance: there I was listening to this kind woman speak about bliss and love and how that could be mine, too and simultaneously, I was thinking about the parmesan-sprinkled potatoes that were part of my salad, the calories that were still sitting in my stomach, the toilet I could sidle off to, and the quick, satisfying purge—all gone, just empty now.
Listen, listen, listen I told myself. You may have something to learn here.
“Dharanas,” the guru explained, “are meditative techniques used to still the mind, which can be a nearly impossible thing to do, and yet, with practice it can be done, if only for a moment at a time. And when the mind is still, when thoughts recede to the background, you are at utter peace. You are in contact with the divine in you.”
Still the mind. I was having trouble just keeping my body still. But I tried to imagine what that might feel like, to have the thoughts go quiet, to exist in the pause between breaths, to feel complete well-being and to Be Well. I have been unwell for so long now that the dis-eased state is at ease, and the recent state of emergency feels like the natural progression. I Am Kerry Ergo I Am Crazy. But a meditative practice that can quiet the unquiet mind? That can shush the Bipolar/Eating Disorder wicky-wackies?
Then the guru gave a nod, and the harmonium and drums started up and the chanting began:
Om bolo bolo sab mila bolo bolo Om namah shivaya
I don’t remember what that meant, only that the chanting went on for a half hour. Two hundred voices calling out to Shiva, the god who protects and creates. A chant for healing. At first, I was too self-conscious to join in—the sound of my own voice is often grating to me. But as I listened, I felt swept up in the power of the collective voice. I started chanting the words, singing the words.
And do you know what happened? For a few moments here and there, my mind went still—IT was quiet, all judgments suspended, all destructive desires disappeared. Dare I say I felt peace? Of course, the moments passed and the mind ratcheted up again. But I had it and I can have it again.
*You can listen to a version of the chant at: