Friday, October 07, 2011

Sufi Director

Recovering from Ambition

Occasionally you come across a stranger at the right place and time and wonder if they were sent for you. Their life experience speaks to something you desperately need to hear at the moment, and yet they may be totally unaware of the role they are playing in catalyzing your life.

I went to a Sufi whirling class at the Osho ashram (ahem "Meditation Resort") in Pune, India, while traveling for Big Yellow. Osho, formerly "Rajneesh", who has now "left the body" as they say, was a pretty infamous guy. Once called the "most dangerous man since Jesus Christ" (I'm sure he took some pleasure with that calling), he was a prolific lecturer, a mischievous personality, an eclectic mystic. While he continues to be popular abroad with soul seekers from Japan, Buenos Aires, Marin County, CA, to Kรถln, Germany, his India presence has always been controversial. His ginormous collection of Rolls Royce's seems to conflict with Eastern views on materialism, but puts him solidly in the company of India's other wealthy godmen. His open discussion of sex no doubt disturbed the recent Victorian conservatism that might seem at odds with what you know about the Kama Sutra. So my attendance there was not something to talk about openly amongst the Indians in the office, and not something my host talked about in mixed company either. But it was an extremely fruitful visit, in many ways. For example, Osho's concept of the witness informed my thinking and meditation, and is reminiscent of my earlier post on freedom and enlightenment.

Osho's eclectic nature allowed him to borrow from lots of
spiritual traditions, amongst them the Sufi Order of Whirling Dervishes, formed by the famous (God is love) poet Rumi. Osho describes Rumi's initial inspiration as having seen kids who, despite admonitions from their parents, continue to love to spin in one place. Assuming they had something beautiful they wanted to express but couldn't, Rumi himself spun for 36 hours nonstop. Thoroughly whirled, he announced he had discovered God in the "unmoving center of my own being."

The teacher of my whirling class had the long white beard and cap characteristic of dervishes, and was outfitted in the black color characteristic of the various teachers at the Osho ashram. He also had an American accent, which was jarring for the part of me that pretends not to be American when I travel abroad, not at peace with the loudness and relative disregard for cultural norms we occasionally exhibit (probably all other cultures do this to some extent, but I have a sore spot). He was an older man, maybe in his early 70s, but quite agile, as you could easily see when he was demonstrating whirling technique for us, arms raised up to demonstrate rapture for God and invite divine energy.

After class, in the outdoor commons, he joined my table for lunch. He asked me where I was from. "America." "I know that from your accent, but where in America?" I told him I was from California, and that I worked in technology. At which point, he said, "I used to live in California. In fact, I used to be a Director of IT for PG&E in my late forties." He placed emphasis on the word "Director", leaning in, with some pride, a sense of accomplishment of his diligent career. Noone really paid much attention at the table but me.

What he didn't know was, at that exact moment, I was in obsessed pursuit. A few years ago, I started my job at Big Yellow without many ambitions. I was just going to learn a little and move on. But this was oddly the cause of my early success. I didn't care, so I spoke up when I felt something was wrong. And then they promoted me. And all of a sudden, I had something to lose. And worse yet, something to gain. If I could just focus a little bit longer, push a little bit harder, play a little politics, measure what I was saying, I could get to the next level -- Director. And THEN it would be worth it. Conscious of losing my integrity, I nonetheless rationalized the effort, the posturing, stress and even the neck pain would be worth it. For some reason, I also knew that I would soon see the emptiness of the entire effort. I was sure somehow that by the time I reached the finish line, I would realize I was in the wrong race.

"And then I was diagnosed with cancer, the terminal kind. The doctor said I had less than 6 months to live, and there was no point in any treatment. He told me to put together my affairs." But how could this be? The guy sitting in front of me was a super-healthy 70-year-old that danced every day. "So I quit my job, sold my house, wrote my will, and moved to Hawaii. I rented a little beach shack and decided to live out the end of my days walking the beach all day." But, if he was 70, that must have been 20+ years ago, right? I was confused. "I had a very simple, meditative life, walking for miles and miles on the beach each day, sometimes talking with the locals, contemplating the meaning of life, and trying to understand my own impending death."

"I met an interesting guy who was really into fruit. He claimed that you could be cured of anything, even cancer, if you just ate a simple diet of fruit every day. So that's exactly what I did. I didn't really think there was any hope, to be honest, but I did it anyway just for fun. He was interesting, so I joined him often on my walks, conversing about life, health, humanity. Six months later, I was still alive. But still, I lived each day as if it was my last, thinking that the timeframe the doctor gave me couldn't be too far off. Six months after that, I was still alive. I was really confused. The doctor had given me an unquestionable death sentence, and he was one of the best in his field. Why was I still alive? In any case, I ended up going to a local oncologist, and telling him about my earlier diagnosis. He gave me several tests, and they found absolutely no trace of cancer. It was as if the cancer had never even existed in my body. A clean bill of health!

"Unattached to my former career, unmoored from my earlier values, I had been given a new life. So I traveled the world and studied in various ashrams in Europe, with Sufis in the Middle East, and then, lo and behold, I found a home here. I've been with Osho for the better part of 20 years now. I'm lucky to be alive, and I wouldn't take my old life back for anything."

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