Vishnu • 1 April 2011

Adishesha & Sleeping Vishnu

O’Hare in early morning and a travel voucher kombucha. Pat-down from a giant, apologizing woman covered in metal officer’s badges. Before that, seven hours’ sleep and hotel room practice on the top floor of a silent Holiday Inn. And before that, a Chicago meltdown when, 38 hours sleepless and all mind function replaced by fantasies of what it’s like to go to bed in Ann Arbor, I got marooned on an airport median, freezing, in the dark.

The international terminal was locked up for the night, abandoned. Out on the median, just me and a family of 15 first-time visitors from Saudi Arabia. Huddled masses waiting for a hotel shuttle that never arrived. Even those covered in burkhas were shivering. How unacceptable: that this airport, built for people-processing, could be so much less efficient than making your way out of Mysore with a wink to Shiva the fixer, flowers for the landlords you’ll see next year, and a handy plastic cup of chai anytime your driver feels like drifting to the side of the road.

For an hour, the first three floors of Maslow’s hierarchy got pulled out from under me. Exhausted and thirsty with no place to rest but the curb. No dollars or place to throw them. The only breaks in the dissatisfaction were thoughts of how much more calm a Civil War soldier would have been about the cold, and what a spoiled brat I’d be if this were Falluja. War zone Schaudenfreude… this is, apparently, how I hit rock bottom.

But staying dissatisfied would be too big a project after clean sheets, kombucha and primary series. Mollification trifecta. So there’s rhythm again in the return trip that never ends. These recent journeys to Michigan, there’s always an Owen Pallet interlude: his Heartland is an ode with an edge, and for now I’m playing “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” on repeat until boarding. In an hour we’ll make for Detroit; then I’ll sit around a few more hours while The Editor teaches his Latin American Politics course and then drives an hour and then, maybe, finds me at the airport. If that really does happen, I will probably be meditating on what’s so funny about “baggage claim.” Possibly, if I figure out that happiness means not counting the hours or wanting this to end, I will forget about the destination and ask if we can swing by the ghetto Zen temple in Hamtramck for a raw kale salad.


There was some counting-the-days stuff around the margins of March. When Mysore got brutal-hot the second week, I started taking long morning rides after practice, just to simulate a breeze.

I’d go mazing through the rice paddies on the back of a Yamaha (my scooter’s suspension system being limited to my quadriceps and mula bandha), or cruise out alone to Srirangapathnam to watch Vishnu take a bath. Listening to Lee Perry or Group Inerane on an iPod, taking long-cuts through cow towns where kids and old men called out to me like neighbors. The whole landscape cooled by the River Cauvery, glimpsed through trees and surrounding the old island city of Srirangapathnam. And sliced open by the long, sharp bodies of blinding-white crooked-neck birds, whose low flights over the rice paddies are so beautiful that they jolt me awake over, and over, and over again.

The temple at Srirangapathnam is to Ranganathaswami, Vishnu the sustainer by another name. Ranganathaswami is close enough to Sharath and Saraswathi’s old surname that each visit reminded me of their sustaining vibe. This Vishnu, carved from a giant black stone, lies sleeping on the three coils of Adishesha—elsewhere known as kundalini (she who sleeps, coiled thrice, right there in the cave of your sacrum).

After Vishnu and the snake are bathed in milk, and visitors blessed with the leftover drops, we (me and 20 or 30 locals, usually) would walk clockwise around the 1000-year-old-grounds, and again around the circular temple, checking in with lesser gods en route back to the stone room at the center.

Around Mysore, Shiva has the bling—the big city temples and the best festivals—but as my environmental awareness opened up a bit this month I began to see Mr. Destroyer surrounded by the Vishnu vibe. In living rooms of Gokulam, pride of place goes to Balaji—Kali Yuga’s own personal Vishnu. And it’s Vishnu as Venkateshwara who old guys anywhere want to talk about when they talk about god.

For me, this three months was a time of staying steady. I don’t mean it was about getting comfortable on a plateau—which we all have to learn pretty early in practice. It was about getting comfortable at a level of practice that was less gratifying than usual.

Of all the times for my bliss body to go MIA and my mind dull, I’d never have expected it in the high season at KPJAYI. Little use in trying to explain why. That’s just the mind grasping for something to make sense of the crazy experience of having a body. But… maybe it’s worth noting that grief over my mothering grandmother, who died in early December, showed up strongly in my subtle body. And my “third brain” was occupied by a parasite for a good part of Jan-Feb, in a way that impacted my sitting practice dramatically. And, ironically, I spent weeks distracted by the transition from self-practice (which I spent years avoiding and fearing) back to a full room.

I’d taken all this to mean that my practice this time around was to welcome everyday mind and even the suffering that goes on when there is body pain—or when one gets hung up in the suffering of thinking during practice. Return-to-the-marketplace stuff. And it was interesting to understand what practice is like when there are more vrittis, less absorption. To explore, and slowly release, entitlement to daily peak experiences on the mat.

Sitting meditators know how easy it is to get attached to mental states, especially to the absorption states (jnanas) when they arise. Absorption is bliss! And without a teacher who has been there, often one just flatlines there and never moves on. It was Shinzen who showed me the way out of that. Funny to be given the option to learn this again in ashtanga… this time instructed by my body, who showed me where I’d gotten clingy.

Funny: as things got very uncomfortable in Mach, fatigue and acceptance took the whole raft of us deeper in to the state ashtangis call surrender. We had less energy to waste, less fascination by the outer environment, and more groove than our tired bodies quite realized. Sustained by samskaras of the best kind, the energy of that room, and a pair of Vishnus. For me, bliss came back, equipped with a slightly better sense of humor.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow, the last of that lot—the crazy ones who stuck it out for March—go in to their transit-trances. Long trips back to Turkey, Argentina, Scotland, Sweden, Japan, China, Denmark, Mexico, Spain and Canada, to rejoin little groups who have been practicing together all winter. This weekend, there will be reunions all over the world. Sustenance from all directions.