June 19, 2014

What’s in a Name? Birthday Reflections on a Pilgrimage to India.

Home AgainAs I sit in my backyard in Portland, Oregon, I realize the most overwhelming experience of being here is the quiet.

Still more striking is the remembrance that I used to think there was too much noise here. I revel in hearing the songs of the birds, the breeze in the Douglas firs around me, and the scrambling squirrels.

As I recalibrate my hearing, I hear a passing car, a plane flying overhead, someone running a power tool in the distance. Even so, the quiet, the serenity and the sense of space seem almost surreal after my time in India.photo-7

In this moment, all of this feels like the foundation for my recognition of just how incredibly fortunate I am. By American standards, I am perhaps middle-class. But by the standards of the nation from which I just emerged, I am unimaginably wealthy and privileged.Evening at the Ganga

And with this recognition comes the question of how it is I might serve— how might I use my unbelievable good fortune to help others in need?

How might I drink from this unfathomable ocean of love I experienced in India to make a real and lasting difference in the lives of those I met, those I saw whose unmet needs defy description …those I pray that I might help?


Sitting here now, contemplating all of this, I believe that at least a small part of the answer lies in the name I have just been given—a name that feels as if it crystallizes all the myriad blessings I received at the Neem Karoli Baba ashram (Kainchi Dham) in the magical Himalayan foothills.

Siddhi Ma

Siddhi Ma

At the close of my second darshan with the great saint Siddhi Ma at Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram, she asked my name, then looked straight into my eyes—peeling through every layer of who it was I thought myself to be —and, gazing simultaneously into the simplest essence of my heart and the complex realm of my highest aspirations, gave me the name “Vishnu Das.”

Tears welled up almost immediately, as did the sense that these tears were watering the very ground of my being to prepare me for the growth needed to even begin to realize this name.

From that moment, it became clear to me that my focus in this life is understanding exactly how I might best embody the name I have been given. Indeed, this is my greatest blessing and my most daunting task.

What is the best and most powerful way in which I might serve God?

A very important part of the answer —as I’ve been able to understand it thus far—is beautifully elucidated  in the closing  of the Hanuman chalisa: मंगल मूरति मारुत नन्दन सकल अमंगल मूल निकंदन

mangala murati maruta nandana
sakala amangala mula nikandana

… one beautiful translation of which is

“Son of the Wind, embodiment of blessing and joy /You destroy the root of all that is inauspicious.”

In particular, beyond the translation given here, I see and feel the truth that, when we focus ourselves of the spirit of true and selfless service—the Heart of Hanuman—those inauspicious, selfish, and “out of alignment” thoughts, feelings and impulses lose their power over us.

At least, this is what I hope is what is going on in my heart since being in Siddhi Ma’s presence at Kainchi Dham, which remains an unbelievable hub of Neem Karoli Baba’sMaharajji Smile loving energy over forty years after he left his body.

This philosophical emphasis on service so central to Neem Karoli Baba’s teachings—a simple yet unmistakable call to “loving kindness in action”—feels like the beginning of an understanding, an understanding I have been seeking for decades.

I have been passionately looking for linkages between the great religious and wisdom traditions of the world for as long as I can remember, and in this focus I find a bridge that holds the potential for linking—in my optimistic mind, maybe even reconciling—an incredible range of otherwise often divergent spiritual/religious/philosophical viewpoints.

As the great meditation teacher and scholar Paul Muller-Ortega put it, “One of the greatest blessings we can experience in this life is understanding exactly how we can serve.”

I invite you—whatever you consider your path to be—to use this a a focal point of contemplation as you pass through any significant milestone in your life. On the advent of yet another birthday, and moving yet one step closer to leaving this body, I find that the focus on “What can I give?” instead of “What can I get?”  brings greater clarity to one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” ~ Steve Jobs

Looking at what I would want for my epitaph is one of the most potent ways I have ever found to strip away the inessential and go right to the heart of what I hope to have given in this all-too-short time I have been granted to make a difference. It feels clearer than ever that asking myself what kind of positive impact my presence may have as I go through each day is the best response I have to the admonition offered by many great teachers—the directive to never allow a day to pass in which we do not contemplate our own death.

And this is not morbid thinking—quite the contrary. This contemplation invites me to give of myself and my life at the highest level I can, to truly, as I now understand it, live my life to its fullest.

So now, as I look at starting yet another journey around the sun, the echoes grow ever stronger: What is the best and most powerful way in which I might offer my service?

This question is both immediate—closer to me even than my very next breath—and utterly timeless. My prayer is simply this: How might I focus my words, my energy, my thoughts, my deeds, and in particular my musical offerings to fully inhabit the blessing of this name?

Even as this prayer unfolds in my mind and heart, I am reassured by the realization that this question emerges from my highest aspirations and it is from the highest realms that the answer too will arise. And from the heart of my heart —from what has been so beautifully called the breath of the heart—I offer the passionate hope that each and every one of us might come to understand exactly how we might best serve in this world.



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Editor: Renée Picard

Photos; author’s own


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