For one month, he sat in solitude from sunrise to sunset, meditating on a rock in the holy river Ganges.
Radhanath Swami (born Richard Slavin to a Jewish family in South Chicago) had finally made it to Rishikesh after a life threatening overland journey to India. During this month he did nothing besides sit calmly next to Ganga, eat a carrot a day, and of walk back and forth to his cave for sleep. Many insights came to him as they flowed though the Ganga and into his eager heart.
While on the rock, he thought of his harmonica in the cave. It was the final possession that remained with him from the U.S. The harmonica stuck with him as his only travel companion, giving him a sense of entertainment and groundedness for the past year. He wore dirty, ragged robes, carrying nothing but his beloved instrument across Europe, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq into India.
One particular day, he brought the harmonica to the river and gave it a final embrace. He needed to part ways with this last piece of Richard Slavin.
He released his harmonica into the loving arms of Mother Ganga.
My heart sank. If I had grown such a sentimental attachment to the harmonica, I could only imagine how painful it was for him to let go. Since I didn’t understand his decision, I resorted to judgment and deemed it over the top. What’d the poor harmonica ever do to him, I thought.
Later in my process, the reason for his action became apparent. Sitting in a Mooji satsung (spiritual Q&A), glued to my pen and paper, my writing transformed into his harmonica. I felt compelled to write because it was a part of me. Like many things, even positive habits, we form addictions and strongly attach them to a sense of self. As I continue to come to terms with the fact that I am not a writer, a yogi, or a traveler, I recognize how often I cling to labels and the actions that they imply.
It’s said we can’t reach a direct recognition of the truth with material attachments. For a while, I was aware of this concept as it relates to the harmful ways we hold on to the impermanent. Investing in the realm of the changing, particularly involving objects, causes pain and suffering.
But what I didn’t grasp was the idea of the harmonica as a symbol of something more than material attachment. The strong tie we forge between ourselves and our stories manifest in attachments.
We pick up roles, identities and characteristics to create a person made up of a mind and a body. We build our person, collecting and dropping blocks along the way.
At a café in Rishikesh, I met an incredibly kind Israeli woman about the same age as my mother. We were discussing her past when she suddenly interrupted her own story to admit that she wasn’t telling me the truth. It was only her truth. She wanted freedom from this baggage of her particular worldview.
“I want to go to the river Ganga and just throw my entire story in the current,” she said. I told her that she could, we all can. Once we acknowledge that we are more than our stories, we’ll watch the ancient pieces of ourselves bubble up to the surface. Yet this time, we won’t be so greatly affected by them. We don’t have to associate with any identities or experiences.
Another good friend from Rishikesh lost her beloved husband to cancer after two years of a happy marriage, when they were just 29. As we spent time together, I noticed that she often chose not to tell her narrative when she was given the opportunity.
She later expressed to me that over the years she’s lost interest in telling her story. She’s not “over” her past in the traditional sense, but she has realized at her core that she is so much more than a story—than a person carrying around a wardrobe of experiences and playing roles. She’s grateful for her past because it has left her at the point where she can stop labeling it as tragic. She can move toward the point where she ceases to deeply associate with it.
I’m not advocating we denounce all possessions and abandon our dynamic lives to sit by the holy river Ganga wearing simple robes. I am suggesting that we all take the notion of attachment one step further. The attachments themselves aren’t much of a problem, as long as we are free from the relationships we form with them. When we identify with objects and experiences so strongly, we fall into the illusion that they are a fundamental part of our being.
What we really are has never been accumulated, it’s not an acquired self or developed habit. We are more than our stories.
The question then changes from Who we should be? to What remains when our story ends and before it began? Who was there before the experiences, concepts and identities that we let define us? What happens when we let go of every perception of who we are? What remains is eternal and spacious, a formless identity free from the limitation of time.
We are that which can never be released into the Ganga. It’s always with us but never limits or clutters. And sometimes, we need to let go of the sweet music of the harmonica, in order to hear the graceful emptiness of our own true nature.
Author: Shoshanna Delventhal
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Author’s Own