A friend of mine has been asking about my faith, and I’m having a hard time talking to her about it. She is on a journey, as I think we all are. I relate so deeply with the quest to find a faith that fits you (even though I sort of ended up back where I started….and in very many ways not at all where I started.)
When my friend first reached out to me early last week, I really didn’t know what to say. It’s vast. There are all the tenants of the faith, there are the different factions of followers, there are the politics, there is the business side, etc. I think that we like to pretend that things like politics and business don’t have any effect on the way that a religion is practiced, but my experience is that it has everything to do with it, organized religion anyway.
My experiences of all these aspects are just tiny little flecks of the whole and I’ve had to hold up each shred of information that I have to the light. Over the years, so much of what was Dogma in my childhood has fallen away for me. Only a few of the practices remain for me. I’m sure most Sikhs would consider me a terrible Sikh…and yet, it’s not up to them.
Oh my goodness, I don’t even know where to begin. When I was a very small child, we lived in Houston, Texas. We lived on the same street as all of the other 3HO Sikhs in Houston. This was by design. 3HO was slowly buying up the properties on that block.
Every day my Mama and Papa got up early (4 am) to go to Sadhana. Sadhana is the practice of waking early, practicing yoga and meditation in the early hours before the sun comes up. Depending on who you practice with, it’s also the time of day that you complete the first prayer of the day, Japji Sahib. Children often slept on the floor during Sadhana, and one of my favorite parts was listening to the adults reciting Japji Sahib. The men would sing a line and then the women would sing a line in response.
Some of my first memories are of listening to my mother read her prayers (called banis) each day and laying in her lap. There is a certain smell to the prayer book (called a Nitnem) and when I think about her reading them I can almost smell the almost sweet and somewhat musty smell of the Nitnem. My Mama is one of the most disciplined people that I know, and her practice was unfaltering. I remember seeing if I could dissuade her from reading her banis so that we could play something together. Or sometimes I would listen to the sweet melody that she would sing as she read.
When I entered middle school, Mama had decided to homeschool me. One of the things that I wanted to learn was to read the gurmukhi script, like her. I learned the sounds of all the letters, but my reading was very slow and it took me over an hour to read any of the banis.
Later, during the single year that I was in boarding school in India, students were given a choice. We could either choose to rise at 5:30 AM and attend Sadhana, or we could choose to wake at 2:00 AM and go to the Golden Temple to perform service (seva). I didn’t enjoy being told what to do by adults (go figure…that’s age 15 for you), and Sadhana consisted of an hour of an adult leading a very strict yoga class. I didn’t enjoy the process of being half asleep and trying not to nod off while being barked orders at.
So I chose the earlier wake up and the service. The Golden Temple is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a three story temple plated with gold. It sits in the middle of the Harimandir Sahib (the nectar tank). The nectar tank is a body of water that is said to have great healing properties, and the tank is surrounded by a walkway that is made of marble. Sikhs remove their shoes before setting foot on the walkway, and every day at 3 AM and 3 PM, a team of volunteers washes, scrubs, and dries the walkway. This was the volunteer job that we had signed up for.
If my memory serves me correctly, the process takes about an hour. Afterwards, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted until the bus left at 6 AM. At first I would go along with what some of my friends were doing which was looking for a quiet place to curl up for a nap before heading back to school (there are lots of quiet nooks that are good for this). However, as time went on I wasn’t satisfied with that. Instead I started bringing my nitnem and reading Japji Sahib each morning in a specific corner in the second floor of the Golden Temple. Sometimes a friend would come and lay her head in my lap as I read, and sometimes I did it alone.
Sikh prayers are made up of poetry written by spiritual masters. Even reading the words in a foreign language, the vibration of the syllables affected me. I concentrated on the pronunciation, and the sounds, and allowed myself to be only here. Only in this moment.
I had learned from my father and another teacher how to still my mind, and some of the basics of meditation. When I tried practicing on my own, or in my dorm room I felt so alone. So incapable of cleaning my mind of the flitting and fleeting of stress and thoughts, etc. Only when I practiced reading Japji could I possibly hope to become aware of the stillness that was always present within me, but that is drowned out almost all of the time.
Most religious practices feel hard and rigid to me…at least that’s my attitude toward them, but this. This felt like a well kept secret. It took no discipline at all. I needed this. Towards the end of the school year, the school offered an opportunity to visit another holy place. It was a set of 88 stairs leading underground with the bottom 5 submerged in a holy tank of water. It’s said that if you recite Japji Sahib on every one of those 88 steps and take a dunk in the pool of water after each step, that it will liberate you and seven generations of your family before you and seven generations after you. We had 2 days to complete the task. We were allowed to spend as much or as little time at the shrine as we wanted.
It’s strange that this was a huge draw to me since I don’t and didn’t believe in that sort of “liberation”. Reading in the tank was cold. And I was still slow at Japji Sahib. It took me approximately 40 minutes to do each reading for the first 5 steps. I kept thinking that if I could just finish with the wet steps, that I would be a lot warmer. This was not the case. Every time I completed a step I had to go submerge in the water again. I was not finding my inner peace in this exercise. In fact, I just felt competitive, cold and grumpy. The many pilgrims that had ventured to the shrine had tracked a lot of sand onto the stairs, and this made the venturing up and down the marble stairs in cold wet feet very painful. When I stopped to take a break, I noticed that other around me were speed reading, and not necessarily reading or reciting every word.
At about step 22, I realized that I was only a quarter of the way done with my task, but half of our allotted 2 days was gone. I started speed reading too. Then I started speed reading faster and faster. I was now getting nothing out of these readings. I didn’t finish the 88 stairs. I think I was about 12 from the end when it was time to call it quits. I lost some of the joy that I took in reading Japji Sahib.
I felt like that exercise was quite a failure for some time. But it was just a step in my journey (no pun intended). I don’t read Japji or the other banis on a regular basis. I’ve now learned to access that inner peace without them. I feel now that most religious practices are tools to help on your path. However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy to hear the sound of the banis being read, or sang, and every now and then I do sit down with my Nitnem and I enjoy every second….no speed reading.
So, if I could offer one piece of advice for anyone seeking the next step on their path, allow yourself to go slow. What you are experiencing now is all part of your journey…and your path doesn’t look like anyone else’s.