A Vital Part of Life

The house that I grew up in was one of books and ideas. My mother was a dedicated and masterful elementary school teacher in Toledo Public for 29 years. My father poured his lifeblood into a used sci-fi and comic book store. Education, study and reading for pleasure weren’t even emphasized in my family – they were simply assumed. We all read and reflected. The house, for all its treasures, certainly became cramped. Stacks of books tumbled into whatever narrow walkways may have been previously carved out. Like most American teens, my hometown felt a bit narrow as well. The boundless expanse of open road was calling.

But the blessings of my formative years weren’t limited to my house or hometown. My mother’s twin sister Cari married an Indian man, my uncle Madhu. There weren’t so many Indians in the US, certainly in the Midwest, in the 60’s and 70’s. Madhu was one of the initial generation of computer whizzes and tech visionaries. He continues to delight in amazement at the newest advances. However his Hindu cultural and religious background were never a novelty, they were simply accepted as a vital part of life.

Papadum, Nan and Curry

The Indian wing of the family would oft come to visit and I was fortunate to be coddled and doted on by Indian aunties and chachas. Papadum, nan and curry wafted through my childhood as well. But the Indian spice that was most alluring to my senses was hidden in the pages of Amar Chitra Ratha comics. My aunt would go to India every two years and bring back something she knew that I really loved: comic books. The format of Indian comics appears the same as the American smash-em-ups. One or more colorful heroes tries to right the world of injustice through a series of panels, often involving a climactic battle. But the actual content of the Indian comics is far different. Here the Hindu pantheon is on full, glorious display. Many characters and deities have vast numbers of arms, heads and lifetimes. My juvenile mind was cast adrift into the vast abyss of Hindu cosmology. Before my eyes danced Hanuman, Shiva, Rama, Sita, Kali, Durga, Vyasa, Ravana, even Gandhi and Nehru made appearances. I struggled to follow the overarching plot and slowly became familiar with the icons and the themes. Mostly I was gleefully mystified. How can this god be slain in issue 81 and then reappear in issue 82 without any seeming explanation? Which god originated first? What are the origins, natures and limitations of their powers? How did this guy become supernatural simply through meditation? How does reincarnation work? I genuinely believed that if I could find the right comic book I would find the answers… because I honestly believed that there were answers to these questions.

My First Teacher

Then at the ripe age of 14 ½, another real blessing occurred. My first teacher appeared.

Jenny Barthold is a truly gifted mind and educator. She is, without any doubt, the best teacher whom I have ever met. One of the characteristics of sublime teachers is that they believe in their students. Jenny believes that adolescents might have the most direct path to truth. Teenagers don’t candy-coat their words. They detest patiently playing along with someone else’s trip instead of just speaking the truth. As head of the high school’s Humanities department, Jenny was on a tireless mission to get us to speak our minds. My freshman year Summer reading list was simple: Catcher in the Rye and On the Road. By the time Winter rolled around Jenny offered a one month, all-day immersion titled Yoga and Zen. I was in but I had no idea what I was in for.

We came in each early morning and sat in meditative awareness. Then we practiced some slow and mindful asana for an extended period of time. We explored relaxation and breath then broke for lunch. Our afternoons were spent discussing the literature of Eastern classics and attempting formal, traditional rituals, including tea ceremony. And of course, we again found ourselves sitting. We may have sat more than any other teens not glued to a television. It was difficult but I felt the results come swiftly. I somehow had been gifted an basket of mindful and informed practices, which I could call upon anytime, anywhere. None of us had even heard of anything like a yoga studio. It was January of 1989.

I kept practicing during my tumultuous teens and twenties. Sometimes I would practice less, sometimes more. But regardless of the amount, the practices had changed the quality of my life. Having tasted states beyond mundane dualistic materialism, my young consciousness had been imbued with the ideals of transcendence.