Peak of summer, Manhattan 1995….life is on the upswing: an admin gig at a top law firm, my own apartment in picturesque Brooklyn Heights with a scintillating nocturnal view of New York’s other three boroughs (Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island), and glimpses of the cool profile of the Lady of Liberty towering over the horizon.
A swirl of friends—artists, musicians, writers, poets, sculptors, photographers, and the occasional lawyer or stockbroker—add zest to the mix. And while the week is one crazy stretch, weekends allow me to dip my soul into yoga and meditation, an amazing novel, an off-Broadway show, or even an evening performance of Shakespeare in Central Park, after which a bunch of us would troop over to a penthouse on the upper west side to party beneath a canopy of stars.
And yet, if life is so wonderful, why does angst continue to gnaw at my insides like a vicious bandicoot? Despite the glamorous facade of my life, the bitter truth is that I am alone and adrift in a thrumming city that never sleeps, learning the hard way that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
How to get off this spinning wheel? I’d walked away from my marriage with zilch, and am now paying big chunks to the IRS, Social Security, Medicare and a co-op mortgage, which renders the prospect of escape bleak. I see other slaves of New York growing cynical—but I, like a female Icarus, yearn to fly free, even if I burn my gossamer wings daring to approach the blazing sun of liberation.
One Saturday morning I stroll down to Atlantic Avenue to shop at my favorite Moroccan grocery store. I step right into a scene from a souk in the Arabian Nights: wooden vats of black and green olives, tubs overflowing with varieties of grains, oils, herbs, and links of merguez (spicy lamb sausage) dangling from the eaves. Mehmet hands me a cup of mint tea flavored with orange blossom honey and a slice of baklava that melts deliciously in my mouth. As I bask in this old-world warmth, my worries dissolve into joy.
Backpack laden with goodies, I walk out and spot Angelica slouching along the avenue in faded Levis and paint-splattered sweatshirt. An artist who lived precariously in a Williamsburg loft with a heroin-addicted sculptor, I know Angelica is on a perennial hunt for a savior. Once, stoned out of her head, she’d blurted out that on her fifth birthday, her dad had stormed out of the house following a fight with her drunken mother, whereupon her mother had picked up a baseball bat and swung it at Angelica, shattering several tiny ribs; this was one of the many violent episodes that had broken her faith in humanity. “Hey Mira,” Angelica yelled, her face lighting up as she saw me. “I’m going to check out this brilliant lama tonight down in the Village. Wanna come?
Absolute & Relative Reality
Angelica and I rode the subway into downtown Manhattan and then walked to a packed hall near 8th street in the simmering east village. She was right—her lama was magnetic. In hindsight, it is easy to see how his unique methods of teaching gave my own life meaning and forever changed its course. Years flashed by as I studied with him, absorbing every nugget he dropped. I saw his ego grow monstrous as his flock swelled, but I stayed on, convinced that his teachings were authentic, culled directly as they were from the ancient scriptures. In fact I was so enraptured by his efforts to spread the dharma among the lost tribes of Manhattan that I offered to transcribe his teachings on Mahamudra—a word that has many connotations in the Buddhist world, but which he introduced to us as an ancient teaching on the nature of samsara, or relative reality.
Eastern philosophy teaches that there are Two Truths—Absolute and Relative. The Absolute is the true nature of all beings without exception, and is often characterized as having three qualities—existence, awareness and bliss, which are really the same thing—just as mango ice-cream is simultaneously cold, sweet and tastes of mango. Only the Relative (samsara) varies from being to being. But before we can merge with the Absolute, we must first make sense of our relative lives, and this is where Mahamudra enters the picture, for it breaks mundane reality into easily digestible blocks. When one accepts that all things are subject to these flavors (flavors, not steps or stages, since none is higher or lower), relative life finally begins to make sense, and one is free to move forward with clarity and confidence.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva the Destroyer in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to help us strip away the unreal from the real, so we can rest in the peace and bliss of our immortal Self!