By Beth Gerber and Dan Hinckley
Providence, RI. This was the second of Guru Maharaj Ji's programs on his Summer Tour. The Providence Civic Center accommodated the largest of the tour's attendance, an estimated 3,000 people, yet the evening became progressively more intimate, and accomplished its purpose: to allow people to sit, listen and make a personal connection with Guru Maharaj Ji
Dan Hinckley, arriving from Montreal, Canada the evening before the program, collaborated with Beth Gerber, a long time resident of Providence, to write this article; and the narrative is intermixed with somepersonal reflections written by Beth (in italics) in an attempt to convey not only the events, but the effect of her encounter.
I set about, with Dan, to write an article about - well about what people were learning about practicing Knowledge before and during Guru Maharaj Ji's program in Providence. What changes, if any, were occurring?
The fascinating thing was that aboutthe only changes that were real for me were the changes in my own consciousness. Including the changes I was going through in the process of trying to write this article …
Preparing for the program, the watchword in the Providence community
became 'stay conscious.' I say the Providence community because, by the time the program rolled around, 110 people out of a 120 member community were on the floor of the Providence Civic Center doing their part to host Guru Maharaj Ji's visit to their city. "We took it in stride," said Tammy Halpern, who, along with Gil Hanson (both from the Providence community), designed the stage. "In other festivals I've been involved in, the service community has been transplanted to the site and the feeling was much different. Most of us here worked at our jobs right up until the last few days, and the preparation felt very comfortable; and there wasn't that big emotional and psychological buildup that there has been in the past."
Maharaj Ji kept talking about the simplicity of Knowledge, and everything about my experience of the program emphasized that - the stage, for instance: nothing extra, ostentatious, fussy. There was a feeling of paring down to the bare essentials. And when You do that it's easier to see where You're at. And where You're not. And then the only thing left to do is accept it.
The stage. It looks like the living room in a gracious modern home. Live palms. An Aztec rug hung on bamboo screens. Maharaj Ji sitting in a chrome-frame office chair, his suit and tie blend perfectly with the quietly chic rust and black decor. It's a familiar, relaxing scene. No elaborate flower arrangements, no cosmic altar-like- pictures to try and warm up to. Is it the reflection of a new understanding that already exists, or a step in its creation? Probably both.
Said Tammy: "For me, designing the stage was a joy. I felt comfortable enough to design in what I thought was the best taste: and rather than try to imagine something 'kingly,' this is the kind of decor I would have chosen for my own home."
There's a lot to be done, and people are doing it. Tammy and Gil flit back and forth from the mainstage; the setting for Maharaj Ji takes shape in quick, sure movements. Program coordinator Ted Tannenbaum's dilemma: half an hour before the program is due to start, and people are still eating supper. The vibe stays mellow, low key, but there is a special drama being played here for those who are hip to it. People under pressure, doing a job, performing, but trying to stay conscious of something deeper at the same time. It's the usual moment-to-moment test, but it's being made visible - almost heroic - and very beautiful.
I have to accept. This was the most powerful thing of the night for me. Because I saw myself really clearly. And the question was: can I accept myself? Maharaj Ji's not telling me to be anything other than what I am. But can I live with that?
"Okay, when the first speaker comes on, tandem spots; house lights up … House lights up?"
"No, no. House lights down. The house lights will be going up for Maharaj Ji when the first speaker comes on we want it black so all the attention gets focused …"
Jeff Bloom has been rumored to have a headphone implant. There's hardly a time when you don't see Jeff wearing a headset, relaying messages, giving theperformers waiting in the Green Room a two-minute warning before they appear on stage. Jeff Bloom is the stage manager and program director of tonight's program. A veteran of many previous events, things are still new.
"I've done these actions so many times before; but still, you can do them unconsciously or you can do them consciously - and there's a qualitative difference between the two. A program is always a pressure-cooker situation, and if you don't really make an effort to stay conscious, then you get totally fried, burnt out.
"Staying conscious, you're trying to discover why you're here; and what it means that you're doing service in this particular situation. On one level, the deadline, the night of the program is thegoal, but there are so many other levels. I'm always experiencing deeper levels of why I'm here: to be opened up; to have obstacles put in front of me that I first have to get past old doubts and fears to overcome: and learning to work with other people.
"And when Guru Maharaj Ji walks up on the stage, all the hundred intricate why's dissolve; as soon as you have that experience of seeing Guru Maharaj Ji, it's perfectly obvious why you're here."
Cliff Bowden, bemusedly known in Providence as one of the community's "founding fathers," has returned to Providence, a guest speaker. "Tonight is July third," he says. "We could have all gone to a fireworks display. But we came here. And to some extent it could still be like a fireworks display it could
be one program; it's nice, we see Guru Maharaj Ji, we walk out and say, 'Wasn't that nice to see Guru Maharaj Ji,' and we go home.
"But this is not what this program is all about to me. To me, seeing Guru Maharaj Ji tonight takes place in a context; and the seed of the experience I'm having this evening was already in me. My experience tonight will only be a reflection of everything I have put into life up to this point."
The mingling and reunioning. Lou asks us to turn to the person sitting behind us and share what the program means to us. Surprisingly, communication is both easy and deep.
An attempt is made to schedule Guru Maharaj Ji's arrival so that he will come on stage during a song by the Los Angeles based band, Wire & Wood. The song comes, the audience claps along, and the song is over. In the momentary chaos that always follows a good set, there appears suddenly a hand batting at the curtain from backstage, and Guru Maharaj Ji walks on. And waits for the audience's standing ovations to subside. "Dear premies," he begins. "We are all gathered here to listen to satsang. And goes on from there to wrap a timeless and universal message in a totally new feeling.
From the different accounts, Guru Maharaj Ji has been saying much the same thing throughout this tour: in Europe, in England, in Gainesville. It is a superbly positive message. "Everything," he said, was going just perfectly.
When Guru Maharaj Ji gave satsang he set off a kind of instinctive, unavoidable soul searching. Everything he was saying was gelling something, and at the same time dislodging a lot of junk that had been coexisting in some queasy state along with the reality of my experience. And it was a jolting, disquieting thing.
Mrs. Tannenbaum, mother of Ted, the program coordinator: "The program is really different. I've been coming since Louis Armstrong Stadium in 1973: that was all tinsel and huge. Then there was Amherst, and that was better, but there was still that whole crystal bubble around him, and the way he spoke was much more directed at the public. Here - well, you know, I've never been this close to Guru Maharaj Ji before - I felt he was really talking to the premies, and in very descriptive, direct terms. Such nuances! You know, Guru Maharaj Ji is such a genius, and when he learns something, he really learns."
Three times, Guru Maharaj Ji would make a point and the audience would interrupt him, applauding.
"For me Maharaj Ji's satsang was tailor-made," said Connie Best from New York. "It was a ratification of all the changes I've been going through. An affirmation. You can convince yourself, intellectually, that all the monumental upheavals in your life are for the good. But to have Maharaj Ji sit there and be so positive, be so affirmative … I feel like I've been reconnected with my good buddy Guru Maharaj Ji."
For some, Maharaj Ji's character changes dramatically during Arti, and at times during the song he seemed to put on an almost chillingly stern mask. The song goes very poorly: the music is played, but there is no one at a microphone to lead, and the audience soon becomes a cacophony of discordant, mumbled and oft-beat voices. Said one man: "I was sitting fairly near the stage, trying hard to reach back and remember the words, but making a futile attempt without someone to cue me at the beginning of each verse. I felt Maharaj Ji's gaze fell on me a couple of times. Finally I gave up, looked Maharaj Ji straight in the eye, and said with my heart, 'Look Maharaj Ji, I don't know the words, I don't sing the song any more; okay?' "
And the message of the program for me was you're a big girl now. Maharaj Ji has stopped holding my hand. Or I've finally hit a point in awareness where I can see that he never was holding my hand. That In my life is my own, my decisions are my own and this Knowledge is for me to experience and enjoy - or ignore. But this whole "father image," and the accompanying anxious feeling that I had to be behaving according to certain set standards, took a good beating.
A change of pace: the receiving line is slow and unhurried. A few directions are given to the audience on how to file through. The feeling of being "herded" into a ritualized formality is replaced with something a little more intimate and personal. There is time not only to experience, but also a pocket of space to reflect and experiment with our relationship as we pass before Guru Maharaj Ji.
Dennis Corbett came running out of the darshan area, slapping his knee, then leaning his head back, laughing and revealing an ear to ear smile: "He looked at me! You don't understand, Guru Maharaj Ji looked at me. I was going through the line saying Oh Maharaj Ji, please look at me - I mean you convince yourself that you're doing alright, but then you see Maharaj Ji -- he looked me right in the eye! Saying: Yes, Dennis, I still love you, it's alright …"
It made seeing him, hearing him this time around completely new. There was an equality there. I simply felt myself listening to him as someone who has everything to say about Knowledge. The most precious experience ofmy life -for me, he's the authority on it.
My experience boiled down to that. I don't know if it's the last word, or just one of the words in the middle of a very long sentence - or book. The trick is to keep reading, and not get caught up with what the word was way back on page 2 or why all the words keep changing. Because we all keep changing.
"I was glad I got the chance to approach Guru Maharaj Ji that slowly," said Judith Dack from Montreal. "When I first started to get near the area, I thought, 'Oh hell, Maharaj Ji, it's been two years since I've seen you, and I've been through so many changes, and I don't know how to … but I rounded the corner and felt this tremendous feeling of love and respect - just tremendous. And passing by, I very naturally, out of this tremendously deep feeling of respect, touched my forehead to Maharaj Ji's pillow."
And maybe, if nothing else, I've learned the truth of Maharaj Ji's role and relationship to me at this point in my life: that he has that ability to put me in touch - by being in his presence and listening to his words, as well as through the process of following his advice - with the deepest reaches of myself.