Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Difficulty with Words
Sometimes words get mixed up. That happened often when Swami Rama spoke to us in the 1970s, the early days of his Western teachings. After each talk, he’d ask Justin and me how he did. “Any mistakes?” he’d gently query.
One day Gurudev saw a bright T-shirt that a student just purchased. He liked the color of the cloth and the glowing sparkle of the letters spread across the front, so it was given to him at his request. When he later walked down the corridor, I was busy at work on his next book and the newsletter, both of which were due to be sent to press the next morning. Peeking into the door of my office and not wishing to disturb my work, he quietly went to his suite, had his secretary make his tea, and had another student bring the shirt, wrapped in pink tissue paper, down to my office.
“Swami Rama sent this gift to you. He said it reminded him of you,” I was told by the special-delivery student. I stopped my typesetting, slid open the pretty wrappings, and found a T-shirt with the glaring phosphorescent word “BITCH” printed in 4-inch letters across the front. I was devastated!
My mind screamed, “Is that what he thinks of me? I am working night and day for that man and his mission and this is my reward? How can he do this to me? Does he not appreciate me or my work? Does he think I am a terrible person? How can he possibly call me such a name? Why did he say it reminded him of me? Why? Why? Why?”
And then, of course, the mind shifted gears and began thinking, “Maybe I am a terrible person. Maybe this is his way of telling me easily. Perhaps I should just leave the Institute. Maybe I’m hurting his work. I must not be treating this saint in the right way and the universe is punishing me!”
On and on and on. In anger and growing grief, I threw the shirt into the garbage and stomped into my room for a cry. After venting my rage and letting my sadness fall in tears, I dug the shirt out of the trash, deciding to keep it as a reminder of my emotions. I never thanked Swamiji for the present; I never mentioned it. Nor did he. I just worked harder.
Five years later we flew to India together. Swami Rama invited a group of American students to travel to the Himalayas with him. After packing Gurudev’s bags and getting him ready for travel, I pulled my clothes out of the closet, sending the hateful T-shirt falling to the floor from the high shelf where it had hidden for a long time. Ah! An idea suddenly hit me. Being absolutely sure of my teacher’s great love and concern now, I no longer needed adulation from him, nor could I be so easily shocked as before. Spiritual growth was war with any inflated ego, and war was a treat for a triple Aries, the Greek God of War!
The shirt stayed in my suitcase during the wonderful pilgrimage to the high mountains and the holy shrines. Finally the day I was waiting for arrived. Swamiji called for a group photo to be taken on the banks of the Ganges at our ashram in Rishikesh. The photo was to be given to each group member as a memento of the trip. I ran to my room, unpacked the emotion-rich T-shirt, pulled it on, and strutted up to Swamiji, smiling broadly.
Across his face swam love, then curiosity, sudden remembrance, then laughter, then strong embarrassment. His face turned red and I knew that he understood the meaning of the word emblazoned across my chest.
“Tree,” he said quietly, “you can’t show that shirt in a picture! I’m sorry! It was a joke, a joke! Oh, please don’t show that shirt. It no longer fits you! Throw it away!”
So, I hid the shirt, standing behind my husband for the photo, just my face and arm sticking out a bit. After the shooting, Gurudev called me to his room, provided that I brought him the shirt. It was then that I learned his misuse of the word bitch. “I thought it was something like a witch with many powers. When you did not come to thank me for it, I thought you didn’t like it. Now I know what it means. That’s not you” he said sweetly.
Of course, with a master like Swami Rama, I could not be sure of this explanation either. But it had drawn out the God of War, the strength of personality, which is what, years before, he told me he wanted to see in me. And with a saint like Swami Rama, one could always find deep love, even in a single mis-understood word.
Don’t Come Down
Sometimes Swamiji would decide that I was not to come to see him each morning as usual. He would have someone else, usually a new ashramite, make his morning chai or breakfast.
The first time it happened I was devastated. The night before Gurudev had received some beautiful flowers delivered from the town flower shop. I opened them for him and put them in a vase, reading the little card to him. Swamiji started talking about flowers then. He told the story of himself plucking the blue lotus and being scolded by his Master. I told him that he himself was like a flower, like a lotus, with his feet very clearly in the mud of running an Institute and working with foolish American students while his head shone above the water of daily life into the light of the divine. “Yes,” he answered tongue in cheek, “and you are like the stubborn weeds that always wind around the lotus stems!” We had a good laugh over this before the topic moved on to the next piece of work and I was sent to make a phone call.
The next morning Samskriti came to tell me that I should not disturb Swamiji that day. Morning seemed very long and at lunchtime I worried about his meal until I saw Shari bringing a tray past my office door down the private corridor. In the late afternoon I missed him much, hoping that my phone would buzz with his voice. Nothing. I worked all evening, saw a few people run down the corridor towards Swamiji’s office, but no word to me, no reason to check, no need for my help. Of course my mind began to worry: “I must have done something wrong! Perhaps he no longer loves this poor student.”
The next morning after my practice I could stand it no longer. I wrote out a little slip of paper, folded it, and placed it on the breakfast tray being carried down to my Gurudev. On it I had written: “Even weeds need a little morning sunshine! May I see you?”
Within ten minutes my phone was ringing. I was summoned. When I walked into Swamiji’s apartment, he was sitting at the table with a big smile. “OK, weed,” he chuckled, “can you make me a cup of tilk?” And all was back to normal.