Bad acid, rock 'n roll and a pilgrimage to India
by Lynn "Valentine Baby" Zecca
Valentine’s Day 2006 has come and gone, taking with it the visual assault of red and pink merchandise and marking me as another year older. Being born on this veritable Hallmark holiday (no disrespect intended to the martyred St. Valentine, who couldn’t help what it’s become), I’ve had my fill of heart-shaped jewelry and questionable, waxy chocolates. I take issue with the notion that on one certain day we’re supposed to turn on the romance and prove our love. Even though the whole thing gives me a giant ‘tude every year, I’m not cynical about love itself—far from it, in fact. Being an über-Aquarius, I am particularly interested in the pursuit of love in the universal sense of the word: divine love.
concept of divine love is present in all major world religions. In Hinduism
it is exemplified in the relationship of Krishna and Radha, whose rapturous
devotion, or “Bhakti,” is symbolic of the soul’s longing for
union with God. Whether discussing the Sacred Heart of Jesus or the Buddha’s
compassion, the common thread is a path to higher love; a way to feel connected
to that which is beautiful and infinite.
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I was fascinated by the spiritual
quests of Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Cat Stevens. I was as much a Who fan
as anyone back then (still am) but wasn’t aware of Pete Townshend’s
allegiance to Avatar Meher Baba until later on. Pete Townshend found solace
in Baba after a bad LSD trip coming back from the Monterey Pop Festival. In
his Rolling Stone article, “In Love with Meher Baba,” Townshend
remarked that acid had taken him apart but not put him back together again.
Funnily enough, it wasn’t until I survived a harrowing acid trip in the
early ’80s that I felt the spiritual path had any personal relevance.
I’d been reading “The Doors of Perception” by Aldous Huxley
and had a new perspective on hallucinogens: one of intellectual and spiritual
curiosity. I was more than ready to experience the psychedelic love of God when
I came home one night to a kitchen full of people eating mushrooms. We all chowed
down, having no idea the squishy, horrible tasting things were laced with acid.
I didn’t come down for three days.
After getting over the atomic post-trip headache, I assessed the damage. The
physical universe had come unglued, and I was adrift without the benefit of
gravity in a chaotic, fragmented mirage. Where was the unity of all things in
that? Where was that groovy kind of love, dammit?! Turns out I wasn’t
the only one who’d ever asked that eternal question. When you really start
looking for answers, the universe tends to cooperate. I wasn’t exactly
shopping for a guru, however, when I met up with a Baba lover (Meher Baba devotee)
a few years later. It’s just that the more I heard about this silent master,
the more I wanted to know. His life of selfless service to humanity was intriguing.
Merwan Sheriar Irani was born in Pune (Poona), India in 1894, and dropped the
body (passed on) in 1969. His early disciples gave him the name “Meher
Baba,” meaning “compassionate father.” He worked with the
lepers, the poor, and served hundreds of “masts” or god-intoxicated
souls that are often dismissed as madmen. Baba observed silence for 44 years,
giving the reason that people had been given enough words on the matter of spirituality,
and now it was time to live them. That’s so punk rock, I thought.
made Meher Baba my hero was his example of how to love and serve others, as
well as his singular commandment: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Overplayed pop songs aside, Meher Baba’s practical approach to spirituality
impressed thousands from all walks of life, including another hero of mine,
Mahatma Gandhi. The two met aboard the S.S. Rajputana en route to England in
1931. Gandhi sought advice from Baba on spiritual, political and social problems.
They discussed Gandhi’s mission of civil disobedience through nonviolent
means (through an interpreter, because of Baba’s vow of silence), and
Baba encouraged him to use his influence to bring the Hindus and Muslims together.
One of Baba’s missions was to bring all religions together like “beads
on one string.”
In the years that followed, Meher Baba and Gandhi kept in touch, and met again
in India. They shared a will to see the end of the caste system in India, as
well as a deep appreciation of each other. Before Gandhi was assassinated in
1948, Baba warned him that his life was in grave danger, and urged the Mahatma
to join him. When bullets rang out that fateful day, Gandhi’s last words
were “Oh God! Oh God!” Baba later commented that “Gandhi’s
whole political life of sacrifice and selfless service was for his love of God,
whom he longed to see until the very end!” He added that Gandhi’s
soul had a special destiny, and predicted that he would become a perfect spiritual
master after three more lifetimes.
The Gandhi connection struck a chord in me as a child of the ’60s. One
of my earliest memories involves being a 5-year-old girl visiting relatives
in Newark, N.J., when the race riots broke out. It made me aware that separation
between groups of people was not only wrong but potentially disastrous. The
best part of my generation embraced the lives of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma
Gandhi and rock ’n’ roll activists like John Lennon as examples
of the new humanity. What set Meher Baba apart from my other peace-loving heroes
was that I started to get the feeling he was following me around.
Seriously, I felt like Baba was a puppy that wanted me to take him home. I went
into Garage D’or one day to innocently browse the used CDs and what came
on the stereo? “Begin the Beguine” sung by Frank Sinatra. (Baba’s
favorite song. He had it played seven times at his memorial.) Now, I ask any
of you who used to shop there, how likely was that? And these musical coincidences
kept happening. Over the years there have been too many to count.
What is your concept of God or divinity like? Nonexistent? Michaelangelo’s
man in the clouds? The lost chord in a Neil Young song? How about a subatomic,
unifying force, or some kind of mix between Buddha nature and quantum physics?
I don’t think it matters how you perceive it, as long as you feel it as
the truth in your heart. My take on it is more in the neighborhood of subatomic,
which would make God very personal; personal enough to manifest fully in enlightened
beings like Buddha, Krishna and Meher Baba; personal enough to follow me around
leads me to my favorite musical “hello” from God, and the subject
of Pilgrimage. Baba lovers from all over the world travel to Meherabad (countryside
ashram/pilgrim center in India) to pay homage at Meher Baba’s Samadhi,
or tomb-shrine. It’s an opportunity to step away from one’s egocentric
day-to-day life, remember Baba’s life and what he stood for, strengthen
the bond of divine love, and lighten the karmic load. I’d love to tell
you that my time in India has always been a fluff cloud of devotional heights,
my soul transformed into a lotus blossom floating towards nirvana. To be honest,
it’s more like work than anything. In the end, however, India always cracks
my heart wide open. Every trip I’ve made to Meherabad has been uniquely
challenging, but the second time I went is the one I remember the most.
In February 2001, I arrived in Mumbai (Bombay) in the middle of the night, scruffy,
sleep-deprived and disoriented. My senses were on overload from the smells of
burning sandalwood, manure and cheap gasoline, the fluorescent airport lights,
and the onslaught of in-your-face porters, rickshaw and taxi drivers all vying
for my business. Finally landing in my hotel room, I flipped on MTV Asia only
to find “The Kids are Alright” blaring out at me! With my last ounce
of energy I jumped up and down on the bed, singing along to “I Can’t
Explain,” before collapsing into a blissed-out heap of travel-weary flesh.
I probably give pilgrimage a bad name. Just think of all the people who embark
on reverent, treacherous foot journeys to Mount Kailash in search of the abode
of Lord Shiva, and here I was destroying a hotel mattress in the name of God.
(Appropriate enough for a Who fan ...) But a pilgrimage of any sort is an intensely
personal experience and relative to one’s own path. Ask anyone who has
been to the Wailing Wall, or Varanasi on the Ganges River, or Strawberry Fields,
for that matter. What really goes on is deeply internal, though often there
are connections made that add meaning to these inner reflections.
At dawn the hotel driver brought me to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly
Victoria Station) to catch the train to Pune, thereby avoiding the most dangerous
part of the road trip to Meherabad. At the station I was mobbed by porters,
to which I could only reply “Nay, nay, nay,” while my driver chewed
them out. All but one scattered away. I pulled my rolling suitcase up the steep
curb and managed to bend my fingernail back so hard I screamed. In the blink
of an eye the lagging porter had my case on top of his head, and was leading
me to the ticket window.
waited in line together, me clutching my wounded finger, the porter shaking
his head in sympathy. He saw me onto the right car and I gave him some rupees
and a handful of chocolates. When he took his wallet out I saw he had a picture
of Sai Baba. (Sai Baba of Shirdi was one of Meher Baba’s masters, not
the Sai Baba of House of Blues fame—the Afro-sporting levitating guy ...)
I said “Oh! Sai Baba!” and pulled out a picture of Meher Baba. “Ah,
Meher Baba,” he beamed, tilting his head from side to side the way Indians
do, which in this case meant “Very good.” He bowed to him by bringing
the photo to his forehead. We exchanged smiles and said, “Namaste,”
a sanskrit word that roughly means “I bow to the divine in you.”
I wasn’t even out of Mumbai and I was being divinely loved on already.
An expressway between Mumbai and Pune was under construction, but I was glad
it wasn’t finished; otherwise I might not have enjoyed a stunning train
ride through the rugged Western Ghats up to the Deccan Plateau. It was hot and
dusty; a sharp contrast to the damp, cold day I’d just spent in Amsterdam
on a long layover. I reflected on my visit to the Anne Frank house on the snowy
Prinsengracht. It was a pilgrimage unto itself. The importance of that place
seemed to lie in remembrance of lives ripped away unjustly and to serve as a
way for visitors to express their grief. Out of this catharsis is often born
a strengthening of one’s moral convictions, a renewed vigor to fight the
good fight. I remembered feeling the same vibe at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis
(where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated) a few years before.
Remembrance is the key element of pilgrimage, and the essence of the Bhakti
path. Perhaps nothing can make me remember God more than Indian traffic. Once
in Pune, I still had to make my way another 120 kilometers to Ahmednagar (the
closest city to Meherabad), so I hired a cab. Outside of the larger cities there
is no right and wrong side of the road, and the drivers love to play chicken
with each other. It’s swim with the sharks or be eaten. The death-defying
antics of these motorists put me in a continual state of prayer.
By the time we reached Ahmednagar, I’d surrendered and become one with
the chaotic swarm: the cars, buses, taxis, jeeps, rickshaws, tongas (horse-drawn
two-wheeled carriages), motorcycles with several passengers, dogs, goats, sheep,
pedestrians and cows roamed the streets as if they owned the joint, which they
do. There were bullock carts piled high with woody green stalks of sugar cane,
with drivers encouraging the beasts in low vocal trills, and my favorite: the
goods-carrier trucks decoratively painted as if they were elephants, all bearing
the message “Horn Please O.K.” in English and Hindi. On the final
leg of the journey, a 10-kilometer rickshaw ride outside of the city, it hit
me: “I can’t believe I’m home again.”
Baba’s tomb-shrine is situated on top of a hill overlooking the recently
reforested countryside. This small, domed structure is adorned with the words
“Mastery in Servitude,” symbols of the world religions and a colorful
mural on the interior stone walls. A sign tacked to a tree outside reads “Silence.”
It was my first stop after dropping my bags. According to Indian custom, I removed
my shoes and avoided touching the threshold with my feet as I entered.
Every day Meher Baba’s marble crypt is laden with fresh flower garlands
of red roses, tuberose and marigolds, and the fragrance was so pure and heavenly
it about knocked me over. The air was infused with an indescribable sweetness,
a tangible presence that seemed to say, “I’m glad you’ve come.”
It was quiet except for a variety of birds singing and squawking. I was so happy
to be back, and thankful that the long trek around the globe was safely out
of the way. Upon leaving the Samadhi I received prasad, a blessing from the
master in the form of a sweet, given out by an attendant.
One of the high points of my stay was a Qawwali (Sufi music) concert held under
the stars up on Meherabad Hill. This group sang themselves into a state of spiritual
ecstasy and brought all of us with them. The coolest part was that the audience
was made up of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs—you name it, they were
there. It was a moment that I returned to again and again later on that year
when the 9/11 tragedy struck. I knew what was possible when the walls of religion
came down, and simple focus on divine love permeated the night air. It led me
to the conclusion that whatever your definition of divinity is, and whoever
or whatever embodies that for you, the main thing is how you put it into action
in the world around you.
The low point for me was coming down with a terrible cold. They say that illness
while on pilgrimage is actually a blessing, a soul cleansing of sorts. Me, I’m
a big baby when I’m sick, especially in India without Puffs and Nyquil.
It’s hard to see the spiritual benefit of lying on an army cot with my
sinuses on fire and crawling out of my mosquito net every other day for a bath
consisting of one bucket of hot water. My subatomic God theory was out the window
and I was begging Him as if he were Santa Claus for my health back, and “P.S.
Could you please keep the mosquitoes away? The little bastards are making a
meal out of me!!!” I was back to square one spiritually.
do you do when your soul falls off a horse? If you’re me, you go looking
for that divine spark again with a vengeance. You hop on the back of your friend’s
motorcycle and say “Get me out of here!” My friend Jon revved up
his old Enfield and we were off. We flew through the village of Arangaon, weaving
our way past bicycles, uniformed school children, skeptical old men, and women
wearing insanely chromatic saris in the golden late afternoon sun. Kicking up
a cloud of powdery grey Indian dust, we conquered the rolling hills of Maharashtra.
I got lost in the feel of fresh air whipping my face, in the sight of cascading
bougainvillea (tropical vines) in the most outrageous shades of pink you can
imagine, in the company of a kindred spirit—a salty biker dude on fire
with love for God and English motorcycles.
When I said, “Get me out of here,” I meant get me out of my SELF.
If you’ve read any eastern philosophy, or at least George Harrison’s
autobiography, “I Me Mine,” you know that the annihilation of the
ego-self is paramount in the spiritual game of finding true happiness and ultimate
bliss. So I continued to “get lost” and found that divine spark
everywhere (not that you have to look that far for it in India). It was at the
orphanage in Pune, in the faces of the children and the tireless workers that
care for them. It was in the Limka soda I drank at the cyber cafe and the musical
horns of the trucks and the Muslims pausing to perform the Salaah (the Islamic
prayer performed five times daily).
Most of all it was in the eyes of the “Mandali” I visited at Meherazad,
Baba’s residence on the other side of Ahmednagar. These remaining close
disciples of Meher Baba greeted everyone with hugs, told anecdotes of life with
Baba and gave me sweets on my birthday. If you want to know about the psychedelic
love of God go to India. Go to Shirdi to the tomb of Sai Baba, and take in the
multi-colored displays of kitschy merchandise—everything from T-shirts,
pens and statues to sparkly metallic garlands and pungent stacks of incense.
Or just go to the cereal aisle at your favorite grocery store and take in the
explosion of colors and overwhelming smell of sugar. It’s all the same.
I had to go around the world three times to figure that out.
so, I would never dispute the great value of undertaking a pilgrimage. A disciple
once asked Buddha, “What should I do after you leave?” Buddha replied,
“You should mark all the places I have visited so that in the unfortunate
times of the future, people will be inspired to strive for Buddhahood.”
In taking the Buddha’s advice, we can also more clearly see a great spiritual
master as having been a real person; one who mucked in with humanity for their
benefit in this perfectly imperfect world.
How do you come to believe that you are an integral and important part of the
whole gorgeous mess? How do you cultivate any amount of love for life in a world
gone mad? Get involved socially or politically? Crank the tunes and let the
metaphysical power of music lift your soul? To me, the greatest irony of rock
’n’ roll is when it screams of alienation and you close your eyes
and let go and become one with the guitars, no longer separate, but absolutely
dissolved in the beautiful, aching distortion. And that’s life: a beautiful,
aching distortion of the truth. ||
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