a blade of grass

… he told me that perfection could be learned from nature. be more humble than a blade of grass; more tolerant than a tree. give respect to others freely, without expectation or motive. in such a state of mind, stripped bare of your false pretenses, call out to your Lord eternally.

i’m still working on it …


God Shave the Queen

The latest news: Britney Spears checks herself out of rehab (again) a few hours after she checked in (again). This, a week after she caused the world to collectively gasp by shaving her head.

I'm concerned. No, not about Brit's career or reputation or even mental health. What's gotten me worried is the bad PR this brings to shaving one's head.

To most people, if someone voluntarily shaves their head it must be for one or more of the following reasons:
1. Sympathizing with a cancer patient*
2. Joining the army
3. Insanity
4. Becoming a Hare Krishna

The consensus seems to be that Britney is coming in squarely at number 3. Still, like cancer patients, cadets, and Krishna devotees everywhere, I am slightly uncomfortable to suddenly have something in common with the troubled Queen of Pop.

Although I'm not currently buzzed myself, I have reason to be sensitive: I belong to a religion that has come to be linked, in the minds of many, with shaved heads. Play some word-association with the average Joe on the street, and when you say "Hare Krishna movement " you are apt to hear "shaved head" in response.

The fact is that many Krishna devotees -- especially those who are celibate monks in ashrams or serve as temple priests -- shave their heads. Like members of other faiths from the East, these devotees shed their locks because it is clean, simple, and an external symbol of an internal commitment to a life of renunciation and service.

Recently my wife asked her brother -- who is currently doing a stint as an apprentice to some New York City monks -- why he shaves his head (which, as he explained it, can be a pretty involved procedure when done by 12 monks in a Lower East Side apartment-come-monastery with one tiny bathroom). "It's simpler," he explained, "Once you shave up, you just don't have to worry about your hair. You just don't think about it, and you can spend your time doing other things." For an aspiring transcendentalist, that's a sweet deal.

Of course, Britney may not have had such lofty ambitions in mind. If reports are to be trusted, she was disturbed at the time, mumbling something about "not wanting to be touched" while she stunned the salon workers by grabbing the buzzer and lopping off those million-dollar locks herself. Still, as crazy as she might seem right now, I wonder if Brit is inadvertently stumbling towards some spiritual advancement.

It's true. We tend to invest a lot of our identity into our hair (think a purple mohawk, or cornrows, or Jennifer Anniston). Our hairstyles can start to embody the most superficial and shallow notions of who we are. And then we use them -- ridiculously temporary and fake and meaningless as they might be -- to attract and be attracted by others. Like in some bad science fiction movie, the hair defines us, controls us, and eventually just takes us over. Maybe this was Britney's way of trying to take some control back.

If so, then I can share with her the lessons I learned when I shaved my head. There were benefits, to be sure. No longer a slave to my many hair care products, I could resign myself wholeheartedly to spiritual tasks. The problem, though, was that I'd catch myself constantly glimpsing at my bald-headed reflection in a mirror (or any reflective surface). The glimpsing quickly turned to a full-fledged obsession over the shape of my hairless head. I could barely get through a meal if it was served on stainless steel, distorted versions of my bald image staring back up at me from every spoon, plate, or bowl. Soon enough, I became so self conscious that I found it hard to be Krishna conscious at all. Vanity, I found, takes more than a buzzer to be rid of.


* Note: The NBC medical comedy Scrubs showed a character shave his head to sympathize with a patient, only to be mistaken for a Hare Krishna devotee. Despite himself, he ended up hanging out with the devotees, although he claimed not to have been affected by them. "Praise be to Krishna!"


Interfaith where it counts?

"I would say inter-religious communication by 6-year-old little girls is more significant than interfaith committees set up by the Vatican. Because there are many more little girls than there are theology professors."

(Peter Berger; Professor of Sociology and Theology, Boston University)


One who seeks pleasure...

One who seeks pleasure externally, he is materialist, and one who seeks pleasure internally, he is spiritualist.
(Srila Prabhupada: Lecture, Los Angeles, February 8, 1969)

Krishnadasa Kaviraja, a 16th century poet and biographer of Lord Caitanya, defines eloquence: "truth spoken concisely." Here, Srila Prabhupada cuts through hype and lays bare the dividing line between the materialist and spiritualist. Its not that the quest for pleasure is at question -- that drive is as real and natural as hunger or thirst -- but the point, Srila Prabhupada reminds us, is what you do with it.

How revolutionary! What a relief for my generation, a generation whose early definition of materialism came from a young Madonna.

I remember the day I first watched it: laying on my elbows, eyes glued to the TV set. She strutted out, dressed as an obvious ode to Marilyn Monroe (although I was too young to know who that was), dyed blond hair bobbing seductively in tune with curvaceous body. Cigarette holder in hand and fur wrap draping her bare shoulders, she directed a willing team of man-servants to carry her Tiffany shopping bags. "We are living in a material world," she confessed, "and I am a material girl."

My senses thoroughly scandalized and my head spinning, I concluded that materialistic meant just what Madonna intoned: get, enjoy, get some more. And even as she lorded over her objects of acquisition (Tiffany bags full of luxurious gifts), she became an object herself, to be lusted after, acquired, and enjoyed by legions of fans. A perfectly natural arrangement; of course, the problem was that, although it felt natural, it also went horribly wrong. Being a material girl (or boy) seemed a lot less fun when you had to factor in the guilt, pain, and frustration.

Srila Prabhupada's definition brings hope. The very fact that we seek pleasure confirms that we need it, that it is there for our taking. And the fact that we feel more frustration when we seem to find it in the acquisitions of this world -- in 5th Avenue purchases, fast cars, sexual pursuits, big houses -- should clue us in that, perhaps, we are simply looking for it in the wrong place.

Ultimately, for a devotee of Krishna, going within means realizing one's eternal identity as a pure, loving servant of the Supreme Reservoir of Pleasure, Sri Krishna. We are spiritual beings because our source is a purely spiritual personality. In Krishna consciousness spirituality is not some navel-gazing theoretical exercise. It is practical, focused, joyful living. It is experiencing a higher taste. Yes, there are struggles. As our pliable faith is being forged, we flutter back and forth between the external and the internal. Hopefully, with time and grace, we develop the humility to learn our lessons.

And what about our material girl? Well, if her reportedly sincere foray into the meditative world of Kabbalah is any indication, Madonna may finally be seeking pleasure internally as well. More than 20 years later, maybe hers is not such a material world after all.