I was in Mumbai at Rasanath and Vrndavana Vinodini’s wedding reception after the official celebration in Chennai. To prep for my special appearance, I needed to look a little dapper…
I’d been in the trenches of India in the little, austere, but beautifully spirited village of Vrndavana, followed by many more such austere but spirited village experiences in South India. In Chennai, I sported traditional dhoti and kurta for the grand occasion – the same plain white robes I wore as a monk and continue to wear on days off from work to conjure the sanctity of a life in service.
From this unique vantage point, Mumbai’s heralded event was a game-changer. I’d carried one solitary outfit of distinctive style for this purpose and carted it with me all over India, waiting for the anomaly when I’d finally be required to wear it. I swear I found it a useless burden up to the very day it was expected on my person! Then a sudden shift…
As I buttoned my impeccably slim-fitting, multi-shade blue, checkered Calvin Klein evening shirt, I started to feel a spontaneous rush. By the time I’d tucked it into my gray, pinstriped, Banana Republic tailor fit pants, I was overcome with a new outlook.
I was going out tonight!
That’s right! I was going out!
And the old Ari Weiss (formerly known on Facebook by the moniker “Yo Weiss”) returned…
The only problem was that this occasion was really not about me. Moreover, the occasion of this life, in this larger world, is admittedly, really not about me either… But when I walked out of my dear friend, Balaji’s apartment where I stayed, oh was it about me! And I was mortified…
At least I knew that I wasn’t going to let myself get away unconscious. No. I caught myself red-handed. For a former monk, this meant a sort of cease and desist to my ego.
I searched for reasons why the sophomoric Ari had overtaken our spiritually striving Hari Prasada. And sure enough, there was a girl involved…
A friend of a friend. I knew she was single and I liked her a lot. I had no romantic interest at the time. But somehow, knowing she was (the awful word) “available” and a very lovely girl, what to speak of being a fellow Bhakti practitioner of substantial rigor, implanted in me the impetus to impress.
I walked the streets of Mulund, where Balaji lived and where the reception would be held, unable to think of anything else. Not wanting to ignore the opportunity for personal development, I promptly outed myself to Balaji.
Balaji, it’s in my blood to want to be handsome to the opposite sex the very moment I find opportunity!! It’s crazy! As soon as I don formal attire my mind just goes there. Err… And there always has to be some object to make it more real… Yeah… You know who it is. But I tell you, in this case, I’m not even interested in the girl! I’m serious! Oh Lord…
Balaji looked at me with understanding and concern. I think his prim and proper Indian background and the purity of his heart made this a little less relatable. Frankly, I think he just lacks a lot of that male ego nonsense. All the better to make me feel worse!
He was kind and compassionate to this wild young American in need of attention and that only made me feel sillier. Had not all my monastic years and present practices amounted to more than this? Come on!
I wanted to snap my fingers and snap out of it, but then I’d have to snap out of these royal clothes too, and that came with its own set of complexities that I shall not entertain... Being in my birthday suit was really no solution!
I would have to tolerate myself, yet again... And this, I’ve come to realize, is truly the name of the game. How well can you tolerate yourself?
This will make all the difference in our lives and the lives of those we care about. The less we can tolerate ourselves, the less we’ll have bandwidth to tolerate others. The more we can tolerate ourselves, the more wellspring of compassion for those who need it.
If we see no idiosyncrasies, or even idiocies, to tolerate, then we’re probably not yet sincere in our search... And lest we drown in the shame of our own infantilism while we wade through weakness, let us remember this core quality of tolerance; the most valuable form of which is the ability to graciously tolerate oneself.
I made it through the reception in a magical state of delirium posing in photo after photo next to the bride alongside random Indian men and women. It was exhilarating every time I heard the beautifully accented words of the cameraman:
Which sprang at me in regular three-minute intervals like clockwork.
I put on my game-face and made memories for people who had no idea who I was. And I did it all night long…
Affording myself the same amusement as reaching a stage of sleep deprivation where you actually swallow that tiredness to become a little loopy like someone who’s just drank several shots of liqueur helped lighten my heart of the shame. Without escape and without alcohol and without even sleep deprivation, I managed to pull it off!
I did not forget about my ego. I did not shove it under the rug. I prayed about it. But I did not hold onto it. There was no need for preoccupation. Only prayer. And moving forward.
Towards the end of the eve, I was rewarded with the uncharacteristic breach of traditional etiquette via full-on embrace by an old Indian mother whom I did not know in the least and who did not exchange words with me, but rather, pulled me directly to her bosom with extraordinary affection. I considered this a most stylish victory for the occasion!
...And I did also happen to spend a little time with the wonderful girl without needing to impress. We snapped a photo together and cheerfully went our separate ways...
By the time I made it home aside our humble Balaji, I was a happy camper, capable of living with my own silliness and shame. Why not?
It’s like an asthmatic who needs to be aware of her condition and be appropriately prepared. But there’s no need to live in a state of asthma…
So it is with the shame of our own shortcomings. This much, monastic life and spiritual practices, have taught me. Keeping good friends where I can out myself any time strengthens the sterling opportunity to personally develop.
The fact that I would later look at that girl very very differently, to this day strikes me as a profound spiritual irony – my favorite kind of irony. And tolerating oneself continues to prove the most valuable asset in my life, with ever-increasing need to focus on all that goes right.