Path To Enlightenment
After 28 years in an ashram, this Carmel swami brings her message to the outside.
Thursday, February 13, 2003
The trailhead for the path to enlightenment can manifest itself in the most unlikely of places. For Sally Kempton (aka Swami Durgananda), it appeared in a New York apartment while listening to the Grateful Dead''s "Ripple" with a group of friends. Sometime in the middle of the song >("There is a road, no simple highway/Between the dawn and the dark of night /And if you go no one may follow/That path is for your steps alone..."), Kempton was struck with such a powerful feeling of universal love that she knew she had to find a way to achieve the feeling again.
Kempton''s path led her to spend 28 years in an ashram studying Siddha Yoga with Swami Muktananda and his successor Swami Gurumayi. Last year she left the ashram, published The Heart of Meditation and moved to the Carmel Highlands. That''s where she can be found when she''s not traveling the country leading workshops and promoting the benefits of meditation, like she''ll be doing this Saturday in Monterey.
Kempton''s "Ripple" experience was no shallow vision visited on a naïve waif in bell-bottoms and beads. At the time, Kempton was a respected journalist, carving her niche in progressive publications as an eloquent spokesperson on feminist politics. One of her essays, "Cutting Loose," appeared in the July 1970 issue of Esquire. Part confessional, part manifesto, it created quite a flap at the time, and is still often quoted. There is anger in the essay as Kempton writes about lying in bed dreaming of bashing her husband''s head with a frying pan, as well as more philosophical insight, as when she writes, "When men imagine a female uprising, they imagine a world in which women rule men as men have ruled women."
After her Grateful Dead experience, Kempton turned to meditation as a way to recapture what she''d felt that day in New York, first experimenting with an Americanized blend for a couple years, and then meeting Swami Muktananda. In the first chapter of her book, she writes of being at a workshop led by Muktananda and being "very much aware of the sensations in my body and of the faint rustles, coughs, and other sounds around. The next thing I knew, there was a kind of implosion. Instead of being around me, the room with all its sensations and sounds was now inside me. Then my awareness started to swell until I could feel the earth, the sky, and even the galaxy inside me."
From being a free-spirited, independent journalist, Kempton hitched herself to the rigorously disciplined life of an ascetic: pre-dawn and evening meditations, morning and noon chants, with work around the ashram-from arranging and teaching workshops, to maintaining buildings and grounds-to fill in the remaining time. Sitting in her Carmel Highlands home, sharp winter sun illuminating her tousled, short-cut blonde hair, pale blue eyes and high cheekbones, Kempton offers a smile that resonates like a laugh as she admits that it was a 180-degree turn in her life.
Returning to secular life, after so many years in the ashram, has not been as dramatic. "I always intended to [return]," she says. "I felt that it would be better for me to teach from a place where people are at in the world. It was time to do something different. It felt like an adventure."
Still, Kempton meditates twice a day, and travels frequently to teach retreats and workshops. "The way I live now, it''s not so different," she says. "The big difference is the California water and utility bills."
The other big difference, says Kempton, is the people she meets. While in the ashram, she was exposed to people who were spiritually and culturally attuned to the same things. Although she says this meant for deeper conversations about philosophical subtleties, she now finds it more compelling to put the practice of meditation into a broader social context-a place where meditation enhances peoples'' lives without being their primary focus.
"One of the things we''ve discovered in the last 30 years is that the spiritual level needs to be integrated [into our lives]," says Kempton. "If the spirituality is strong, it adds a juiciness to everything else."
The first of Kempton''s offerings to the secular world is her book. Written in straightforward prose, it retains a personal feeling as it propels the reader through various explanations, explorations and exercises in meditation. Those experienced in the practice of meditation should find the book enriching; newcomers will find a supportive framework on which to build their practice. The book radiates the passion Kempton feels for meditation.
"One of my personal issues is I think people should be meditating," she says. "Where the world is at right now, we can''t find the answer with the mental equipment we''ve been using. We have to find our core.
"I feel that there''s a really profound need for a connection to finding out what we have inside that can really change the world-by changing ourselves, one by one. I want to do whatever I can to further that process."
Sally Kempton will lead a half-day meditation workshop Feb. 15, beginning at 8:30am, at the Siddha Yoga Meditation Center, 2560 Garden Rd., Monterey. Registration is $60 at the door.