Before I became a monastic, I was a poet. It’s an awkward thing to say, since “poet” isn’t really an occupation, a job that can be quit at will. It’s more like a condition, a solidification of the mental waters out of which individuality arises, a persona that forms seemingly without choice. I think that’s why, when I talk with my friends, most of whom are also poets, and a quiet moment cracks the door between us, they often ask with trepidation, “But, are you still writing?” I think they’re really asking, “Are you still you?”
Usually, I explain that I don’t have much time for writing now. The monastery is a busy place. Gone are the borderless hours of graduate school when I spent the night’s whole silence searching for a single perfect word. Here, we rise before the sun and wake up our Deities who employ us in their service. As earth’s god, the sun, appears on the visible horizon bringing earthly life and taking it away, we pray for the appearance of our eternal God within.
While my response to my friends’ concern is true, it’s not the whole truth. But how could I communicate, across the broad field that sometimes appears to separate human hearts, the inexpressible mystery: I don’t write much anymore; I am being written.
Poetic as that might sound, it’s not always a comfortable position. Against my intuition, I have the tendency to thrust creativity, who is shy by nature, onto my mind’s altar, alongside her companion, individualism. I want to be uniquely loveable, extraordinarily special. Consequently, I often don’t want to oﬀer myself to the ongoing mystery of my life’s creative potential, which is beyond myself; rather, I want to be the creator.
But what world would such a god create? If I want to be the creator, I have to be the destroyer as well. The pleasure of my creation entails the pain of others who have their own desires. In a world of many gods, one living being is food for another. Is that really joy? And if not, is that really creation, which in its purest form is an act of love?
Just as love is born from the womb sacrifice, true creativity—love’s expression—is possible only in a heart of devotion. A potter sits at her wheel, a writer holds his pen, a musician strums his harp, and an actor poses in her costume and mask, but every true artist assumes the same posture within: she folds her hands, bows her head, and prays.
In my spiritual tradition, Brahma, the god of creation, is pictured walking down and down the stem of the lotus from which he is born, searching layer upon layer of creation for his creator. He is preoccupied, not with his own creative power that organizes the material universe into form, but with his search for the ocean of creative potential from which he is created.
At the bottom of the lotus stem, Brahma hears God’s voice speaking a single perfect word: tapa, meaning “sacrifice.” So, Brahma returns to the center of the lotus flower, sits, and embarks on an inward journey of prayerful meditation. This is the beginning of spiritual life as well as the beginning of creative life proper.
I mentioned that we get up early here. Every morning before dawn, we oﬀer arati. We oﬀer each of our senses, represented symbolically by incense, a candle, water, a flower, and a fan. Then, as we go about our day, we try to live the arati ceremony, step by step.
Day by day, as we try to live a life of devotion, we find that something begins to change. We find that within the loving sacrifice of service, a new self begins to emerge—an inherently kind, joyful self. In the world of spiritual practice, we are created through service and sacrifice. Here, devotion is the most creative act.
So, the next time my friends ask, “But, are you still writing?” perhaps I will reply: What poem could I write when I am now the poem itself written by the perfect eﬀort of imperfect devotion?
Ananda-mayi dasi lives and works as a nun in the Hindu tradition of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, and she spends most of her time cooking, tending the temple, and writing. She divides her year between Audarya, a monastery in the redwood forests of Northern California, and Madhuvan, a monastery in the jungles of Costa Rica. She holds an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and her writing has been published internationally in a number of journals. Right now, she's working in collaboration with award-winning graphic novelists Kaisa and Christoffer Leka on an illustrated book about her spiritual tradition titled, What is Bhakti-Yoga?: 108 Questions and Answers.
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