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5.0 out of 5 stars Definitive memoir on Sri Chinmoy's path of the heart, April 26, 2012
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This review is from: Auspicious Good Fortune: One woman's inspirational journey from Western disillusionment to Eastern spiritual fulfilment (Paperback)
Great spiritual masters can seem incomprehensible because they are attuned to a reality beyond Plato's Cave. Just as we seldom look directly into bright sunlight (and feel blinded if we do), we don't always dare to approach the supreme Reality directly. We may find it more agreeable to see the sunlight reflected through a lily pond. (Monet made a living garden of his home for this very reason.)

We may find the supreme Reality more charming, more auspicious when we see it reflected through the life of a disciple of a great master. It is in the tradition of Christopher Isherwood and Sister Nivedita that a new and gifted writer, Sumangali Morhall, offers us Auspicious Good Fortune. This delightful memoir makes the life and teachings of a great master, Sri Chinmoy, infinitely more accessible.

Were I to stop there, I would have already enumerated a profound achievement; but Miss Morhall has done more: She has created a literary work for our time, replete with an anti-hero for the ages - shy, sensitive, infirm, ever fearing Aloneness, and ever searching for an elusive Home.

From earliest childhood, Emily senses that nothing is Enough to take away the fundamental terror of living, and nothing will perhaps ever be Enough. Yet she tries a great many things, dodging bullies at school, studying to be an artist, singing in a rock band, giving herself over to relationships, testing out the London fast lane, blowing her mind on drugs and alcohol, teaching English in Thailand, and nearly throwing herself from a metal bridge when the pain of Aloneness becomes acute.

In that moment, she discovers that when everything is taken away, Something remains. And so begins her spiritual quest in earnest.

Miss Morhall is a master of chiarascuro technique. Just when we fear that all will remain dark and we're perusing yet another study in unquenchable postmodern angst, she turns the tables on us, unfurling a hidden goodness that was there all along, eclipsed perhaps by circumstance, but presaged by a love of nature and love of kindness.

Her lifeline broken, Miss Morhall really serves up two books in one: First she's a Gen-X outcast hunting for clues in a world devoid of meaning; then she's a spiritual seeker, her heart kindled by devotion. It's an eclectic darkness-to-light journey held together by the author's irrepressible spirit. Those not moved to tears will surely smile. How does this malapert elf and paint-spattered magpie arrive at the Life Contemplative?

It begins simply enough when, out of desperation, she starts imagining a serene expanse of white sand where she will meet her spiritual guide. There she sees (or imagines) an Indian man in ochre robes whose smile overflows with sweetness and warmth. For the first time in ages, she drifts into a safe, nightmare-less sleep. She begins meeting with her inner guide daily, but her life continues to run off the rails. Her job as a database manager is merely dress-up; her addictions all end in cul-de-sacs.

Then one day while leafing through a magazine, she notices an ad for a meditation course at Clifton Library. Cringing with shyness, she scrunches into a plastic seat and tries to pretend she's invisible, but is soon lost in music of unearthly beauty. Gradually, she identifies the man in the photograph as the same man she's seen so many times on a white expanse of sand: her inner guide. In years to come, she finds that the life of a spiritual seeker is Enough, in fact it is resplendent. She comes to be known by a new name, Sumangali, under which she pens this auspicious book.

We often encounter volumes which deconstruct Eastern spiritual practice from an absurd distance, viewing it through the curved lens of Western materialism or stark apostasy. Auspicious Good Fortune is a milestone because it is authentic - the first from a major publisher to serve up observations from within Sri Chinmoy's "path of the heart" by a faithful devotee. Thus, apart from the sheer enjoyment of reading, it has the merit of being primary source material. It is vibrant and alive in a way that only those accounts written from a deep place of lived truth can be.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, those who embark upon the spiritual quest don't disappear into a cloud of incense. They may fall off the radar screens of those who only measure secular activity, but they remain deeply engaged with the world, and are (in a sense) the same people they've always been, but with an added fillip: their vision sometimes shifts to a spiritual dimension which lets them see the familiar world anew.

Miss Morhall casts her glance upon the very things which make up 99% of our daily lives; yet she sees them a bit differently, and makes us see what she sees. We feel all the richer for it. Her honesty, depth of feeling, and inquisitive nature are passports to the heart of all.

How many spiritual books are not just fascinating reads, but also good companions? I sometimes think one could count them on the fingers of one hand. Auspicious Good Fortune proves that one can please the reader without pandering to the common sensibility - no mean feat.

Good spiritual writing can make us have the vision of a saint. Great spiritual writing can make us see a hobo, and feel that he is none other than God Himself. I can unequivocally call Miss Morhall's writing great. She helps us see the golden light between the cracks of shadow (because it was always there). She makes us see real things, and wonder why we never saw them before.

Emily's life is filled with music, and not always gentle, lilting music. It is music of chaos, music of collision - all finally brought into soul-stirring harmony. Few writers would dare to pen a lifeline so broad and etched so deeply in the skin. She is an anti-hero who does the impossible and really changes her life - not into something as banal as "happily ever after," but as meaningful as "usually gratefully trying." She struggles with her own fierce independence, with questions about marriage, and with physical ailments which leave her fatigued despite her inner ebullience. Encouraged by her guide, she stares down her dragon shyness, faces literal fire, and emerges with a new sense of belonging to the world, as one who finds joy in self-giving.

Returning to her childhood home of Old York, she seems to merge into Eternal Time. She feels a renewed sense of filial piety and love. She writes:

"Is this even the same life? Am I the same girl who moved Up North a quarter century before? These city walls stood for a millennium, but in the wink of time since my teens are they so changed? Through my open window breezes bring the bells of the Minster, surging like a tide. Strangers smile at me in the road, one, two, three before I realise I was already smiling, and they perhaps politely returning. Was that old cherry tree there in those days too, hurling confetti into a brilliant sky like the mother of some cherished bride? Is that the river inn where once I turned sixteen in a frenzy of loud friends and a cheap euphoria of cider, my feet lolling in the watery green? There are other loud frenzies now, and some look my current age. Is their joy as hollow as my own once was, as fickle as a draught? Are they still wondering: Is this all? Is this it? It was not this place that was dull then, it was these eyes that saw it so, and these same eyes that see it perfect now."

She has come full circle, but her journey is not ended. Her inner guide's outer form has passed away, and she must hasten to New York to visit his marble tomb.

Sri Chinmoy needs no introduction to spiritual audiences. (See The Wings of Joy: Finding Your Path to Inner Peace.) He was a great man, but also a deeply good man, and this quality of the good which one finds in writers like C.S. Lewis also permeates Miss Morhall's later recollections.

Sri Chinmoy was the man who brought meditation to the UN, running to the Yoga community, humanitarian aid to Angola, and peace to East Timor. He is sometimes called the twentieth century's first global man. Headquartered in New York, he spent much of his time traveling around the world putting on concerts, art exhibits, and poetry readings. He was at heart a mystic, and so his art above all other arts was that of constantly recreating the sacred space around him. For this reason he was beloved by countless fellow spiritual travelers. In 2007 (the final year of his life), he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a consortium which included Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Mikhail Gorbachev.

But Auspicious Good Fortune isn't about the great man Sri Chinmoy; it's about Miss Morhall's own life and how it changed after she first caught a glimpse of him at Heathrow Airport, 1997. It's a story not of religion imposed from without, but of truth discovered from within, with the help of a teacher who shared her love for the poetic side of life.

One is tempted to compare Miss Morhall with Emily Dickinson, whose inner life was rich, and who resisted organized religion in her time because she found more truth in art and nature. By contrast, Miss Morhall - also possessed of a rich inner life - was stirred to look beyond the confines of her garden by a kindred soul who ignited a spark within her. She became a consummate world traveler, one with the ability to make each patch of ground her own by recalling it in the kind of detail that would make a painter weep.

If mystics are sometimes perceived as remote and incomprehensible, perhaps this is because we lack a lens with which to bring them into focus; or perhaps, as Miss Dickinson explained so clearly over a century ago, we need explanation steeped in kindness:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind -

I wonder whether by "slant" Miss Dickinson meant one ought to tell the truth judiciously, as some critics claim. She was (in part) a nature poet (and gardener), so I find myself thinking of the dandelion whose angle is slant - yet it always slants toward the sun, soaking up its rays with a lack of moderation that only poets can aspire to.

If Buddhist writers have long claimed to be fingers pointing to the moon, then like a flower in Monet's garden, Miss Morhall is the bearer of no dull prose, but a song singing of the sun.

Michael Howard
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