There are times when a chance interaction offers us lessons in compassion and in truly seeing the heart of a stranger. I had one of those moments on a road trip and it is a story that exemplifies why I do what I do — traveling the world sharing sacred music.
Whenever I drive from the desert to the San Diego Coast, I experience the descent into what feels like a blessed realm of abundant water and resplendent greenery. I feel as though I could drink the air itself.
As is often the case when I’m on the road, on this route I find myself seeking out a gym. Sometimes it’s to satisfy the primal desire to throw heavy things around. Other times, the steam room beckons from the back of the temple of sweat and iron where, it would seem, many of us test ourselves against the tyranny of gravity.
I needed to hydrate after having spent weeks on a musical tour throughout the arid Southwest – culminating in our arrival at Shakti Fest in the hot and incomparably dry Joshua Tree.
One of the other reasons I go to the gym is that it brings me in contact with a milieu distinct from my daily world of yoga, meditation, and kirtan. This cross-cultural journey has often brought me into contact with people who shatter my preconceived stereotypes.
Finding Compassion in a SoCal Gym
At the SoCal gym’s steam room that day, Jesse’s bright eyes, easy smile, and gregarious demeanor made me feel immediately at ease. You may know what I’m talking about when I speak of how some people strike you with their internal brightness.
“Best part of any workout, isn’t it?” he said, reaching out to shake my hand, “My name’s Jesse.”
“No doubt about it, Jesse. I’m Benjy.”
“There’s always something about coming in here that feels like it reconnects me,” Jesse said. “I can let the rest of my world fall away for a while.” The openness of his tone made me feel even more grateful that he had come in at that moment.
“Absolutely! Especially now. . . I just got back from the desert, near Joshua Tree, and the moisture is a godsend!”
“Oh yeah – I know what you mean . . . I spent a lot of time out that way,” Jesse replied. “Twentynine Palms, actually.”
“What were you doing there?”
“I was in the Marines,” Jesse went on, “and I guess you could say it helped me get ready . . .” He paused for a moment, “I served two tours of duty in Iraq. Came back when I was wounded.” His eyes briefly reflected a level of pain that was outside the realm of anything I had ever experienced.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, Jesse.” Somehow I wished that I could find a deeper way to reach out to him.
He looked away for a moment then looking me straight in the eye, he said, “In many ways it was a gift to me -– put me on the path I’m meant to be on.” I nodded, even though it was nearly impossible for me to see how being wounded in battle could ever be experienced as a gift.
“I’m grateful, because it inspired me to reach out in ways I’ve always wanted to. You see, I’m a Catholic, a Christian who was raised to believe that we are all here to serve this world in the best way we can.” Threads of my own life – my Quaker upbringing, my love of Hanuman and the selfless service that he represents, and deep desire to serve the world through kirtan and music – wove themselves into a sense of kinship and connection with this man I had just met.
“When I got back, I became aware that many wounded soldiers were suffering far more from PTSD than their physical wounds,” he said. “Most of the time, therapists working with them were getting nowhere. These soldiers knew that the psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers had no idea what they had actually been through, and in many cases, their efforts seemed to do more harm than good. Many of these guys who had been like my brothers on the battlefield, were acting out like crazy . . . drinking, shooting up, winding up in jail for battery . . .”
He paused, “I knew these guys would listen to me, because I had been there.”
Jesse went on to tell me how he was now spending 20 hours each week communing with his “Battleground Brothers” on top of his full-time job. He made it clear that it didn’t feel like an option for him to do otherwise. The paradoxical blessing of his suffering revealed itself in his unique gift for connecting with veterans whose mental health prognoses appeared hopeless.
Humbled, I said, “I can’t thank you enough for making that choice, Jesse. Wow . . . you inspire me . . .” I trailed off, not finding adequate words.
He shrugged, “Looking out for each other doesn’t stop when the shooting stops. It’s just another part of my duty, nothing more. I know they’d do the same for me.”
We stared into the steam; it was the kind of easy silence usually reserved for time shared with close friends. “Well, Benjy, it’s been great talking with you,” he said. “I’ve got a friend in the hospital waiting for me.” Taking my hand in a brotherly handshake, he flashed the same easy smile that started our unexpected communion.
“Take good care of yourself. Thanks again, brother.”
The Heart of Hanuman
I realized that the compassion I had just seen was the heart of Hanuman — this commitment to selfless service — in a Catholic Marine. Here was a man whose life circumstances could hardly have been more different from mine, who reminded me that extreme hardship becomes a blessing when we use our experience of such pain to help others find their way through it.
The door closed behind him, leaving me alone with an epiphany. Had we met otherwise, I might never have heard his story. My own preconceived ideas about what Marines are like would have kept me from receiving an utterly timeless lesson in what it really means to live as a karma yogi and be committed to skillful action in everyday life.
As we navigate these times – when so many of us have become deeply polarized along political or cosmological lines – may we be given the ability to cultivate compassion, and may we have the courage, wisdom, and gentle strength to open our hearts, open our minds, and open ourselves to the infinite possibilities of what we can give one another in service.
An award-winning musician, composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist equally accomplished on tabla, percussion, esraj, guitar, and keyboards, Benjy Wertheimer has performed and recorded with such artists as Krishna Das, Deva Premal and Miten, Jai Uttal, Walter Becker of Steely Dan, virtuoso guitarist Michael Mandrell, tabla master Zakir Hussain, and renowned bamboo flute master G. S. Sachdev.
He has also opened for such well-known artists as Carlos Santana, Paul Winter, and Narada Michael Walden. Benjy is a founding member of the internationally acclaimed world fusion ensemble Ancient Future.
He began his musical studies at age five, starting with piano and later violin, flamenco guitar, and Afro-Cuban percussion. Benjy has been a student of Indian classical music for over 35 years, sitting with some of the greatest masters of that tradition, including Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, Ali Akbar Khan and Z. M. Dagar. Along with the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, he was a contributing composer and member of the Zakir Hussain Rhythm Experience.
Trained in audio engineering at San Francisco State University, Benjy is also very much in demand as a producer, engineer and studio session musician. For over five years, Benjy scored music for the internationally syndicated NBC series Santa Barbara, and his CD Circle of Fire went to #1 on the international New Age radio charts.
Making his home in Portland, Oregon, he now tours internationally in the kirtan group Shantala (with his wife Heather) and as part of the kirtan “supergroup” The Hanumen.