Stop the Madness

Let me start this post by saying that I’m not interested in getting into politics on this site, but sometimes something comes along which, in the interest of continuing to address non-dualistic ideas, I simply can’t ignore.

There has been an e-mail circulating the internet lately entitled, “e-mail of the year” suggesting how wonderful it would be if a president of the US (from either party) would give a speech that would begin with detailing two lists of countries. Those that stood by us during the Iraq war would be on one list and the countries that didn’t on the other. The speech goes on to inform those countries that didn’t stand with us that they will no longer receive foreign aid from the US. Well, the rest of the e-mail goes on in pretty much the same vein, promising to hunt down those who dare to hurt us and kill them, guarding our borders with guns, all in the ‘noble’ purpose of solving our country’s problems. Really distasteful stuff. Below was the response I sent back. I thought I’d share it here. If anybody has any ideas on how to stop the madness, please let me know….

“There are many reasons why I think this e-mail is terrible. It perpetuates the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality, which, I feel, is juvenile. I get that people are fed up with a lot of things, but this is an angry knee jerk reaction, which is divisive and puts us in danger of losing our humanity.

Whether we like it or not, countries are made up of people not governments and to deny humanitarian aid to people because they’re not important to our so called agenda or because we don’t like their government is wrong. You can compare that (sort of) to boycotting BP and putting their employees at financial risk because you don’t like the corporation (although it’s time for these BP workers to start re-evaluating their principles and make changes to get away from this corporation – or work to change it, or maybe going to work towards greener forms of energy – but I digress…)

And to make matters worse, people who consider themselves good Christians probably put this e-mail together, which is completely hypocritical. We can’t consider ourselves apart from the rest of humanity – everyone and everything is connected, that’s just the way it is.  I have come to view the world and the people in it as one, not separate entities. What we do to each other we do to ourselves. Separation is an illusion and e-mails like this stir up hateful emotions, which I can never condone. So you see, my problem with this e-mail goes way beyond politics.

(I know I’ve used this quote before on this site, but I can’t help myself, so here it is again) Albert Einstein said, “A human being is part of a whole… (but) he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  I’d rather live my life this way than the way suggested in that e-mail.”

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There’s No Place Like Om

Repetition of the Om mantra (called the ‘Omkara’) is a useful practice. Simple yet complete, it is the primordial sound of the Absolute. And it is really the only mantra we need because all the other mantras are derived from that one vibration. Oh, I still chant other mantras thinking ‘maybe this is the one I should be doing– or this mantra is better than that mantra…’ You know the drill we put ourselves through. But the truth is any mantra, if you really resonate with it, is fine. So why all the questioning, searching, judging and analyzing?  We are all searching for something. And that looking, that searching, is fueled by the feeling of incompleteness we endure.  Which is why we’re on a spiritual path in the first place. To feel complete – to go home.

Everybody’s out there looking for the meaning of life, whether they’re aware of it or not. People who are not pursing a spiritual path look outside of themselves by turning to the material world for that ever-elusive sense of completeness.  But this kind of searching is a bottomless pit because the ego is never satisfied. Once it gets one thing it wants it’s off wanting something else. But it’s not so different with those on or looking for a spiritual path.  They search and search trying this method, listening to that teacher, all with the thought that perhaps this one is the right one. The grass is always greener….right? And if the technique, such as chanting the Om, is too simple we discard it because we think there has to be more to it.

But what’s wrong with something being simple anyway? Thoreau knew the benefits of simplicity when he isolated himself at Walden Pond.  He said, “Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify, simplify!” adding that we should aim for, “… Simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.”  But we continue to clutter up our lives in order to fill some big black hole.

Maybe it’s the rhythm of our days – the structure of them that feeds the need to continually look for fulfillment. Most of us who go to a job everyday probably feel stifled in some way. Even if we like what we do, there is probably a ‘wanting’ that steals the joy of life away like a thief in the night, unseen but nonetheless damaging to our sense of contentment. Thoreau also said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He meant that we resign our lives to being a certain way, and that resignation is the desperation we feel. But it is, in fact, this desperation that propels our searching.

The searching, whatever form it takes, is aimed at one goal: wholeness.  When we reconnect with the Sacred, when we go home for that period of time we spend in contemplation/meditation, we find that wholeness.  And we don’t need any fancy equipment or expensive program touted by some self-help guru; we already have everything we need. Dorothy found that out in the Wizard of Oz when the wizard and the good witch told her that she had the power inside of her to bring herself home. The scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion each searching for what they thought they needed to obtain from outside of themselves realized at the end of the story that they too already had everything they needed to complete their journey – knowledge (spiritual knowledge, that is), heart and courage; the three qualities of the spiritual seeker. L. Frank Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz, was a Theosophist and it is thought that he meant the story to be a metaphor for the spiritual seeker. Following the yellow brick road is the path that will lead you home and it is packed with lions and tigers and bears, as well as the occasional run in with the evil witch, suggesting that the path is long, hard and at times scary. Even the Beatles’ song, “The Long and Winding Road,” is a tribute to our seeking. It asks to “…let me know the way…..lead me to your door.”  The lyrics also propose a lonely and sometimes difficult road.  As many of us are discovering, sadhana is not easy. But it allows us glimpses of the goal – Home – that keep us going.

Thomas Wolfe may have said, “You can’t go home again” – but we can. When I chant the Omkara that’s where I feel I am. This is what sadhana is all about. Going home.

Peacemakers

Early morning on Saturday August 7, 2010, I was finishing reading the book, Three Cups of Tea, with the sounds of CNN in the background. That’s when I heard about the ten aid workers killed in the Badakshan province of Northeastern Afghanistan.  It was a synchronistic moment as I was, in that same instant, reading about Greg Mortenson’s trip through that same area in his quest to build schools in those regions threatened by the Taliban.  Details of his trek through that province to meet with the commandhan of Badakshan echoed the dangers that tragically cost those workers their lives.  I was struck by the grace of the workers’ family members and friends who told the world of their loved ones’ affection for the people they were helping in that region. Those aid workers were no strangers to Afghanistan. They understood the culture and loved the people.  And, perhaps what was even more striking, was how the Afghan people loved them. The world was made to understand that their deaths were linked to the fundamentalist group of the Taliban and were not a reflection of the beliefs of the Afghan people.

Listening to these reports by friends and family members, I was taken back into the book I was just finishing. Greg Mortenson’s account (written with David Oliver Relin) is filled with stories of how he won the trust and affection of first the Pakistani people and then the Afghans.  You learn how he navigated cultural and religious differences by showing respect for their ways, managing to cut through the shroud of fear and suspicion. When you read Three Cups of Tea, your understanding of that part of the world, which is geographically and culturally remote, deepens. And understanding is the first step toward compassion….and peace.

It has been our history as humans that when we are attacked in some way someone has to be blamed and retaliated against. Unfortunately, we usually direct our anger and retaliation not just at the attackers but at the larger group the attackers represent. We need to make them all suffer as we suffered.  This “eye for an eye” and “It’s us against them” mentality will never bring peace.  Never.  Greg Mortenson knows this.  The Pakistan and Afghan leaders, who became champions of Mortenson’s mission, also know this.

“The enemy is ignorance,” Brigadier General Bashir Baz of Pakistan told Mortenson in 2003.  He continues,  “The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever.” (quote taken directly from Three Cups of Tea)

The aid workers who died were peacemakers. Greg Mortenson is a peacemaker.  It’s important to keep their efforts going.  Please visit Greg Mortenson’s website www.threecupsoftea.com for more information and suggestions on how you can help.

Peace.

The Alchemy of Yoga

One day, while taking my yoga teacher training at White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara with Tracey Rich and Ganga White, Tracey had us take a block of time to do a creative practice where she gave no formal guidance or instruction.  She told us to let our bodies move guided only by our own intuition. I stood on my mat staring as if I was looking for something. My intuition perhaps? Well, I can tell you, I didn’t find it. I moved awkwardly trying really hard to figure out what posture my body felt like moving into.  My perception of that exercise was that I failed miserably. I attributed my failure to a lack of knowledge. A lack of not having enough asanas (postures) in my repertoire to access. It took years for me to realize that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I was using my mind the whole time. I was trying to think my way through the practice.

Yoga helps to establish the mind/body connection, but there is really more to it. Tracey was trying to get us to transcend thought  just like what we do in meditation. There is no thinking or analyzing at this level.  Intuition is a state of ‘knowing.’  It does not rely on information from books. And intuition does not originate in the mind in the way we normally see the mind (as the brain). Or maybe it does in some part of the right side, but it wasn’t in the part of the brain I was functioning in. The point is that we can’t ‘think’ and ‘intuit’ at the same time, no matter how good we are at multi-tasking.

In addition to this state of ‘knowing’, intuition is a ‘feeling.’  “I have a gut feeling about something,” means I know something without having any information that would logically lead me to what I feel.  So in this yoga exercise, I should have been ‘feeling’ what my body needed and how it wanted to move, instead of rummaging through my mental hatha yoga catalog trying to pick a posture.  Yes, I needed to have an academic knowledge of asana. But, as with any kind of knowledge, there comes a tipping point where true integration takes place.  That point where the depth of knowledge triggers a change or transition into the expanded awareness from which intuition shines through.  This profound change is alchemy. We literally become the practice.

I’ve gotten much better at allowing intuition guide my asana practice.  If you are used to popping in a DVD all the time when you do your yoga, try letting your intuition be your guide and feel the difference. Experiencing your practice as a moving meditation can be more purposeful and transformative than always following a set routine.

Burden of Proof

In my posting of July 12th, Step to the Music, I mentioned how pursuing a spiritual path is a lonely business. Part of the isolation we feel comes from the inability to properly verbalize our direct experiences, let alone be able to prove them.

Ever since I was little I had an intense curiosity about the world around me, wanting to know everything about everything, which is probably the reason I made science my major course of study in school.  I figured that science would have all the answers to the questions I had.  Problem was it didn’t.

Scientific inquiry follows a set of ‘rules’ we call the scientific method.  The process usually takes place in a laboratory where data is collected and analyzed to determine whether or not the hypothesis has been proven.

Spiritual inquiry, obviously, does not follow those parameters, simply because there is nothing that can be measured. And if science can’t measure it then it must not exist – right?

Science debunks anything it can’t prove, but does that mean it isn’t so? Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Democritus, coined the term “atom” to name the particles that comprise matter. He had no way to prove his claim so his ideas were mostly ignored. It wasn’t until the 19th century that science began to learn more about the atom and the structure of matter. And although the atomic model has undergone much revision over the years, its existence did not depend on its discovery.

This debate is a major thread in the movie “Contact,” a credible telling of how making contact with other beings in the universe just might play out on our world stage.  The relationship between the two main characters, the scientist (played by Jodie Foster) and the man of faith (played by Matthew McConaughey) is tested by their clashing belief systems. The scientist doesn’t believe in God (actually, you can say that science is her God) because there is no empirical data (proof) to support the idea. When McConaughey relates to her a spiritual experience he had she basically tells him that anyone believing in spiritual experiences does so because they are deluded and have a need to believe in such things.

Her worldview changes when she is given the opportunity to travel through space into the deep reaches of our galaxy, where she experiences contact with those alien beings. Her journey and contact cannot be proven, though in the deepest part of herself she believes in everything she experienced. Members of a congressional committee grill her and try to get her to admit that her experiences constitute “a self-reinforcing delusion.”  Bottom line: she admits that she has no proof of her experience, but she cannot admit that it never happened.

Science provides a comfort level for us. It helps us make sense of the world in which we live. And that’s fine, but just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, we should not be blind to the limitations of science. It does a fabulous job using finite tools and techniques to describe the finite world. No question.  Describing the infinite, well, that’s another story.  Progress is being made, though, as physicists continue to delve into the secrets of our physical (not so physical?) world.

Scientific inquiry gives us knowledge.  Spiritual inquiry also gives us knowledge, but of a different type.  The Dalai Lama says in his book, The Universe in a Single Atom, “ I have argued for the need for and the possibility of a worldview grounded in science, yet one that does not deny the richness of human nature and the validity of modes of knowing other than the scientific.”

Ocean of Consciousness

I don’t want to turn this into an essay about ‘what I did on my summer vacation” but I just spent the past week in Daytona Beach. My sister and brother-in-law have a condo there and they invited me down.  I felt compelled to go even though the seven-hour drive from Atlanta (by myself) seemed daunting to me.  So I packed up my car and hit the road. It had been a while since I’ve spent time at the ocean. Heck, it’s been a while since I spent time in nature. I had a meditation retreat in the Georgia mountains one weekend in June, but it was right after school let out and right after I had my cat put down, so I was way too stressed and tired to fully appreciate my surroundings. Once I got to Florida, I felt a stirring that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Some of the stirrings were childhood memories I have of the ocean. Growing up in New York, I spent a lot of time at the beach.

The next few days were spent relishing the sights, sounds, and smells of the sea.  There I was standing on the shore, the waves lapping at my feet, unable to take my eyes off the water. My mind was quiet.  I could feel the energy of the ocean. I could feel being a part of that energy.  This will sound like a cliché, but I felt one with my surroundings. Somehow, the other people on the beach didn’t seem like strangers. We were connected, not only to each other and the vast ocean in front of us, but to the One Reality or pure Consciousness permeating all of creation.  Nature is the external manifestation of the Sacred.

With my sister and brother-in-law nearby, I asked what it was about the ocean that drew people to it like a magnet. My brother-in-law suggested that maybe it was because we came from the ocean. That primordial memory of our watery beginnings beckoning.  I think that’s part of it, but I also think this sense of oneness happens in any natural setting. It’s hard not to be moved by the majesty of our natural world.  Being in nature, whether it’s hiking a trail in a forest, sitting in the middle of a garden, or staring up at the stars on a clear night, reminds us that we are a part of something bigger.

The ocean appears infinite and constant. For many, while in meditation, it is the picture we see in our mind’s eye that represents the Absolute Consciousness we perceive as God.

You don’t have to be at the beach to dip your toes into the ocean of consciousness.  When the mind is quiet, as in meditation or contemplation, you allow yourself to be immersed in the Absolute, the One Reality, that Is ……..