What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Devotion is a tricky thing, especially for a Westerner.  Displays of spiritual/religious fervor are supposed to be confined to church on Sunday or inside the privacy of our homes. In other words, kept behind closed doors. Those of you who are of Italian heritage, like myself, will remember the crucifixes that hung in every room of the house, including the basement. I could never figure out if they were there as displays of reverence or to ward off evil spirits.

Unfortunately, where there is still that element in society where might makes right, devotion is neither admired nor taken seriously at any level of consideration. I remember back in the 60’s, when the peace sign first became popular.  It was considered, by some, to be the sign of the chicken since the symbol resembled a chicken’s foot. People who wanted peace instead of war were branded as cowards. Devotion has gotten an equally bad rap.

The West’s discomfort with displays of devotion could just be a cultural thing, as it doesn’t seem to be an issue in other parts of the world. Or, it could go deeper than that. Devotion is love. That could be where the problem is. Maybe we don’t know how to love. Be it loving others or ourselves, maybe we just don’t know how. As it is generally understood, love revolves around the ego, so that love is completely conditional. The real thing is unconditional. Love with no strings, no expectations  – love that is totally free of the demands of the ego – is not a familiar concept to most people.

As a result, spirituality/religion tend to be more a mental exercise rather than an emotional one, like having to memorize the catechism in school, the emphasis being on dogma rather than devotion. Early in my sadhana, as now, my teacher would read us works by and about Indian masters such as Ramakrishna (probably the greatest saint India has ever produced), Swami Ramdas, Shivom Tirth, among others.  Their words were filled with love for the Sacred.  They stressed the importance of keeping our awareness on the Divine so that we may experience that love. Remember, what we think we become, so by keeping our thoughts on the Absolute we become the embodiment of love, which projects outward into world, which, let’s face it, could use a lot more of it.

Devotion is love. When you open yourself to the possibility of letting love into your life everything changes. You become filled with the love that you are expressing. Japa, kirtan, and contemplation are all tools to help the sadhan along the bhakti (devotional) path. The bliss that is felt during and after kirtan or contemplation is unsurpassed by anything the material world has to offer.  It is not to be found in any book. You do not have to be in a church or temple – love is within. It needs to be felt, but, just like direct spiritual experience, you can’t make it happen. It has to evolve. And as you progress in your sadhana, it will.

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Your Inner Life

In my Catch-22 post of June28th, I suggested a couple of ways one can begin to experience non-dualism. Cultivating tolerance and compassion along with a desire to serve others, without seeking recognition or compensation, are all ways that will help break down the wall of separation (duality) that is threatening our world today.  These suggestions will help in changing perceptions, but there is another piece to this I’d like to address.

This may be a kind of ‘chicken and the egg’ scenario, but some people will need to connect to themselves before seeing their connection to everyone and everything else.  This is where meditation comes in. Spending time in quiet contemplation or meditation helps us to better understand ourselves; not in terms of the external world, which is shallow and ultimately meaningless, but in terms of who we really are – at our core.  Meditation cultivates our inner life and it’s important to remember that the outer is the reflection of the inner.  The only focus in the world today is on our outer life. We go to school to learn science, math, history etc., so we can get a good job, compete in the world, make money, and enjoy the material comforts of life.  We learn and assimilate what society deems important and useful, so all of our energy is projected outside of ourselves.  We live in fear and anxiety over protecting what we have.  Consequently, we become lost in our lives, remaining blind and ignorant to the truth about who we really are and our connection to everyone and everything in the universe. We are lost as a society and we need to find ourselves again.  Cultivating our inner lives through meditation can be an important first step to accomplishing this.

The physical and emotional benefits of meditation are many: lowered blood pressure, reduced stress and anxiety, better concentration, management of chronic pain, to name a few. The spiritual benefits include the discovery of one’s true self beyond the ego and the body.  All these benefits (and there are more of them) will naturally lead to a more compassionate worldview.  Fear will be replaced with tolerance, compassion and love. The outer is the reflection of the inner.

I remember a time when science debated the mind-body connection, if you can imagine.  Well, at least we’ve come this far. Now it’s time to take a greater leap. Times are changing and whether we like it or not we are facing a crisis of perception. We are seeing the old societal structures being challenged and broken down. Unable to sustain the old forms, we are being given a unique opportunity to move into a more unified perception of our world. Whether it starts with cultivating our inner life through a meditation practice, or it starts with looking for ways to be of service through changing our mindset (which can lead to the cultivation of a richer inner life) it doesn’t matter. It just needs to start.

“….I saw two birds on a limb this morning laughing with the sun. They reminded me of how we will one day exist….” Hafiz

Catch – 22

Here’s the thing. I can blog about non-duality and you can read about non-duality until the cows come home, but until there is direct experience, there is no real understanding.  Oh, there may be an intellectual understanding to a certain point, but no real ‘gut’ feeling of those ‘aha’ moments that tell us we really and truly get it. Direct experience is the real teacher. Direct experience is truth because it cannot be refuted. Unfortunately, it also cannot be proven by the usual scientific standards, but that doesn’t preclude its authenticity.  We need to let go of our limited views of reality.  Look around.  It’s time and it’s necessary.

Now, here’s the problem.  You can’t go looking for direct experiences. They creep up on you at totally unexpected times. Even if you have a regular contemplation or meditation practice, there is no guarantee that you will have a ‘brick falling on your head’ type of experience.  You can, certainly, but with consistent spiritual practice, the experiences tend to be cumulative and therefore culminate into a broader kind of understanding, which over time changes your views about things and you begin that wondrous, scary journey from which there is no return.  Still, those ‘right between the eyes’ sort of experiences are the ones that catch our attention. But, of course, we have to be open to them.

The good news is that stories of non-dual, watershed moments are not as rare as one might think.  Eckhart Tolle, in the introduction of his book, The Power of Now, describes his life up to the age of 29 as one of immense anxiety and dread “…interspersed with periods of suicidal depression.” One night, as he was suffering through his usual panic and dread, he thought, “I cannot live with myself any longer.”  He suddenly realized the strangeness of that thought. He began to question who he really was. Was he “… the “I” or the “self” that the “I” cannot live with?”  The duality that we all experience smacked him right between the eyes and he began to wonder if only one of them (the ‘I’ or the ‘self’) was real. His spiritual transformation occurred at that moment.

Fritjof Capra in the preface of his book the Tao of Physics, describes his non-dual experience of ‘oneness’ occurring on a beach, where he suddenly became aware of the ‘…cascades of energy coming down from outer space, in which particles were created and destroyed in rhythmic pulses…” and how his own atoms were participating in this cosmic dance. He suddenly began to see the similarities between modern physics and Eastern philosophy, which set him on the path of writing this book.

Direct experience usually leads us down a whole new path in life, as it did for Tolle and Capra. It expands our awareness and life is never the same. We begin to rise above the tedium to see the big picture. But do we really need to have direct experiences in order to experience changes in our perception?

I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, so we’re stuck in a spiritual catch-22.  How do we get to a place where we can begin to perceive non-duality without direct experience? How about cultivating a bit of tolerance? Tolerance removes the obstacles that lead to compassion and kindness. That would be a huge step forward from where we are now. It requires that we lift our awareness and place it on something other than our own self-interests. When we get there, we begin thinking of ways in which we can be of service to others.  Ask yourself, “Am I serving myself or am I serving others?”  Service to others might just put you on the path toward non-dualism.

Every age thinks it has all the answers. We need to get over ourselves and realize that it’s time we wake up and move past the limited conceptual, man-made parameters of thought and embrace a more encompassing, compassionate view of reality in an effort to solve humanity’s problems. Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”  We need a shift of consciousness – now. We can put our awareness anywhere we want, so put it where it will do the most good.

The Sound of Silence

“Hello darkness my old friend ……..” is the opening line of Simon and Garfunkel’s famous song The Sound(s) of Silence.” I enjoyed listening to the duo’s music in the second half of the ‘60’s, as it appealed to my poetic sensitivities.

Of course, the song title’s meaning for me has changed over the decades. The more I delve the depths of reality, the more I crave those sounds of silence, because that’s where it’s happening. That’s where the action is. Action in inaction? Sounds in silence?  Yes, reality is full of paradoxes, but one thing is for sure: the volumes of information conveyed or found in the silence when you contemplate/meditate is astonishing and the ways in which truth (information) is communicated is unique to each person.

There is a saying that meditation can’t be taught, but it can be learned. Though there are many different kinds of meditation, the method is only the tool, the map, to help the seeker reach those states of quiet. The silence and what is learned in the silence is the journey. It’s like walking a labyrinth. The path is set (in stone) but the journey is unique to each who walk it. The first time I walked a labyrinth, which, by the way, is done in complete silence, I was astounded by the ‘impressions’ that were brought into my awareness.  And each time I’ve walked a labyrinth, the journey has been different.

Labyrinth at the National Headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America

When you chant the Omkara, which is simply chanting “OM” in repetition, you focus on two things. You can put your attention on the sound of the OM vibration, but things get much more interesting when you put your attention on the space between the OMs. In yoga, pranayama or breathing exercises also emphasize the interval between breaths as the more important place to be.

The importance of silence in sadhana cannot be stressed enough. This is the place where the seeker touches the face of the Absolute, because it is in the silence where you find yourself.  It’s not even the noise of the external world that’s the problem; it’s the noise of your internal world that needs to be turned down in order for your ego to be pushed aside so you can be with yourself for a while.  And that’s when real learning or experiencing begins. You will never find the answers to the eternal questions you search for in books. Never. It is only by turning within, by spending time in the silence, that you will discover who you really are. The first line in Eckhart Tolle’s Stillness Speaks says, “When you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.”

There’s a lot of resistance to living in silence even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time.  Silence can be scary for us. We don’t know what to do with it because silence has no form. Having lost the anchor of the material world, we feel adrift with nothing in the void to cling to. The realization sinks in that our beliefs and thoughts about who we are don’t matter in this place. Those false identities are negated in the formless essence of stillness. The illusion of separation dissolves and in the silence we realize that we are the “…I Am that is deeper than name and form…” as Eckhart Tolle writes.  It’s the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘being.’

Spiritual literature about this abounds. If interested, a couple of titles you should check out include:  The Voice of the Silence by H.P. Blavatsky and the aforementioned Stillness Speaks by Eckhart Tolle. Both are excellent, though if you’re a beginner in these matters, I would start with Tolle’s book as Blavatsky’s is more esoteric.


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.