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.

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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.

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.