If You Build It…

retreats-linden-meditation-buddha-high-definition-wallpaper-download-freeMaking resolutions at the beginning of each year is a widely accepted ritual. Whether or not there is follow through is another story, but the steps taken to proceed with resolutions also involve rituals that are unique to each person. We all have our own ideas on how to achieve our goals, but I think we can all agree that the impetus for this process is desire. The desire to improve. The desire to remake.  And if you’re on a path, desire and ritual become inextricably linked.

Progress on the spiritual path requires commitment. You read the words of masters and listen to teachers who embody that which you are seeking. With all the learning and absorbing of teachings,  I can tell you that the most important component to any spiritual path is devotion or bhakti, which is the piece many will avoid. In a previous post, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” , I discuss the West’s discomfort with devotion. The bottom line is, if you approach your path with an open heart, devotion will come.

joga-fajtak-meditacios-pozThose of us raised in a traditional religion are familiar with the forms and rituals devotion takes. At the beginning of my sadhana, my teacher told us that our idea of the Sacred will change over time. In the beginning, he suggested that we use the form of our personal Ishwara to help us in our contemplations until we reach the point where no form is needed. Whether you approach spiritual practice with or without form is not important. What’s important here is the desire for the presence of the Sacred in your life. Build your practice around that.

d57e20c0ef565b2a1eec25e5cc6afe54

Your sadhana may or may not involve the ritual an altar or meditation room provides, and while we might get carried away with the externals of the physical space we set up, dedication to that space (whether internal or external) will allow the Sacred to lift you up to become the highest expression of yourself. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or an experienced practitioner. The Sacred will meet you wherever you are, but you have to want it. How much do you want it?

“If you take a form and you let the Divine [in] through the form through your love…It will come” ~ Bhagavan Das
Wishing you a Blessed 2016!

The Summer of My Discontent – Part 2

As my summer of discontent continues, I’ve been thinking a lot about the teacher/student relationship.  What I found was that this connection changes and deepens as bhakti develops for the student.

The guru/disciple relationship remains a foreign concept to Westerners, who consider it to be suspicious or just downright scary. I’ve written about gurus on this blog before – The Idea of Guru – suggesting that a true teacher is merely a guide, for no one can show you truth; you must experience it for yourself.  Still, there are those who continue to strongly reject ‘the idea of guru’. One such dissenter was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said:

“You yourself have to be the master and the pupil. The moment you acknowledge another as a master and yourself as a pupil, you are denying truth. There is no master, no pupil, in the search for truth.”

“You must know for yourself, directly, the truth of yourself and you cannot realize it through another, however great. There is no authority that can reveal it.”

My teacher would be the first to agree with this. I believe that Krishnamurti was referring to those who put themselves in authority and their followers into a submissive position; the way organized religions do.  Interestingly, Krishnamurti did have teachers; just not in the usual sense of the word.  His sadhana was a rare one. It is known and accepted that Masters, who were not in the body, initiated him into the process leading to Realization, that state in which identification with the Immortal Self is uninterrupted.

DoF_largeIrina Tweedie describes her personal experience of the guru/disciple relationship and how it evolves for the student in Daughter of Fire: A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master.  Spanning five years, Tweedie’s account of her relationship with her teacher runs the gamut of emotions. In the beginning, ego strongly intact, she dealt with confusion, doubt, and at times, harsh treatment from her teacher.  We should keep in mind that she was a Westerner living in a foreign country while dealing with an Eastern guru; all adding to the difficulties she encountered during her sadhana.  She writes:

“I hoped to get instruction in Yoga, expected wonderful teachings, but what the teacher did was mainly to force me to face the darkness within myself…. I was beaten down in every sense until I had to come to terms with that in me which I kept rejecting all my life.”


Tweedie, in an interview with Jeffrey Mishlove (Thinking Allowed series), dismisses the notion that the guru subjugates the student:

“One doesn’t surrender to the Guru – not really – ….One surrenders to the Light within oneself, the Light of the Soul, that part in us, which belongs to Eternity.”

As you read Tweedie’s diary, you are carried along on her journey of Self-discovery. You watch as her ego, which is where the doubts live, dissolves and she arrives at the place of complete love and maindevotion – a place far from where she started. In The Matrix, a movie with many non-dual themes including the guru/disciple relationship, there is a scene where Neo tells Trinity not to join him in his quest to save Morpheus. Trinity plainly tells him that she is sure that Morpheus means more to her than he does to him.  The devotion they both feel, however, becomes clear as they risk their own lives to save their beloved teacher.

It takes time for the teacher/student relationship to deepen.  The ego needs to diminish enough for the Love, which is the Light within, to replace it.

If my summer went according to my plan, then I never would’ve acknowledged the depth of feeling for the guru that arises with spiritual practice. This experience was a great gift for me. This is the way sadhana works. You may not get what you want, but you get what you need and no one could ever predict what that might be.

The Summer of My Discontent – Part I

Summer vacation for a schoolteacher is a sacred time. I plan, in fairly great detail, how I will spend those days.  I’m going to do yoga ‘x’ number of times a week, read more books, eat healthier, etc. But it’s not just my summers that I plan; I try to plan most everything. It’s my way of controlling the future. You can probably tell where this is going.

During these summer months, I had plans of spending as much time with my teacher as possible. It’s more challenging to maintain a good spiritual focus during the school year as working lends it’s own brand of distractions, and since I’ve never really been good at walking and chewing gum at the same time, I’ve always looked to my work breaks as opportunities to place and keep my focus on more spiritual pursuits. That was the plan.  The first week into my summer, the plan got flushed. My teacher’s ill health is preventing him from seeing students and this state of things will probably continue for a while. You get what you need in sadhana – and usually what you need is not what you want.

So, during these past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of the time before I moved here. Living in New Jersey early on in my process with no teacher or fellow students nearby, I had to work to keep my practice front and center. Being physically close to your teacher is not required, but it does help.  It has also given me some insight as to how the teacher/student relationship changes over time, which I will address in part 2.  Basically, all this has made me realize that I needed to take more responsibility for my sadhana, much like that time in New Jersey.

Lately though, I’ve been more worried that my teacher may not be here much longer. I have no reason to think this, he should be fine, but during these past weeks without him, I’ve been wondering what it’s going to be like when he does leave his body.  He’s been preparing us for this inevitability, giving us the tools to make it easier to continue on our path without his physical presence.  After the death of her guru, Irina Tweedie, author of Daughter of Fire: A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master, began to realize that even though her beloved guru was gone he was still with her, and that she could have contact with him whenever she wanted. Oddly, in some ways, she felt that her real spiritual training began after her teacher’s death.

Sadhana is a conspiracy. It peels back the layers of the personality and forces you to know who you are. Not who you are as an ego, a character in this play, but the ‘You’ as the Immortal Self. That is no small task and, if you’re paying attention, you will understand that everything that happens is just another step in the long journey leading back to Yourself.

Photo credit: Red bench near Kilt Rock, on Skye Island (Scotland, United Kingdom). By Two Wings (own work)

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.

Don’t Worry….Be Happy

Being stuck in the ego is not easy or fun.  It’s only struggle. Too many thoughts. Too much thinking I should be doing anything instead of what I’m actually doing. Too much thinking I should be different than how I am.

Last night, as I went to bed consumed with too many thoughts, I used some of the tricks of the “trade” (aka sadhana), to help still my mind. I realized that whatever the current obsession of my ego was, it wasn’t worth my attention or the energy I was pouring into sustaining it. I reminded myself that we are all doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing and the only thing I can change is my thoughts.

As 2011 comes to a close and we hover on the brink of the much anticipated 2012, I am reminded of the Dan Millman quote from his book, “Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” I used to have this quote on my refrigerator. Can’t remember why I took it down. I think I need to put it back up there again…

“There is no need to search; achievement leads to nowhere. It makes no difference at all, so just be happy now! 

Love is the only reality of the world, because it is all One, you see. And the only laws are paradox, humor and change.

There is no problem, never was, and never will be. Release your struggle, let go of your mind, throw away your concerns, and relax into the world. 

No need to resist life, just do your best.

Open your eyes and see that you are far more than you imagine. You are the world, you are the universe; you are yourself and everyone else, too!

It’s all the marvelous Play of God.

Wake up, regain your humor. Don’t worry, just be happy. You are already free!”

Happy New Year everyone!

Peace.

Ego – The Love/Hate Relationship

By Perfilbtl (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

During any sadhana, the seeker will be faced with unflattering aspects of oneself.  In my personal sadhana, which is shaktipat sadhana, these aspects are merely karmas that the Shakti is removing. My teacher tells us that all we can do is watch, but that doesn’t always help the character (ego) when it is experiencing the emotionality of anger, jealousy, judgment, and the like.  Even with the tools and techniques my teacher has given us to detach from the “emotional roller coaster,” as he likes to put it, getting caught up in negative emotions seems to be a normal part of the process.

The good news is that as karmas are removed, we find fewer buttons get pushed and life goes along in a smoother fashion. That is not to say that the external parts of life get easier; that is to say that we remain calm in the face of whatever happens, because the karmic trigger is gone. Acceptance of ‘what is’ is easier allowing one to go with the flow of life.

It wasn’t until shaktipat that I came to realize the ego is nothing more than a bundle of karmas. These karmas prevent us from knowing who we really are, which is pure Divine Consciousness, and perpetuates the duality, the notion that we are separate from everyone and everything, with which we experience our reality.

So therein lies the problem. With nearly 7 billion people on the planet, every single one of them, by nature of their individual karmas, have their own perception of how the world should be and many attempt to force this perception on the rest of us. Until we understand the non-dual nature of reality – that all is One – conflict and suffering will continue to plague us.  You don’t need to have shaktipat in order to understand non-duality.  Any spiritual path will lead you to this conclusion; shaktipat just happened to be the path I landed on.

My teacher likes to use the example of scarves covering the light of a lamp as a metaphor for the layers of ego or karmas that hide the light of our true selves. But in this analogy, the removal of the layers appears to be a gentle process. For me, as well as some of my fellow students on this path, the removal of karmas can sometimes feel more like ripping off a band-aid covering a still open wound. You feel exposed and vulnerable. Sometimes an ‘ego-loathing’ (in lieu of self-loathing) sets in. We are urged not to indulge in ‘mea culpas,’ but instead to be gentle with ourselves through this process. This will help us recognize the divinity within not only ourselves, but in everyone else out there struggling with the illusion of duality.

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.

Step to the Music

Pursuing a spiritual path is a lonely business.  As we begin to discover who we really are there is an interesting dichotomy that arises. We feel the interconnectedness with everyone and everything, which is exhilarating, yet at the same time a kind of isolation sets in as we realize that the ‘normal’ way of living just doesn’t appeal to us anymore. Your life changes, your priorities change, and very often your associations change. So it’s important to surround yourself with like-minded people or at the very least, people who will support you even if they don’t understand what it is you’re doing.

I also think it’s great when you can find references to your experiences outside of your inner circle, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s time in India in her book Eat, Pray, Love.  If you’re interested in watching a really good movie about spiritual searching, rent the 1946 movie, The Razor’s Edge, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same title. Maugham’s book reportedly is based on an actual person, but that aside, the title is taken from a line in the Katha Upanishad:

Arise! Awake! Approach the great and learn. Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, so the wise say—hard to tread and difficult to cross.”

The movie was re-made in 1984 but I like the original better.  I mean, how can you beat Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb? Okay, so maybe I’m dating myself, but I do think original movies are better than their remakes. This movie tells the story of Larry Darrell, who returns from WWI and abandons his life of privilege, as well as his fiancée, to embark on a journey of self-discovery.

Those of us trekking a spiritual path know that it is difficult to tread, like that edge of the razor. Trying to balance what we learn, (mostly through direct experience, which is hard to describe and impossible to prove), with our everyday lives is tricky to say the least.  I sometimes envy the Indian sages who live their lives in caves removed from society, able to devote all their time to their sadhana (spiritual practice).  I have to say that sometimes I’m ready to pack my bags and move to some remote mountainside in the Himalayas myself.

Watching Larry Darrell’s journey through this movie reminds me that I’m not alone.  At the end of the movie, when Larry is having his final conversation with Isabel, his ex-fiancée, he admits those moments of frustration he has known on his path remarking how  “… it isn’t easy and it isn’t fun.”

So to all the Larry Darrells out there, let me leave you with a quote from Henry David Thoreau, who understood what it meant to tread the razor’s edge.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”