Being Empty

4466The cup needs to be half-full and an empty room is pitied.  Changing perceptions is about as easy as changing eating habits, but let’s look at what can be gained from an alteration in mindset. When we allow ourselves to become empty, it’s not that we provide a space for something else to come in; we provide the opportunity for the recognition of what is already there – the space of pure Awareness – which is where you meet yourSelf.

“Only when a human being becomes empty of ego does it become a vessel of the manifestation of the Supreme. When there is sufficient space made through the absence of the person, then the Divine cannot hide.”  ~ Mooji

 We are constantly made aware of the many negative connotations associated with the idea of emptiness. If there is a part of your life that is empty, then it is perceived that you are “lacking” in something or not doing something right.  That promotes guilt. So there’s that.  But, I would say the most negative connotation is the fear that comes with the sense of incompleteness and aloneness. A fear perpetrated by the mind while holding us hostage to the unreal. It’s a conspiracy really – a conspiracy of the mind. Society, an accomplice, makes every attempt to ensure that no part of our lives has any emptiness at all. We fill up our minds and days with external stimuli to the point that we are never devoid of a thought or an action.  We physically fill up spaces with things, even people, we feel will make us happy or “complete” us.  Thoughts, emotions, things and others define the personality, which is who we erroneously think we are.  So, we equate emptiness with non-identity, and that is the scariest idea of all.

Let me repeat that: …we equate emptiness with non-identity, and that is the scariest idea of all.

 “Let yourself be merged into that pure emptiness which is the presence of God and true source of all spiritual strivings.” ~ Mooji

 Spiritual practice is a type of feng shui for our lives. Cleaning out the clutter is an important step as the outer is a reflection of the inner. In yoga, the asanas and breath work help empty the body of stress and pain (physical, mental and emotional).  As a result, we create a space for the recognition of pure awareness, which is not empty at all but is really a space of completeness. Meditation also provides the opportunity to enter into the vast fullness of our true Selves.

When you empty yourself of all that comes with the personality, all the mental, emotional, and material baggage, you reveal what was hidden but all the while waiting for you to discover: your true Self.  Yes, live in the material world – let it give you what you need and enjoy, but remember that none of it defines You.

 “…  I slide like an empty boat pulled over the water.” ~ Rumi

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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)

Haven’t Got Time For The Pain

Many may associate this 1974 Carly Simon hit with a popular advertising campaign for aspirin from a couple of decades ago. But actually, this song has a strong spiritual message. In fact,  lyricist Jake Brackman wrote this song about his own spiritual process.

But you really don’t have to be on any spiritual path (though it does help) to take a lesson from the message communicated in these lyrics. As we become more self-aware and self-reflective, we begin to recognize the behavior patterns that keep sabotaging us.

“…suffering was the only thing that made me feel I was alive…”

You could say that the emotional rollercoaster rides that keep our mini-dramas alive and well reflect the karmic load in which our egos are trapped. Eckhart Tolle calls it the ‘pain body.’ We remain attached to our pain because this state of being is familiar and the only way we know, which is why even though the names and places may change, we consistently find ourselves in the same limiting circumstances or surrounded by the same types of people. Spiritual practices show us how to “leave (ourselves) behind….how to turn down the noise in (your) mind……how to fill (your) heart with love.” Once that happens, you no longer have the time or the room or the need for the pain.

Take a listen and enjoy this great oldie through a new perspective. I’ve posted the lyrics below…

All those crazy nights when I cried myself to sleep
Now melodrama never makes me weep anymore
‘Cause I haven’t got time for the pain
I haven’t got room for the pain
I haven’t the need for the pain
Not since I’ve known you

You showed me how, how to leave myself behind
How to turn down the noise in my mind
Now I haven’t got time for the pain
I haven’t got room for the pain
I haven’t the need for the pain
Not since I’ve known you

Suffering was the only thing that made me feel I was alive
Thought that’s just how much it cost to survive in this world
‘Til you showed me how, how to fill my heart with love
How to open up and drink in all that white love
Pouring down from the heaven
I haven’t got time for the pain
I haven’t got room for the pain
I haven’t the need for the pain
Not since I’ve known you

Heart vs. Mind – Reconciling Knowledge and Wisdom in Spiritual Practice – Part 2

Wisdom as truth

Humans cannot come to Truth through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest, or ritual, not through any philosophic knowledge or psychological technique. They have to find it through the understanding of the contents of their own minds, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection.” ~ J. Krishnamurti

Krishnamurti recognized that “Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized…” What he meant, of course, was that no amount of intellectual study or organized ritual can bring truth. And truth is the essence of wisdom. There has to be some internalization process that happens, some form of direct experience, which brings the seeker that which he seeks. Being regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers, it is interesting to note that Krishnamurti failed his courses at London University. And even though his brother, Nitya, passed with honors, Krishnamurti’s professors claimed that he had a much wider grasp of large concepts. His ‘mind’ was the bigger of the two.

Thinking and doing from the heart

As we have seen, the limitations of thought are many. Eckhart Tolle in his “Power of Now” addressed this issue by reminding us that one of the ways it limits is by trapping us in time and space. “This is what I think today, tomorrow I might think something else.”  See what I mean? Tolle goes on to use the following example –  If you asked your cat or dog what time it was would it look at a clock? Of course not, its answer would be “now”.  If you asked your pet where it is, you think it would say “I’m in the living room?’  No, it would say “here”.  Staying present seems to be a criteria for reaching that part of ourselves that transcends time and space. We can achieve this in deep states of meditation. All matters of form (time and space included) dissolve as we lose the boundaries of our physical bodies and nothing is left but our true selves. Our minds don’t get in the way anymore. Since thought implies the mind, it can be argued that thought arising from the true self or heart is not thought at all.  What is it then? Maybe it’s truth, wisdom. That indefinable something that can change the way we see the world.

A friend of mine e-mailed me recently about not always knowing the right thing to do in certain situations. She commented that she “is not sure what the boundaries are. I’ve stepped on enough landmines to be wary. Hate those explosions!” She is approaching with her analytical mind, instead of seeing the situation from her heart. Maybe we need to forget about boundaries. Maybe we need to love those explosions. If we think with our hearts instead of our minds we will be acting from a place of love…..and wisdom. The boundaries fall away and transformation, the alchemy, begins.

So ask your self, “How do I see? With my eyes? My mind? My heart? Try using less mind and more heart. See only with your heart. Your mind doesn’t know what you want. Listen with your heart and it will tell you. I asked a wise soul what my current preoccupation with “heart” was all about. I was told, “Heart is love. Love comes from the heart. Do everything from the heart.” Which, of course, means do everything from a place of love. The Beatles’ said it all with their lyrics, “…love is all there is.”

The Pitfalls of direct experience

We applaud and reward academic achievement. Pride is felt as one can attach letters at the end one’s name. One’s salary and status usually improve. But just as our egos can be stroked by acquiring knowledge, it can also be deluded into feeling superior through experiences. We begin to judge our ‘progress’ by another arbitrary standard. As our searching has us abandon trying to find the answers in books and we begin to experience what we have read about, another kind of pride is felt. We might begin to feel competitive thinking “Look at my experience. It’s better than yours. Therefore I must be further along the spiritual path.”  This is normal in the beginning. But we must remember that alchemy, the true transformation of knowledge into wisdom, does not begin until we get past our egos. My teacher has always told us that if we feel we must gauge our progress we should, “look to the changes in our character.” When that happens, your ego gets out of the way, and a kind of humility sets in. A simplicity in one’s character emerges. That simplicity is wisdom.

Taking the first step

Become the watcher. William Ury, the author of many books on conflict resolution, refers to this as, “going to the balcony.” He suggests that when you find yourself in conflict remove yourself mentally and become the observer of what is happening. Go to the balcony of the theater and watch the play. An interesting choice of metaphor. Of course, you don’t have to be in conflict to do this. It is a good idea to watch all you do, think, say, feel. Watch as if you are a character in a play. Watch as your role is being played out. This provides detachment from any situation, thought or emotion.  The more detached we are the more present we become because we are disentangled from the mind and the judgments that keep the mind going. The ‘watcher’ is coming from a different place, the present moment.  The watcher then has the direct connection to heart.  It removes the middleman, the ego, from the play.

We can all use a little alchemy in our lives. Think how the world could change if our actions were led by our hearts, our inner wisdom, instead of the external machinations of the egotistical mind? Healing the universe is an inside job.

Heart vs. Mind – Reconciling Knowledge and Wisdom in Spiritual Practice –Part 1

I was always a good student in school, placing a high regard on learning and acquiring knowledge, even at a young age. My mother always wanted me to go into some kind of profession. She recognized that society placed importance on these externals. Having a curiosity about life and all of its workings, I wanted to be a scientist. I played with chemistry sets and microscopes. Instead, I became a teacher, and though life has taken me through a number of diversions, teaching remains a profession I love.

I approached my spiritual seeking through the same academic lens I viewed everything else. In the beginning, I guess like most of us, it was all about learning something. The idea of directly experiencing what I read about never really occurred to me. I felt it was out of my reach. I didn’t have a teacher, a guru, available to dispel the darkness. So I stayed in my ‘learning’ mode for a long time. The more I learned, however, the more restless I became. I began to notice that I was missing something. What was the point of all this knowledge? Nothing was really changing for me and wasn’t that the point of all this searching?  I began to ask myself, “Is that all there is?”

Wisdom as Alchemy

the goal of yoga, union with Spirit, can only be known through experience, not through simply relying on understanding with the mind.”  ~ Upanishads

If knowledge is power, then wisdom is alchemy. It’s true that most of us get wiser as we get older, simply because living has transformed or transmuted what we know of life into something more profound.  Our experiences change us. How many of you (of a certain age) have said to someone that you are no longer the person you were 10 or 20 years ago? But if you try to describe that ‘new you’ to put words to it, you may find that difficult. You can say you are a ‘freer person” “stronger” “more compassionate” etc. but do those words truly convey the metamorphosis you know you have undergone through your life or do they fall short. Does that explain why when we try to give advice to a young person, he/she doesn’t understand anything we attempt to say, even if “it’s for his/her own good.” Young people respond to the concrete, the immediate. Wisdom is neither – knowledge is.

When I began my ‘active’ spiritual searching more than 20 years ago, I read as much as I could get my hands on. I tried to memorize the spiritual jargon thinking that if I could use those words in a conversation then I would be regarded as being on a spiritual path. If there were people who “knew “ more than I did, I felt that they were further along on the path than I was. I felt inadequate. I thought I had to “know” something. But it wasn’t long before I realized none of the mental gyrations I went through qualified me as a spiritual seeker. Listening to others explaining “this is this …and that is that….” only left me with more of an empty feeling. And words, no matter how many or valid, could not fill that emptiness.

So how powerful exactly is knowledge? Swami Muktananda said, “Knowledge of the external world is the root of all sorrow when it seeps inside and we identify with it.”  He goes further when he quotes the Siva Sutra 1.2, jnanam bandhah, “Knowledge is bondage.”  If we live steeped in our social agreements, that is to say the labels or false identities we use to define ourselves and our place on this planet, then we are missing the essence of who and what we are. The mind has created and perpetuates the illusion of separation.  Only when we free ourselves from the mind, can we begin to understand our true nature. This is when the alchemy – and real transformation – begins.  So it is only when knowledge is treated as an end in itself do we get into trouble. We need to get out of our heads and begin experiencing with our hearts. That is where wisdom lives.

Direct Experience vs. Intellect

Most of us do realize this on some level. And when we do, we usually try to augment our intellectual searching through some kind of sadhana or spiritual practice. Meditation is a common way to still the clamoring of the mind so something else (our true selves) can be acknowledged and heard. The four yogas (used to attain union with Spirit), Raja, Jnana, Bhakti and Karma are sometimes treated as separate paths, but that too is an illusion

created by the mind. When studied with the heart, separation dissolves into oneness. The idea of a “path” which has form disappears.  From that experience of oneness comes wisdom and the union with spirit we are striving to attain.  Direct experience transcends the mind and therefore thought.  As soon as we try to put words to describe our experience it seems to diminish it somehow. Something gets lost in the translation.

Something else begins to happen. I’ve noticed that I no longer care about the ‘workings’ of spirituality from a mental level. I don’t particularly care to have anything explained to me. My teacher gave a wonderful example of this. None of us are really concerned with the mechanics of how a TV works we just want to click the remote to get our programs. When you turn on the faucet to get water, do you really care where it comes from or how it gets to you? I don’t know about you, but I don’t. Indeed there was a time when I would’ve wanted to know and understand everything. The need to neatly label and file away information into mental compartments is disappearing. What is happening to me? I seem to be suffering from a shocking lack of curiosity.

I’m not diminishing intellectual curiosity, I’m just warning against giving it too much credit. It is a known fact that the greatest spiritual beings that have walked this planet were not Ph.d.s. Some never had any traditional schooling. The East does not recognize this as an impediment to spiritual growth or the attainment of wisdom. Only here in the West do we still hang on to outward forms. We always need to know a person’s credentials before we will even listen to what they have to say, much less judge it as acceptable.  (Part 2 will follow in my next post…)


 

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.”