Archives for the month of: February, 2013

Reading through the writings of the various Christian mystics I noticed a repeating theme of love or passion for God. This love is often accompanied by urgency and eagerness to experience the fullness of the union with Him. This brings me to wonder about the place of love and passion in my own practice.

There was a time that my practice was characterized by urgency and eagerness. This urgency, however, was focused on the need to attain and the need to become; this was a form of spiritual materialism and very different from the love described by the mystics. I’ve looked at this desire for attainment before and often with a critical eye. However, I think there was an aspect of this urgent desire to wake up that was motivated by an honest passion for truth and freedom. I’ve often ignored this aspect of myself, perhaps because I find it easier to focus on the negative; I think it is time to look at it more deeply.

I’ve always enjoyed it when things came together and made sense. I find an aesthetic pleasure in clear understanding and in elegant solutions. I enjoy seeing the system through learning how the parts fit together. To a large degree my spiritual search is driven by the desire to bring this same kind of understanding to my own self as a thinking, feeling, living being and then to the world at large and my place in it. I can only have myself when I understand myself and I can only be a part of the world when I see how I fit-in with the complex systems around me. What I yearn for is the knowledge that I am OK and the felt sense of belonging

For a while, this was largely a cognitive exercise but it became something much larger as I’ve grown to include other ways of knowing. The recognition of wholeness cannot be reduced to an intellectual understanding; it must permeate through all levels of being including the somatic, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. In fact, these way of knowing have always been a part of me but I’ve always allowed the intellect to claim ownership of their insights. In my spiritual search I’ve had to consciously widen the net to include all of those ways of knowing but I’ve not always found the right balance to strike.

Lacking a cultural framework to contain this search left me at times feeling lost. In fact, the search for such a framework has been part of my quest as well. I’ve found that the different systems I’ve encountered along the way have all been helpful in some way, however, they’ve also been frustrating. I often found myself struggling with some aspect or another of a spiritual system and again disappointed that I could not find the whole answer in Buddhism or Advaita, etc. What I was missing is a clearer understanding of what I’ve described here and permission to truly find my own way.

Often I’ve found that the biggest block for me in accepting a certain religion or practice was the image of God as something separate of myself. Even though many mystics describe what appears to be a non-dual understanding of God, I see wholeness as completely internal. Wholeness is a property of me, it is not a thing that I am, rather whole is the way that I am. Making this change has been difficult, I’m uncertain as I appear to be following an uncharted path that I have not yet explored fully and I have yet to give myself permission to do so.

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I admit it. I am biased against the secular mindfulness movement and the more successful it becomes, the louder my bias grows. There’s a personal side to that bias and there’s also a more rational and therefore, I believe, more general side to that bias as well. I’ll start with the personal, somewhat unconscious and shadowy side first.

Having found the dharma and having found a path makes me feel better about myself; it makes me feel special. Being a meditator is a badge that I enjoy wearing because it sets me apart from the “unconscious masses”. The possibility of awakening, of becoming the “enlightened one” carries with it the promise of becoming even more special than that. This need to be special has been a driving force in my life from a very young age so it’s not an unfamiliar force. It is, however, still quite a powerful force, one that I must remain conscious of and work with. And for obvious reasons, this “special” status is threatened by the increasingly popular mindfulness movement.

As mindfulness and meditation become less “special” and more common, being a meditator becomes less distinctive as well and the part of me that relies on being special to feel good reacts against this growing popularity. This is a large part of my bias against the rise of the secular mindfulness movement. The other part worries that in the rush to make the dharma accessible and popular (and therefore simple, easy and unopinionated) we’ll also lose its transformative potential.

So when I see articles about mindfulness making us more productive employees I die a little inside. And when I see conferences bringing together Google and Spirit Rock I can’t help but feel a little dubious of their end result. I try to keep an open mind and remember that different people have different needs but I’m also afraid that wisdom 2.0 will be nothing but a shadow of its original self. For myself, the practice in this is to keep noticing my unconscious biases rising to the surface and at the same time to not ignore wise discernment and to find a way to speak my truth clearly to support and promote what I believe is important.

Reading about some of the myths of Kabbalah I am once again reminded of the power of myth to hold and support us in life and on the spiritual path. I recognize this containment in Rabbi Isaac Luria‘s myth of the broken vessels, in the practice of tikkun ha-nefesh and most especially in the practice of tikkun olam. In many ways, tikkun olam seems to be a jewish version of the Bodhisatva ideal which is often presented as the highest ideal of the spiritual path. And yet, I find myself more easily able to connect to tikkun olam than the ideal of the Bodhisatva.

According to Lurianic myth, during the creation of the world God poured a ray of light into several vessels created to hold this divine light. Some of the vessels, unable to contain the owner of this divine light, shattered and spilled the divine light into the heart of creation. Most of this light returned to the source but some of the sparks were left behind, trapped in this world. By living the holy life, acting righteously and recognizing the divinity that is in everyone and everything we can help elevate those sparks and unite them back with the source; this is the work of tikkun olam.

In tikkun olam we are each asked to take a small part in the big, perhaps infinite, project of collecting the sparks of divine light. I feel invited to participate to the best of my ability in this massive project and to do my part along with everyone else. I see this as an invitation to recognize and to support the light in everyone around me, to bring about healing in small ways as well as large. It appears to be a task that everyone can participate in, and in fact we do even without knowing. This myth has the power to inspire which I can feel to a degree and yet, at the same time I still feel as if there is something missing.

There’s an internal resistance to allowing Luria’s myth in. It is as if there’s an internal conflict between the rational mind and the mythic mind. While the mythic mind enjoys and even craves the kind of support it gets from myth and story, the rational mind resists and is unwilling to let go of its own ways of making sense in the world. Paradoxically, I know that the more I’m able to lean into the myth, the more I’ll be able to let go of the need for rational understanding but this is not enough to resolve the conflict. I can see two ways out: one way is finding or creating a mythology that is acceptable to the rational mind; the other way involves relaxing the rational mind’s need to hold on to old stories and trusting that things will still work out.

This conflict between the rational and the mythical is the same conflict that kabbalists of all ages had to contend with. In their case it was the conflict between established religious organization and the mythical/mystical world that they’ve been exploring. Kabbalah survived partly because it managed to follow the second solution I outlined above; it managed to find a way to combine both worlds, to walk the seemingly narrow path of religious doctrine while at the same time creating a larger context through myth and symbols. In this way, I see the path of Kabbalah as integrating myth and rationality and I wonder once again about my own capacity to integrate those forces in my mind as well.

As I sat down to write about the meaning of non-duality I discovered that there is some underlying resistance that I need to explore first. This resistance showed up initially as frustration and a feeling of inauthenticity. As I began to unpack these feelings, I discovered that there were actually several layers of resistance to explore. Through the exploration of these different layers of resistance I discovered some insights about my relationship to non-duality as it is defined in different places and how it may relate to some current issues on my own psycho-spiritual path.

The first layer of resistance that came up is one that I am familiar with to some degree and is not limited to writing about non-duality but it would still serve to explore it here. This first layer deals with authenticity, in that, I feel inauthentic when I write about lofty spiritual ideals or attainments like non-duality and awakening. A part of me does not believe that I have the authority to write about such topics and yet at the same time, another part wants to claim that authority. I think that this conflict of trying to be true to what I know (little as it may seem) while at the same time wanting, even needing, to claim some form of spiritual authority is at the root of this feeling of inauthenticity. The feeling is only magnified by my association of letting go of desires with spiritual practice. The result of this conflict is that I find it difficult to even describe my experience and my progress, as that too, appears to be laying claim to something that I have no right to claim.

Another layer of resistance appears to be more specific to some non-dual teachings that I’ve absorbed over time. One way that non-duality is presented is “we are all one”. I’ve often chafed at this claim but I’ve not taken the time to explore this particular bit of resistance. I seem to hear in this claim of oneness an almost moral directive that is telling me that there is some way I need to be or something that I need to recognize. Not only do I not see things this way but I also feel that this claim of oneness is denying my own individuality. In my own exploration I’ve found that the Theravadan Buddhist tradition speaks to me largely because it leaves enough room for me to find my own way. Theravada does not deal much with metaphysics and many Western teachers consider metaphysical issues, such as rebirth, to be irrelevant to the practice. This claim, that we are all one, however, appears to leave very little room for me.

I have found that I can relate better to other definitions of non-duality. For example the phrase “not two, not one; both one and two” appears to leave more room for my own personal being. Somewhere in between not two and yet, not one, I can find enough room to be. I find this definition of non-duality to be very similar to Jung’s description of individuation when one discovers that one is a human being among other human beings – moved by the same archetypes – and yet one is a unique expression of human being, never before seen and not to be seen again. Unique, yet similar. Separate, yet intrinsically connected.

The need to find a way to be connected, yet separate has come up in my life and in my practice many times. It has been my experience in the past that in order to feel connected I must give up my separateness. This usually comes at the price of being untrue to a part of myself that cannot be accommodated in a certain relationship or situation. Shutting out a part of myself only works for a while; eventually it leads frustration and anger. When the anger and frustration can no longer be contained, the only option I appear to have left, is to leave. This is a pattern that I recognize from a very young age.

Over the last few years I’ve started to find different ways that I can be in relationship while being authentic to myself. This means that even in situations where my whole self cannot be included, I do that by conscious choice. This requires being willing to touch uncomfortable places in order to figure out what part of me is being left out. It means being willing to communicate my needs, preferences and boundaries so that I can feel comfortable including myself in a situation. This is still a practice and I sometimes find myself frustrated for an unknown reason, just as I did when I first sat down to write this paper, but by stopping and unpacking those feelings I can find new insight. It seems to me, that a deeper understanding of non-duality, as well as related practices, would be helpful in this process of finding a way to be connected, yet separate.