When the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1955 visited living Advaita sage Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon in India, he had one burning question for the master in mind. Having studied Indian mythology thoroughly for years, he struggled to reconcile the messages of God’s glory in the vedic hymns with the apparent horrors of the ordinary world. How could we say “no” to brutality, stupidity, vulgarity and thoughtlessness if, according to the Vedas, all was a manifestation of the divine? The master’s answer blew Campbell’s mind. “For you and me”, Krishna Menon replied, “the way is to say yes”.
For most people such an answer would be plain stupid or, at best, naive. They would argue that this supposedly Indian sage was telling them to become cowards by avoiding friction and conflict, or, they would expect to be thrown around and crushed by life if they ceased to defend themselves.
What Sri Atmananda was pointing to is, of course, exactly the opposite to cowardice. It takes a truly heroic stance to say “yes”, for every “no” reflects our unacknowledged fears that trigger conditioned, reactive patterns, collectively known as our ego. At the root of our ego and all our psychological suffering is an array of “no’s” that are heavily encased by unconscious fears. For the sages and masters of all times, thus, spirit-uality was about cultivating a warrior spirit towards our fears, turning our “no’s” into “yes'”, thereby transcending our ego (obviously, from the point of view of our ego, developing such a spirit feels like a terrible mistake which is exactly why spiritual training is so darn challenging).
When we say “no” we act and react from an unconscious place of fear. Fear is what drives the brutality, stupidity, vulgarity and thoughtlessness that Joseph Campbell saw manifested in the world. When we transcend fear and say “yes”, however, the range of possible actions and reactions broaden immensely. After saying “yes” we can still say “no”, but we will be able do so from our “Buddha-Nature”, that is, in a more open, creative and compassionate manner because our being is not gripped and bound by fear. A spiritually mature person can, thus, utter paradoxical statements like Ram Dass when he said that “suffering is part of the plan of it all, and suffering stinks”.
To reach such maturity in (warrior) spirit, non-dual teachings are great tools. When we realize that all is this ‘One’ (or ‘God’) we lose all objection to the various facets of life, whether they ‘stink’ or not. It helps us realize that not only joy and peace is what characterizes life, but also the suffering that comes with it. “All life is sorrowful”, is the first Noble Truth of the teaching of the Buddha and when he is depicted as sitting in the immovable spot in the hub of the wheel of life, he is not immune to life’s pains and sorrows since the hub is still a part of the world. He accepts the seemingly contradictory polarities of life as an integral part of life, as a manifestation of this ‘One’ Absolute reality that includes every single thing. He knew that when we can unconditionally say “yes” to all existence, we indirectly also say “yes” to this moment, this eternal “Now”. And it is in this “Now” that all the Buddhas before and after him have found their liberation from pain and sorrow.
What the enlightened masters ultimately teach us is that if we don’t know how to wisely relate to the “dark side” of existence, we are not fit for the full experience of life, since whenever we keep aspects of the world out we keep ourselves out of the world.
“My formula for greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different. Not merely bear what is necessary but love it.”
Have you ever felt sick and tired of non-dual teachings? I do, especially when I hear people talk about it as if it was a Truth in itself, a somewhat ‘deeper’ and ultimate reality. I call them ‘spiritual carnival barkers’. To me they represent those poor souls who didn’t get what the Buddha meant when he said that the finger which points to the moon is not the moon itself. For the irony about any form of non-dual teaching is that it completely depends on the concept of duality. Which means, ultimately, that, it is a game without the slightest chance of any form of resolution, ever. Thus, non-duality as understood as the attempt to replace duality is as futile an endeavor as fighting with one’s own shadow, or removing a thorn with another thorn. Instead of freeing oneself of concepts about reality ‘barkers’ create yet another dichotomy, another layer of mind-made fantasy. Sometimes they talk about the absolute and the relative level of reality, not realizing, though, that they are just buying into (and consequently selling) another dualistic idea of reality. They may have had great realizations and awakenings about the unity of things, but, tragically, although they think they ‘got it’ (while they obviously didn’t) they suffer even more than before. Bodhidharma must have had them in mind when he said that “those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings”.
You may ask what it is that ‘spiritual carnival barkers’ haven’t ‘got’ yet. Let me explain.
Our minds are instruments of discernment and logic. Their job description is to dissect and separate, to judge and evaluate, which, ultimately, forms the fabric of the (subjective) realities we live in. Our minds are so good at doing their jobs that we, otherwise physically rather feeble living beings, have become the dominant species on the planet. The mind’s power, however, is at the same time our species’ biggest weakness. Our ideas of reality are the cause of fear and desire, resulting in aversions and grasping with all its consequences for the wellbeing of ourselves and our habitat. To counteract this weak spot of ours, (spiritual) philosophies have been developed to undermine our concepts of reality.
One of these philosophies is Buddhism. Since our subjective realities are the sum of our concepts and believes, in some of its most famous statements Buddhism points to the realization that all conceptualizations of reality are mere products of the mind (e.g. “it neither is, nor is it not”, “not one, nor two”, “emptiness is form and form is emptiness”). Accordingly, in Buddhism, the ultimate goal, Nirvana, is ‘entered’ into by means of permanently transcending the minds power (called maya) to create the illusion of a conceptual reality. Once we realize that reality is ‘neither like this nor like that’ but simply what ‘is’, we are liberated from the bondage of our own concepts.
Hence, if we get ‘stuck’ in the conceptual duality of non-duality we haven’t ‘got’ it yet. Once we have removed the thorn of concepts with the thorn of anti-concepts, we have to drop the latter to be free. There is no need to carry our boats on our backs anymore when we’ve reached the other shore!
Let’s look at it from yet another, more modern philosophical perspective. If we look more closely at concepts we see that they are based on pairs of opposites like good or bad, right or wrong. When pairs of opposites are embraced (e.g. it is both right and wrong or neither right nor wrong), concepts collapse. Thus, according to the famous Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung, who thoroughly studied Eastern philosophy, the pathway to psychological health and wholeness, which he called individuation, is the ‘alchemistic’ reconciliation, or ‘union’, of opposites. Similar to the perennial philosophies of the East, Jung makes the point that we are only able to creatively hold the tension of the opposites if we realize that the opposites themselves are manifestations of what he called the ‘Self’. In other words, only if we realize the ‘Oneness’ of non-duality do we have the tool to collapse our concepts by reconciling the pairs of opposites that support them.
Again, the anti-dote is ‘non-dual realization’, but non-duality is not meant to be a new life support system. We should stop taking the medicine when we have recovered from our dis-ease or we risk poisoning!
How come ‘awakened’ people get stuck in the duality of non-duality?
According to Jung, when we start working with our unconscious beliefs and the opposites first get constellated, there can be wide oscillations between the two polarities; this can at times feel like manic-depression (“I got it; I lost it”) or even lead to nervous breakdowns (“Zen sickness”). If the person does not have a strong enough sense of self, which is to not have a strong enough ‘alchemical’ container to withstand the tension of the opposites, they will split-off, repress and project out one of the pairs of opposites and identify with the other. This will create opposition to the other side of the polarity and it may be an explanation why some people start “nestling in the stagnant waters of emptiness” (Zen). Awakening, thus, can make one more polarized and even more miserably struggling to bridge the (non-)dual polarity. Instead of a reconciling wholeness arising, egoistic symptoms result. For example, one may start considering the world to be foolishly ‘ignorant’, or developing fantasies of ‘healing’ or ‘redeeming’ the world or of dropping out of the world altogether, etc.
The teaching of the Eastern philosophies and of Jung are that all (yes, ALL!) of our stories of right and wrong are but reflections of the yet unreconciled polarities that make up our ego’s. To ‘free’ ourselves from our constricting beliefs and make peace with ourselves and the world, we have to learn to embrace and bear apparent paradox (more on this in my next post). Jung, thus, compared individuation, the process of becoming whole, to incarnation, for to the extent that we claim our wholeness we allow ‘God’ to incarnate in this world.
“When people begin their practice of seeking to attaining total Enlightenment, they ought to see, to perceive, to know, to understand, and to realize that all things and all spiritual truths are no-things, and, therefore, they ought not to conceive within their minds any arbitrary conceptions whatsoever.”
Are you looking for me?
I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas,
not in Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans,
not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think… and think… while you are alive.
What you call ‘salvation’ belongs to the time
If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten—
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment
in the City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now, in the next life
you will have the face of satisfied desire.
So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,
believe in the Great Sound!
Kabir says this: When the Guest is being search for,
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest
that does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.
The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere,
they’re in each other all along.
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You’re covered with a thick cloud.
Slide out the side.
Die, and be quiet.
Quiteness is the surest sign
that you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
The speechless full moon
comes out now.
Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.
Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God?
Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child’s training wheels
To be laid aside
When you can finally live
Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.
That this is the time
For you to compute the impossibility
That there is anything
Now is the season to know
That everything you do
I have learned
So much from God
That I can no longer
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much
Of Itself with me
That I can no longer
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even pure Soul.
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed me
Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known.
When my Beloved appears,
With what eye do I see Him?
With His eye,
not with mine,
For none sees Him
…and one more…
I would like to be a bit provocative this time and share an observation that I have made. I am convinced that most people do not fall in love with another person but with being loved by that person. Most relationships are, thus, driven by rather selfish motives, are not really romantic but serve a specific egoistic purpose.
Before you refute my little provocation, let me quickly explain.
If we walk through streets, bars, recreational places, offices, or other spots where we usually spend our societal time, we can’t help but noticing that how we behave, act or speak is mainly driven by the urge to improve or validate ourselves in some way or another. Companies, fitness studios, educational institutions, surgeons, bars, dance clubs and spiritual outlets thrive because of our seeking to impress by our looks, character traits, deeds, associations, wealth or status. What does that tell us? It simply shows that most of us unconsciously think that there is something wrong with us, that we are somehow ‘broken’ and need fixing (“original sin”). Think about it: if we really knew we were totally ok the way we are, we would see no reason to try to improve ourselves or seek external validation.
One of the most powerful validations of our innate ‘ok-ness’ is when somebody ‘loves’ us, because it proves the fact that we are acceptable (at least when performing the particular social role we are being accepted in). As we all know, the ‘falling in love’-feeling that comes along with it, is one of the most ‘juicy’ experiences a human being can have. It provides comfort, reduces fear, unlocks mental blockages, releases energy. Because it is highly addictive, like any drug, it creates a strong bond to the partner. This attachment endures even after the ‘high’ has completely subsided.
To make the long story short: when we say “I love you”, I would posit that what we really mean is “I love how your affection proves to me that I am lovable and how this makes me ‘high'”.
So far so good. Nothing wrong with falling in love, don’t get me wrong! What I would like to point out, though, is that because most of our relationships are egoistic and conditional rather than romantic and unconditional, relationship ‘problems’ necessarily need to arise.
The ‘deal’ in a egoistic relationship is that each partner provides the other partner with a feeling of wholeness by accepting him or her through their affection. By virtue of this ‘deal’ two ‘half circles’ become one ‘whole circle’. Whenever one partner challenges this ‘deal’, e.g. by withdrawing affection (leading to frustration) or spreading affection (leading to jealousy), the wholeness is considered by the other partner to be in jeopardy. Since the ‘deal’ is struck between two separate ego’s with different fears to avert, desires to fulfill and weak spots to defend, constant tension ensues. Usually this tension is unconsciously dealt with by each partner through exertion of subtle games of control and manipulation in an attempt to avoid a break-up of the ‘whole circle’ by the other. When these games become to restrictive to one (or both) of the partners, though, relationship ‘problems’ arise.
As a contrast, let’s consider a relationship between two people who know that they are a manifestation of the divine. They would know that they are perfectly ok and lovable even without receiving any external validation. Their wholeness would not be dependent on another person, some thing or circumstance. Each of them would be a ‘whole circle’ by him- or herself. They would enter the world and any form of relationship as fully independent human beings. They could live and love without the slightest expectation to receive anything back. Their love towards each other would be unconditional. Instead of getting intertwined and all entangled, these two independent ‘whole circles’ would be able to freely express themselves in a sacred dance of true romance.
“Love becomes divine when personality is not emphasized.”
I remember it as vividly as if it had happened just recently. One fine day I was walking in the streets unperturbed and without haste when suddenly time ‘stopped’. In a flash of graceful insight, I realized that time was a mere concept, an illusion fed by our social and biological conditioning.
In this post I will try to explain in words what exactly had become clear to me in that instant and the impact such an insight can have.
First of all let’s define time. Time measures a sequence of causes and effects in the interval between two ‘events’. For example, a year is defined as a sequence of occurrences within one interval of the earth leaving and returning to the same position in reference to the sun.
Now, I want you to consider the possibility that the universe is timeless, that is, eternal. What if there was neither a beginning nor an end to it? Yes, there may have been a ‘Big Bang’ that created this particular manifestation of the universe but there must be something that caused it. According to reputable modern-day scientists and ancient Eastern cosmology the universe has expanded and collapsed infinite times before and will go on doing so endlessly. Because there never was a first ‘Bang’, we can’t tell in which ‘Bang-and-Bust’ cycle we are currently in. Since there is no reference ‘Bang’ we could use to tell cycles apart, every cycle is the same cycle in different shape and form. Each cycle is just the furthermost in an endless series of cycles. If we assume an eternal universe, the time must always be the same: ‘now’. Far out, isn’t it? Eternity kills time.
Since there is no time (in eternity), none of this, not your life nor anything else, is actually ever ‘happening’. All that is ‘happening’, is change in this one, endless moment. Again, a ‘happening’/ ‘event’ is something which could be marked on a linear timescale. But without a beginning nor an end, such a scale couldn’t exist. All that has ever ‘happened’ and ever will ‘happen’, is ‘happening’ in this same endless instant. This moment is not a passing phase. There is no progression from one moment to the next. Yesterday, today and tomorrow ‘happen’ in this very same moment, this ‘now’.
Let’s make an example: raise your arm. We could say that time elapsed between these two distinct states of your arm. First the arm was down then there was a smooth sequence of movements of the arm going up and finally the arm was up. Between ‘arm down’ and ‘arm up’ a few measures of time (e.g. seconds) passed. However, from the perspective of eternity all that ‘happened’ was that the timeless, static ‘Now’ (aka Brahman, Tao, Godhead, Void, etc.) simply changed its appearance from one state or ‘configuration’ to another. That’s it. Forms, time and space are all superimposed on an infinite, static context of potentiality. Just like a movie screen can endlessly display things in all imaginable variations, the ‘Now’ can forever assume any imaginable sequence of forms. The famous 3rd Patriarch of Zen, Seng Ts’an, was pointing to this realization when he wrote: “Consider motion in stillness and stillness in motion [then] both movement and stillness disappear”. Motion is in fact embedded in the static stillness of the eternal ‘Now’. As much as the static moves, motion is static. Or in Taoist terms: there is inaction underlying every action (wei wu wei).
Why is the illusion of time an important insight?
Time is the cause of all kinds of suffering. Which is why I like to call it the ‘King of Delusions’. Time creates the notion of finiteness, coming and going, past and future. Such ideas give rise to regret and anxiety, striving and struggle, fear and desire. Realizing that all that ever ‘happened’ and will ever ‘happen’, births, deaths, achievements, successes, failures, etc., are but different ‘modes’ of the very same eternal and infinite primordial ground, stops the minds tendencies to dwell in the murky bondage of the ‘not-HereNow’ of time and space.
When (the illusion of) time is completely seen through we fully realize our essential, eternal nature. We know that ‘we’ never move nor age. ‘We’ are never affected by anything. ‘We’ are never not here. The manifestations ‘we’ can give rise to appear and disappear, but, in the end, they are just actualizations of ‘our’ potential. Because, in essence, ‘we’ are the infinite, all penetrating and everlasting sea of pixels manifesting as the images ‘we’ create. All ‘we’ ever ultimately do is playing an endless game with ourselves without any particular purpose or meaning, just for the sake of playing it.
Once the mind realizes beyond doubt that the eternal ‘Now’ is all there ever is, it strays no more but stays right here, and our very own kingdom of heaven becomes finally fully ours to enjoy.
“The Way is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.”
The Chromatics – Tick of the Clock
When I forget, I know.
By knowing, I flow.
Flowing, I stop.
When I stop, I laugh.
By laughing, I cry.
Crying, I love.
When I love, I break.
By breaking, I am whole.
Whole, I am released.
When I am released, I am home.
By being home, I forget.
Forgetting, I know.
In Zen circles you can hear people say that enlightenment is the moment-by-moment ability to rest and rejoice in the simplicity of the (super-)ordinary. Although this sounds unspectacular and simple, it nevertheless eludes most seekers of enlightenment forever. Why is that so?
I have found that most seekers seem to confuse enlightenment with excite(n)ment. Thus, in the pursuit of enlightenment they are looking for some kind of pleasant and continuous consciousness-altering experience. Unfortunately, though, the chase for such a gimmick -which ultimately serves no other purpose than distraction and stimulation- disqualifies them from getting the ‘real deal’, the goody of blissful peace and rest in the ‘Now’. It seems to me, therefore, that the simple reason seekers don’t get enlightened is that they don’t really want it. What they actually want is their idea of enlightenment, which involves extra-ordinary excitement rather than super-ordinary peace.
The question then becomes as to why seekers seem to prefer excitement over blissful peace. My conclusion is that, again, there is a fundamental confusion between the two. Whenever we distract or stimulate ourselves we get a break from our busy minds. The pleasant feeling we derive from this is what we usually call bliss. Most new-age and many spiritual methods and concepts are sold to gullible seekers exactly in that fashion. They promise (and, I admit, often do also deliver) instant gratification through quieting or transcending the mind. In the end, though, these methods work like a drug. Every quick blissful high always follows a reincarnation into the old complicated mind-state of likes and dislikes and reactive patterns. What we get when we seek excite(n)ment is simply Samsara reloaded.
True bliss, though, is never derived from manipulating the mind but reflects the health of our psyche. As our psychological wounds are healed, the mind ceases to be busy, permanently, not just temporarily. Rejoicing in whatever ‘is’ right now then becomes as natural as breathing.
It is very important to understand that the business of our minds is but a reaction to our ideas of how life ought to be, as opposed to how it actually ‘is’. In that sense, our minds point us to our hang-ups. They are our true gurus. So, whenever our minds are busy, that is, whenever our minds are in opposition to what ‘is’ we can usually trace this business back to a particular concept or to a particular coping strategy which we came up with to defend one, or a set of unhealed psychological wounds (that’s why seekers with ‘heavy’ unresolved ‘stuff’ are usually complicated, otherworldly and arbitrary).
One of the most popular coping strategies to avoid dealing with our wounds is the search for distraction and stimulation, that is, excitement. Seekers of excite(n)ment, thus, do not only miss enlightenment and recreate the cycle of Samsara, they actually strengthen an unwholesome behavioral trait which takes them even further away from blissful peace.
To be able to have our psychological wounds be healed we have to carefully and slowly disable our defense mechanisms, that is, we have to find a way to let go of our concepts and reactive patterns (which make up the ego). That’s exactly what ‘real’ spirituality is meant to do. It provides the tools to see through these mechanisms (e.g. by becoming mindful) and it diminishes our fears (e.g. by realizing all is ‘One’ or by cultivating love and compassion) so that we can ‘open up’ and be more embracing towards our emotions and feelings.
The spiritual way, thus, is not easy since it leads one to come face-to-face with repressed emotions and even traumas, both causing so much (if not ultimately all) of the psychological suffering in our lives. Only when our painful ‘stuff’ sees the light of that consciousness which knows no fear, it can be released and healed (some people speak in this context of the ‘inner healer’). As I wrote in my last post this process will take time and it won’t be fun and fluffy. For this reason most seekers don’t want to go through it. They are afraid of the real ‘work’ and much rather keep on dreaming about the ultimate quick fix. This is why most remain forever stuck in the spiritual candy store.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”