JOYFULLY BEING ALONE: This subject is an extension of a frequent topic of mine which I deal with on a daily basis: extolling the virtue of introspection and self-analysis as part of clearing out impediments to devotion in the stage of bhakti called anartha-nivritti (retiring unwanted habits of thought and action)--at least that is often the hint. We live in a time of busy-ness and addiction to innumerable distractions, where it isn't seen as cool to just be sitting down without a handheld device, something to do, or talkative friends.
I remember once on a busy street being taken by the beauty of a particular cloud, where the comments I heard from passersby were about my being on drugs or exhibiting unusual, curious behavior to be looking up at the sky, as if their personal business of walking somewhere, or hanging out with no real purpose, was the only important activity, and my looking at a cloud was deranged tomfoolery.
Though we are social creatures that need interaction with others, the importance of being alone with one's thoughts or taking the time to reflect on life is crucial. Some people aren't comfortable being alone or don't know what to do with themselves
Like many people who engage in creative pursuits, I tend to have high expectations for my writing, which I have frequently expressed in blogs. I know, I know, I write about it too much, forgive me, but I think about it every day and whenever I write or teach.
As I chant and worship, I meditate and pray for uplifting spiritual power that flows through me in loving compassion and wisdom to be expressed through my speaking and writing. While I know it is there to some extent, I see being able to inspire people to take to spiritual practice, or devotees to revitalize their practice, as a natural outcome of sadhana, and personally, as a result of facing death. To me this is a win/win situation, good for me, and good for those who resonate with what I share. I will explain how knowing this about me may be of us to you--or why would I write it?
I share it because doing so inspires me to keep my spiritual focus—when I write or chant I feel spiritually connected—with the prayer that you may also nurture high spiritual aspirations. For so many years I was busy in bhakti but didn't really have high spiritual yearnings and goals as is offered in our tradition, nor did I pray for them. I stalled accordingly and lost my way, though the holy name saved me. My hope is that by this sharing my inner and outer life, you will seek to understand the goal of bhakti and appreciate its value, regularly praying for it with feeling. Ours is a path of grace--we endeavor or serve to attract grace.
So, what about you—what are your spiritual goals that you pine for, regardless of where you are on the spiritual path? Keeping this in mind and understanding its inestimable value is crucial for keeping on the path, not just casually, but with heart, for our whole lives—lest we give up in despair or hopelessness.
[Adapted from a FB blog from Dec. 22 2014] Every person has a story to tell, internal guidance to listen to, help to give, and wisdom to share. I write not because I think I am great or gifted, but because I am trying to listen, or put into words the feelings I'm impelled to write. I need to express myself to try to pay back the blessings I have been given. My prayer is that whoever may read my words will also be touched in some way, and we will all benefit. As we give so we receive.
Even though I am not always successful in my attempts to inspire, I know that if I keep making the endeavor, fueled by prayer, I can be of helpful service. Our emotions can guide us in particular contexts if we let them. For instance, for me, I have a strong feeling of discomfort if I don't do something I should—like writing.
When I close my eyes I feel like I am on the shore of a vast ocean of wisdom and my attempt to share it is like taking a thimble of water (my capacity to access it) and trying to put that into words by the power of grace. In general I just write and don't get writer's block even when working on a specific topic. I am confident that what I will be able to write about whatever topic I have chosen, though that may take some time. Still, not all my writing is inspired, and some of it is better than others. However, that is partially due to my not being in the correct state of mind, or being able to really listen with my heart and soul.
I used to primarily post quotes, verses, or parts of my guru's words on my FB page since I know that has value, and yet, I also realize that I need to have a platform to share—as they say—"my truth," or that which I am inspired by, or have understood from what I have read, heard or thought about.
Who are we really—
beyond who we settle for
without thinking too deeply
as most just blindly accept
as normal, conventional identities
that we’ve learned from others
and from our educational system
so it must be true, right?
Is it really a fact that
we’re our past sad or happy history?
What about our genes, race, ethnicity,
our skin color, occupation,
economic status, religious
institution, sect, or sanga,
state or region, political party,
conservative or liberal bend,
or our nationality or home planet—
do they accurately define us?
What about our sexual proclivity,
desires, likes and dislikes,
skeletons in our closet,
Although anger sometimes has a positive use in motivating us to act or to fight for a righteous cause (like Arjuna and Hanuman) and give protection to the oppressed, anger is an energy that is usually criticized since it frequently has negative consequences. We are urged in Bhagavad Gita to control our anger, lest it get out of control and cause us to act in ways we may later regret. In the Bhagavatam there is the account of Dhruva Maharaja's anger. After he became king when his brother was killed by a yaksha, although he had heard from Lord Vishnu that his death was inevitable, Dhruva still became angry and killed many yaksha warriors unnecessarily, until he heard spiritual philosophy from Manu.
Because Dhruva was a great soul, he could also give up his anger in the face of reason and Vedic wisdom. We saw in Shrila Prabhupada that he would sometimes become angry to instruct someone to change, but that anger never stayed for long, and the incident that caused his anger would generally not be mentioned again. We find that many people are not able to do this and may get some secondary gain from remaining angry.
For example, in psychology the appearance of frequent anger in a person can alert us to look deeper to find the underlying causes or emotional wounds we would rather not look at or want to feel, like feeling worthless or ashamed of our past. In such an unfortunate mentality anger seems more desirable and motivating that our low self-concept.
My experience with anger is that my father was often angry and this was exacerbated by the intoxication of alcohol which also became his frequent state of mind. He had unexamined deep emotional wounds from his upbringing and his anger and intoxication felt better
TO LOVE AND BE LOVED: There are primarily two underlying forces in the universe indiscernible by ordinary sensual or modern scientific observation, namely the forces of karma (selfish exploitation of matter), and the force of bhakti (selfless loving service to God). That which is greater than us can’t be understood by force, but only by loving service. When you love someone or the Source of everything, they will be open to reveal all their secrets. There are many, many ways people have spoken about these two forces—or levels of understanding and their implications—according to their belief systems and goal of their lives.
One way of speaking about karma and bhakti is what the personified Vedas state in the 10th Canto of Shrimad Bhagavatam that there are two purposes of the material world: facilities for the living entity to enjoy their senses and mind in unlimited varieties, facilitated by new opportunities thru re-births and deaths to try again, and the higher facility for liberation through realizing one’s spiritual nature and the source of real happiness within. Ultimately, in its highest reach, my understanding is that this culminates in bhakti or loving devotion to various forms of God, for Gaudiya Vaishnavas, Radha and Krishna, or Shri Chaitanya and Nitai, etc. We are sparks of divinity meant to live in relationship to it and under its shelter.
In the lower stages of bhakti we are continually confronted, at times assaulted or harassed it can seem, with the choice to follow the ways of the world through material enjoyment or to engage in acts favorable for spiritual advancement in bhakti. We can call these two endeavors, the path of darkness and bondage, or the path of light and liberation.
IMPOSSIBLE DREAM? Some people think that the existence of the soul and God, what to speak of a relationship between them, is delusional and unproductive. Others may doubt that one can have a spiritual practice to understand them, or that the Ultimate Unlimited Absolute is personal in its highest aspect, what to speak of being Krishna. Or those on the path of bhakti for many decades may doubt that they can make much advancement in this lifetime, but hope against hope for a miracle at the time of death. We find in the world so many opinions, some well-reasoned, others full of emotionalism, negative, positive, regretful, or so many combinations that may dissuade one from spiritual practice or the determination to give one’s whole being, heart and soul.
Sometimes well-meaning friends, family, or those brothers and sisters on our bhakti path who are disillusioned with fallen leaders or their guru, can be our worst advisors or critics. Some people never heal from their painful past traumas, betrayal, or disappointments, and remain looking backward, and not to true empowering possibilities. As the saying goes, misery enjoys company. How much such opinions affect us depends on our mind’s orientation to react or respond based on how much spiritual experience or faith in our path we have, or haven’t.
As I have shared before, despite appearances to some, I am one of those devotees who has lived as a casual, or “religious” devotee (which means just doing the basics and not really fully applying oneself to the process both internally and externally), for most of my decades of practice, and in fact I have this as my general default setting—which I would wager is true for many older devotees. I share this as a warning for younger devotees and a possible wake-up call for those devotees in old or pre-old age.
Feeling unusually sober and contemplative, I wrote a rough poem today about how I feel after reading two devotee memoirs, as I think about compiling my own. While I will share it after this introduction, I have so much more to say, to properly convey, all I am feeling today. I continue to contemplate death as as a motivating meditation to live today, and to endeavor to have no possessive attachment weights, that if not addressed, will propel me to work out issues with others in future lives; too many times I have examined my life up to this point and all that I use to define myself, which seem like sand castles, the blowing wind, morphing clouds, crashing ocean waves.
We generally identify as ourselves as our thoughts, feelings, and what we contemplate such as our desires—desires for things, relationships, or experiences, and also our bodily identity of race, ethnicity or the color of our skin, gender or sexual orientation, our family of origin and the one we have created, and memories of past experiences and their principle players or actors. I find it fascinating, though disconcerting to understand how fleeting and temporary these self-concepts are, being only a disguise or transitory covering for our soul, or our real self, consciousness, the observer and animator of matter.
The nature of the material world is change and transformation or as the Gita teaches us, the world is “endlessly mutable.” Accordingly, in physically conditioned life, which covers our soul, our body and mental states change, other people change, our life situation and the greater conditions of the material world change and go through cycles and stages. As a result of such changes we have to recommit and sometimes renegotiate our relationships to others, ourselves, and to bhakti, many times in our lifetime.
If we don’t voluntarily change or fight against conditions we have no control over, we will likely be forced to change because nothing stays the same, however much we drag our feet and resist. While this is a natural process, materially speaking, having to change can be disconcerting especially when we are set in our ways or have identified material conditions as who we are, and the underlying and foundational fact that the soul (who we are), or our animating consciousness, being eternal, wants permanence and doesn’t relate well to changing conditions which seem foreign.
While those who are Gaudiya Vaishnavas, or in fact anyone engaged in some kind of spiritual practice to realize their soul, even if they are grounded in deep spiritual philosophy of the nature of matter and spirit, will also struggle with the changing conditions within and without to the degree
THE ZIGZAG PATH, OR THE UPS AND DOWNS, OF BHAKT: When I was a new devotees it seemed like our spiritual advancement was like a rocket going straight and fast to our spiritual destination, and surely in a few years we would board that spiritual flower airplane piloted by the best of devotees, and go “back home, back to Godhead.” However, after some years my shiny, fast, roller blades become covered in thick, heavy mud and what had at first seemed like a full throttle race to the finish line turned into a slippery crawl, where sometimes I seemed to be going nowhere, or even sliding helplessly backwards down the rocky, dusty hill with no footing or holds.
Reading that Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakur has sometimes referred to spiritual advancement in bhakti as the “zigzag path,” has normalized my ups and downs in spiritual life, helping me to understand my difficulties, or starts, stops, and reverses not as a personal anomaly but as natural for every seeker. When we are on the ground, we have to rise up with the help of the ground, so this is my attempt to stand and go forward aided with the staff of mercy, prayer, and knowledge.