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John O'Donohue

Hospitality toward our inner monsters

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Hospitality toward our inner monsters

For the past few weeks, I’ve been sitting with the word “hospitality,” especially in the sense used by my favorite poet, John O’Donohue. He uses this word often in his writings. Hospitality, of course, may be literal, and refer to inviting in the stranger – the “other” – into our midst. It is a stance of curiosity and non-judgment – of trusting that whoever is at our door has a gift for us (although we may not always like the package in which it is wrapped).

Indeed, every ancient and indigenous culture has this type of hospitality as a central tenet. The guest is considered a manifestation of divinity, and is treated as such. If you are ever in doubt about your own divinity, all you have to do is walk into the home of a poor farmer in Bangladesh, or India, or Peru – and you will be amazed by how easily you’ll be invited in, offered the best morsel of food in the house, and the best seat by the fire, or under the tree in the yard!

John O’Donohue has a beautiful description that captures this spirit in his book, Anam Cara:

“In the West of Ireland, many houses have open fires. At wintertime when you visit someone, you go through the bleak and cold landscape until you finally come into the hearth, where the warmth and magic of the fire is waiting. A turf fire is an ancient presence. The turf comes out of the earth and carries the memory of trees and fields and long-gone times. It is strange to have the earth burning within the domesticity of the home. I love the image of the hearth as a place of home, a place of warmth and return.”

Inner hospitality

However, today, the type of hospitality I have on my mind is inner hospitality – a welcome for all the “monsters” that our ego tells us to run from! O’Donohue continues the passage above as follows:

“In everyone’s inner solitude there is that bright and warm hearth. The idea of the unconscious, even though it is a very profound and wonderful idea, has sometimes frightened people away from coming back to their own hearth. We falsely understand the subconscious as the cellar where all of our repression and self-damage is housed. Out of our fear of ourselves we have imagined monsters down there. Yeats says, “Man needs reckless courage to descend into the abyss of himself.” In actual fact, these demons do not account for all the subconscious. The primal energy of our soul holds a wonderful warmth and welcome for us. One of the reasons we were sent onto the earth was to make this connection with ourselves, this inner friendship. The demons will haunt us, if we remain afraid. All the classical mythical adventures externalize the demons. In battle with them, the hero always grows, ascending to new levels of creativity and poise. Each inner demon holds a precious blessing that will heal and free you. To receive this gift, you have to lay aside your fear and take the risk of loss and change that every inner encounter offers.”

Who are these “monsters?”

Each of us has a lineup of our very own inner monsters - ones that have unique costumes and languages. They like to dance their own special jigs, and tell their very own horror stories! However, underneath all this superficial variability, they are really universal. We all have little (or not-so-little) gremlins in our basements, named fear, anxiety, jealousy, envy, rage, shame, guilt, judgment, self-doubt, and on and on… Each of these feel unacceptable, “not me,” – and are thus relegated to the shadows.

The more we turn towards them, and engage with them - ask them what they are pointing toward - the more they turn not-so-scary, and eventually, even warm and fuzzy!

In fact, soon enough, if we can tolerate the initial revulsion and accept these gremlins as parts of ourselves, they point us towards a cache of our inner treasures.

Remember that deep, abiding jealousy that wouldn’t let us go, the one that sank its teeth in deeper the more we tried to ignore it? When we finally face it, acknowledge it, “meet” it… it turns around to point us toward a neglected yearning of our soul. Maybe we always wanted to write a book, to travel to Antarctica, to attend Burning Man… The specifics are not that important. But our soul has had a yearning, likely all through our life, but we kept telling ourselves why it wasn’t practical. How we didn’t have enough money, enough time, enough talent… But every time someone else did one of these things, our praise was just a little stilted - our celebration marred by a rumbling deep in our bellies. The jealousy was the little monster that was trying to point us toward our treasure - our soul’s desire. And the more we ignored, the more insistent its voice became. Maybe it even moved to active sabotage of a dear friend’s project! But we kept telling ourselves that we were “nice,” and “decent,” and yes, “spiritual,”… that we wouldn’t do such a horrid thing as feeling jealous!

But once we finally acknowledge the green-eyed gremlin as truly a part of ourselves, and accept the gift it has been trying to offer us all along - the intensity of the emotion vanishes and we are suddenly selling off that family heirloom we never really liked, and arranging boarding for our dog, and shopping for tickets on ocean liners to Antarctica!

Similarly, we might have felt inklings of a ravenous rage just under the surface, but told ourselves that we were loving and kind, and this emotion was certainly not ours! We had been shoving this gorgeous beast into an iron cage in the basement, and no wonder, our floors rumbled often and we had to usher guests out on one pretext or another!

But now that the cage doors have been opened and the beast is able to roar freely, it leads us directly to the relationship in our lives that is no longer working. We are trying very hard to put up a loving and accepting face, while developing a large, ugly ulcer in our guts! The beast of rage is here to remind us that what we are really afraid of, and what keeps us clinging to this dead relationship, is not our goodwill, or even “goodness,” but rather, our fear of all the freedom and all the open time and all the resources we will suddenly have, if only we can walk away from this dead relationship!

Practice of hospitality toward our monsters

What if we created a spiritual practice of being hospitable to these monsters? How would our life change?

Again, all religious and spiritual traditions have practices that specifically urge the seeker in the direction of darkness and difficulty, and it is well-appreciated that only by going through the darkness that the adept will one day arise into the light.

In different traditions, these practices have different names. Whether called the “dark night of the soul,” or tantric practices at the charnel grounds, or taking entheogenic plant medicines that make you violently sick - the underlying message is the same. The monsters are waiting, just across the veil, to reveal their secrets to us. However, they will only meet us in their own territory, and under their own terms.

An invitation from the thirteenth century mystic Sufi poet, Jelaluddin Rumi

The poets have always had the language to speak about the ineffable in a way that we “get it.” Here is one of Rumi’s poems, translated as “the Guest House” by Coleman Barks:

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

A story about Milarepa, a Tibetan mystic who lived between the tenth and the twelfth centuries, AD

The story of Milarepa is a fascinating one in many respects. In fact, his entire life story can be read as an encounter, and finally, a reconciliation with “the demons.” He was a vengeful and ruthless killer of many, before he met his Buddhist teacher and began on the long and arduous journey of redemption.

Here is a story I have heard from one of my teachers, which I love.

According to the story, Milarepa was once meditating in a cave. The demons – whose job it is to spoil anything good – of course could not sit by and watch. So, they came. They gathered outside his cave, and hooted and hollered, and created a racket! First, Milarepa tried to ignore them. But, they persisted. Then he got angry – but meditated on his anger for days. The demons continued. Then finally, Milarepa stopped his meditation, and emerged at the mouth of the cave. The demons rejoiced, thinking that they had won. They had broken Milarepa’s concentration.

Milarepa stood at the mouth of the cave and said, “I know you’ve been here for days, shrieking and dancing. You must be tired. Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea?”

Suddenly, there was utter silence!

“Why are you inviting us for tea? Aren’t you afraid of us?” they finally asked. Milarepa said, “Yes, I am afraid. And now, will you please come in for some tea?”

At this, the demons were defeated and just disappeared, leaving Milarepa in peace to continue his meditations.

I find this a wonderful teaching story, which tells us that the demons will only remain demons and bother us, as long as we are oppositional with them. Once invited in for a cup of tea, their power will vanish!

Rubeus Hagrid: the caretaker of monsters

Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Wikipedia)

Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Wikipedia)

When we say that we are too afraid to “meet” a specific monster – say our rage, or envy, or self-doubt – it helps to remind ourselves that our psyche is in fact not monolithic. Even our consciousness (part of the psyche that we are aware of, or recognize as “me”) is composed of many parts. Let’s say we know that there is a monster that is hooting and hollering outside our cave, but “something” in us is too afraid to go out of the cave to meet it.

These would be the times to go visit our inner Hagrid – the gentle giant who lives at the edge of the “forbidden forest,” and is both the “groundskeeper” and the “keeper of the castle keys.”

I apologize profusely to those of my readers who are not Harry Potter fans. I couldn’t help including Hagrid here, because he is such a good archetypal image for this facilitator role.

In Potterverse, Hagrid is known for his love of large, scary animals that are too much even for the students and the staff of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For example, he has raised a three-headed monstrous dog whom he calls “Fluffy,” and a fire-breathing dragon called “Norbet” whom he has illegally hatched from a clandestine egg!

The point is, Hagrid is not afraid of the animals that live in the forbidden forest (the vast unconscious) that surrounds the Hogwarts castle (consciousness). His hut is physically located at the threshold of the forest. The animals in the forest respect him enough, so that if you do enter the forest under Hagrid’s protection, these “animals of the deep” might in fact approach you, and share privileged information with you.

Establishing contact with your psychopomp

In Jungian psychological parlance, Hagrid would be called a psychopomp – a mediator between the conscious and unconscious realms. He is the keeper of the castle keys (and thus has complete access to consciousness) and is friends with the magical animals such as unicorns and centaurs that live deep in the forest (the unconscious). The word psychopomp, in Greek, means “guide of souls.” For the ancient Greeks, the psychopomp was assigned the job of escorting newly deceased souls from this world into the afterlife.

The psychopomp is often somewhat “odd” (in the view of our ego), but s/he is allowed free passage into those realms where the ego cannot tread. Working with our dreams is a good way to get to know our own inner psychopomps, and we may further deepen those relationships through “active imagination” or “dream reentry.”

Charon, the ferryman of the dead, receives a coin from a soul guided by Hermes (Mercury) in his role as psychopomp (Wikimedia)

Charon, the ferryman of the dead, receives a coin from a soul guided by Hermes (Mercury) in his role as psychopomp (Wikimedia)

The soul is shy

The characteristic that defines a psychopomp is its hospitality for the “shy soul.” This is what John O’Donohue has to say about encountering our soul (psyche, in Greek):

“Maybe one of the ways to reconnect with your deeper soul-life is to recover a sense of the soul’s shyness… The value of shyness, its mystery and reserve, is alien to the brash immediacy of many modern encounters. If we are to connect with our inner life, we need to learn not to grasp at the soul in a direct or confrontational way. In other words, the neon consciousness of much modern psychology and spirituality will always leave us in soul poverty.”

Hospitality is always gentle

This, then, is my final message in this essay. Hospitality, by definition, is gentle. The shy parts of our soul need to be encountered not with the urgency of our “neon consciousness.” Rather, they can only be met in the “oblique light” of a candle which, in O’Donohue’s words, has a “hospitality for the shadow.”

This, I think, is a cautionary note about any type of “inner work” that feels abrasive and confrontational. It is important to distinguish here between something that feels difficult (or ego-dystonic), and something that has a scratching or scraping quality (like picking at a wound). Most likely, if any spiritual or psychological practice feels like the latter, it is working out of the ego’s agenda to “fix,” “treat,” or even “heal.” But it doesn’t really heal. On one hand, it may scour away what was once alive, albeit wounded, and leave behind an antiseptic barrenness. Or, the “shy soul,” in order to protect itself, may scab over the wound prematurely – so that the wound underneath festers, without any access to the healing light or air of day. Eventually, such subterranean infection will eat through muscle and sinew, enter the blood stream, and poison the entire being.

It is thus critical that whatever our personal practice is – that it allow space for a gentle and hospitable encounter with our inner monsters, demons and gremlins.

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A meditation on our ancient and awesome heritage

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A meditation on our ancient and awesome heritage

“We are made of star stuff.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Who are we, really?

We humans are composed mostly of “organic matter.” Roughly 96% of the mass of the human body is made up of just four elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen.

In this essay, we will take a brief tour of where (and when) these elements came from.

And the next time you, or I, feel small and worthless, maybe we can look up, look down, look around – and remember our common heritage, which is nothing less than awesome!

Constitution of the human body (   Wikipedia   )

Constitution of the human body (Wikipedia)

Hydrogen: the oldest atom in the Universe

Hold on… breathe… if you haven’t heard of this before, it will take your breath away! The nuclei of the hydrogen atoms in our body – as you read this line – were formed when our universe was approximately 3 minutes old (yes, you read it correctly). Granted, this was not yet a hydrogen atom, because the temperatures of the nascent universe was still too hot to allow an electron to be recruited to form an electroneutral atom. That happened around 377,000 years later!

Just to put it in perspective… Our universe is currently about 13.8 billion years old. Our solar system, including our sun and our earth, is about 4.5 billion years old. That means that our planetary home wouldn’t even exist for 9.3 billion years after the hydrogens in our bodies were already created! I have created a graph to bring this point home more visually.

Bar graph.jpg

Interestingly, even today, about 90% of the universe is still hydrogen!

Note that about 60% of the adult human body weight comes from water. Water itself is composed of two atoms – hydrogen and oxygen.

Now on to carbon, nitrogen and oxygen

At the time hydrogen atom was being created, another atom was also being produced – helium (along with small amounts of lithium and beryllium). These are the smallest atoms in the periodic table, which organizes atoms based on their atomic number (number of protons in their nuclei). Smaller an atom, the easier it is to be formed. Hydrogen is the smallest atom, with an atomic number 1, followed by helium, lithium and beryllium (atomic number 2 - 4).

The periodic table (Wikipedia)

The periodic table (Wikipedia)

As the universe cooled further, the atoms left over by the big bang were gravitationally attracted to one another and condensed into massive clouds. The gravitational pressure on the centers of these clouds heated them to temperatures of millions of degrees. This led to the fusion of hydrogen into helium. Thus, stars were born.

These early stars were very massive (several-fold larger than our sun). Due to large masses and dense cores, they were able to continue the fusion reactions to form increasingly larger atoms, namely carbon, nitrogen and oxygen (the so-called CNO cycle). Toward the end of their lives, they produced even larger atoms – all the way up to iron (Fe, atomic number 26). Eventually these early stars died in massive explosions called supernovae – which spewed huge clouds of these atoms. These gas and dust remnants in time formed new stars, which fused more atoms, until they too died in supernova explosions.

Humans as custodians of an ancient heritage

As discussed above, our solar system started its life approximately 4.5 billion years ago as a cluster of gas and dust that was enriched in the materials of life – hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen - which were formed in the bellies of generations of older stars.

In other words, of the 96% of our constituent atoms, 9.5% (hydrogen) is 13.7 billion years old (almost as old as the universe itself), and the rest (carbon, nitrogen and oxygen) are at least 4.5 billion years old (and likely older)!

Humans as shepherds of clay

It has been said that poets intuit truths that science arrives at via a different path! Very often, they find a deep resonance. Below is such an example.

The Celtic poet, philosopher and mystic, John O’Donohue, has a beautiful phrase to describe us humans. He calls us “clay shapes,” and even more importantly, “shepherds of clay!”

Here are a few quotes from his incomparable book, Anam Cara, where he lays out our heritage in these terms:

“Humans are new here. Above us, the galaxies dance out toward infinity. Under our feet is ancient earth. We are beautifully molded from this clay.”

~~~

“Your body is as ancient as the clay of the universe from which it is made; and your feet on the ground are a constant connection with the earth. Your feet bring your private clay in touch with the ancient, mother clay from which you first emerged.”

~~~

“In your clay body, things are coming to expression and to light that were never known before, presences that never came to light or shape in any other individual. To paraphrase Heidegger, who said, “Man is a shepherd of being,” we could say, “Man is a shepherd of clay.” You represent an unknown world that begs you to bring it to voice. Often the joy you feel does not belong to your individual biography but to the clay out of which you are formed. At other times, you will find sorrow moving through you, like a dark mist over a landscape. This sorrow is dark enough to paralyze you. It is a mistake to interfere with this movement of feeling. It is more appropriate to recognize that this emotion belongs more to your clay than to your mind. It is wise to let this weather of feeling pass; it is on its way elsewhere. We so easily forget that our clay has a memory that preceded our minds, a life of its own before it took its present form. Regardless of how modern we seem, we still remain ancient, sisters and brothers of the one clay. In each of us a different part of the mystery becomes luminous. To truly be and become yourself, you need the ancient radiance of others.”

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Living a heart-centered life: recasting the chakra system in a more dynamic light

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Living a heart-centered life: recasting the chakra system in a more dynamic light

My intention for this post

As I grow older, I get more and more tired of the ascensionist attitude in a lot of spiritual traditions. Other than the earth-based indigenous traditions (from anywhere in the world), there’s a general aspiration in most spiritual traditions of purification and perfection; of becoming good and conquering evil; of becoming enlightened. This, when taken literally (as is often done), comes at a huge cost to embodied life. It denies all the muck and the contradictions, all the sweat and the blood – all that constitutes lived life. These traditions often appear to minimize living in the un-perfected here and now – the world that encompasses both the mud and the lotus! The focus is on a perfected future. I am thus deeply drawn to spiritual practices and interpretations that emphasize the dynamic rhythm of life. Put another way, I consider a well-lived-life as a willingness to engage in the dance of the mundane and the sacred, rather than becoming a perfected but static sculpture.

In this blog post, my desire is to cast the Hindu/Buddhist chakra system in a novel light, which allows us to use it as a tool for a dynamic life on this earth, rather than another method for spiritual perfection and a release from the mundane.

A primer on the Chakra system

The chakra system is a way of understanding the workings of physical and spiritual energies. This is the philosophy on which the practice of yoga is based. There are many variations and nuances of the system. But at the most essential level, this system posits that there are seven energy centers in our bodies, organized along our spine. Each of these centers has been variously called a Chakra (a wheel), or a Padma (a lotus). Several modern teachers have attempted to show how these chakras may correspond to major nerve plexi; however, that is not the subject of this post.

Here is a brief description of the seven chakras:

The seven chakras

The seven chakras

  • Chakra 1 (Muladhara): translation: “holder of the roots”; root or base chakra located at the perineum; presides over connection to the earth, grounding, issues around survival; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: behaviorism
  • Chakra 2 (Swadhisthana): translation: “her own abode”; located at the level of the sexual organs; deals with issues around sexuality and flow, feminine energies; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: Fruedian/Kleininan
  • Chakra 3 (Manipura): translation: “jeweled city”; located at or just below the navel or Dan Tien; presides over issues around will and power, masculine energies; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: Fruedian/Adlerian/ Nietzschian
  • Chakra 4 (Anahata): translation: “unhurt” or “sound that is made without two things striking together”; sound of Om; located at the heart center; place of the open heart, compassion; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: Jungian
  • Chakra 5 (Vishuddha): translation: “pure” or “purified”; throat chakra; involved with issues around communication, voice and discrimination or discernment
  • Chakra 6 (Ajna): translation: “permission” or “command”; located at the third eye or the Pineal gland; presides over intution, vision, insight, clarity, self-knowledge; place of witnessing the divine
  • Chakra 7 (Sahasrara): translation: “thousand-petaled lotus”; crown chakra; participation mystique, becoming one with the divine; nirvana

The chakra system comes out of the Vedic Hindu philosophy, which is very much ascensionist, with a focus on ultimate perfection and release from the mundane. Thus, the traditional description of the chakra system, and the way it is typically taught in both the East and the West, is as a progressive, hierarchical process, starting at the base chakra and moving progressively to the crown chakra. The image that is often invoked to the explain the energetics of the chakra systems is that of Kundalini, a tiny white female serpent, who lies asleep at the base of the spine, coiled three-and-a-half times around a symbolic lingam (erect penis). With inner and outer work, she awakens in the yogi, and rises progressively through the chakras. The energy in the yogi becomes progressively more rarified the higher the energy (or Kundalini) rises along the vertical series of the chakras, until it reaches the crown chakra where the yogi finds ultimate unity with the divine. At this point, the body drops off, and the yogi achieves nirvana.

An alternate, heart-centered, understanding of the chakra system

I owe a great deal to the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, for the following alternate explanation of the chakra system. I first encountered this description in his video lecture series, Mythos. Mythos is a compilation of a series of lectures Campbell gave toward the end of his life, and thus, contains some of his most mature thoughts.

In the lecture on the Chakra system in Mythos, Campbell starts by describing the seven chakras in a classical way – as centers of energy stacked along the spine. Life energy (Kundalini, the libido, or the “anima” in Jungian parlance) rises step by step through these chakras, from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.

However, Campbell, being the quintessential marriage officiant between the East and the West, has a beautiful take on this model. It is an interpretation that I have never seen anywhere else. Here, I present Campbell’s proposed model, embellished with some of my own thoughts and associations.

The first three chakras: basic ego consolidation

I posit that as the energy rises from the first to the second, and from the second to the third chakra, it can be thought of as a consolidation of the Ego in the modern psychological parlance. This allows us to function with more ease and grace in the quotidien world. From mere survival (focus on one; undifferentiated consciousness; first chakra), we move to sexuality (interaction between two; Kleinian idea of obsession with the good and evil breast; second chakra), and then to will and power that engages the larger world (three plus; Fruedian idea of the problem of three: the Oedipal complex; also Adlerian and Nietzschian “will to power”).

The fourth chakra: the center of our being

A Tibetan  thanka  depicting the  yab-yum  of  Vajravarahi and Chakrasamvara

A Tibetan thanka depicting the yab-yum of Vajravarahi and Chakrasamvara

Then, the energy rises to the fourth chakra. This is the mid-point of the chakra system. This the place where the mystic heart opens. One hears the “unstruck sound of Om.” From this point on, according to Campbell, the energy, instead of being directed outward, is now directed inward. He has a beautiful name for this qualitative change of stance. He calls it the “turning about of Shakti.” The ego now turns the outward-directed energy, which was thus far only interested in finding a footing in the outer world, to face itself and enter a deep embrace of acknowledgment. It is about arriving home – to be welcomed home into one’s own center. As a visual image, Campbell cites the Yab-Yum dieties of Tibetan Buddhism, where two deities are seen in profound erotic embrace. This is the place where we truly meet and engage with “the Other.” This is the place where prejudices begin to melt and morph, and we find inside ourselves what we until now belived lives only outside of ourselves.

Arriving at the fourth chakra thus qualitatively changes our energetic relationship both with ourselves and with the rest of the world.

Engaging the “upper chakras”

Using the energy of the lower chakras to engage the upper chakras, and vice versa

Using the energy of the lower chakras to engage the upper chakras, and vice versa

Once the heart chakra has opened, once one has heard the unstruck sound of Om, one can take the energy that was developed in the third chakra (will and power), and move it up to the fifth chakra. It is the same enery of will and power, but rather than directed outward in an acquisitory stance, it now manifests as speaking one’s truth, as taking a stance in life that is authentic for the individual, and as the development of a finely honed discrimination between the real and the shiny counterfeit.

Once this has happened, this energy of authenticity is taken down to the second chakra, and combined with the sexuality and flow, and the engagement with the “Other.” This “purified” and erotically charged energy is then moved up to the sixth chakra. This allows for vision and intuition of the sixth chakra that is informed by both authenticity/discrimination and flow/acceptance/erotic intensity. The result is the human being beholding his/her divine object. An image that may be evoked here is Dante beholding Beatrice in the Divine Comedy.

Dante beholds Beatrice in the Divine Comedies; painting by Henry Holiday  (1839–1927)

Dante beholds Beatrice in the Divine Comedies; painting by Henry Holiday  (1839–1927)

Finally, though, this beholding is not enough. There is still a separation between I and Thou. At this point, this energy of the highly rarified vision is taken down to the first chakra of grounding and embodiment, and is then brought back up to the seventh chakra. As this happens, all barriers break, and the subject and object become one! This is participation mystique, or nirvana. As an image, one may think of the Hindu Ardhanarishwar, the androgynous Shiva/Shakti in one body. There is no longer any separation between the pairs of opposites.

Ardhanarishwara: Shiva and Shakti in the same body; Mankot School, Western Punjab Hills, c.1710-20

Ardhanarishwara: Shiva and Shakti in the same body; Mankot School, Western Punjab Hills, c.1710-20

Living from the heart center: the heart as the fulcrum of the machine of our lives

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

But for Campbell, a person who is to live an embodied life, cannot stop here, at the top of the ladder. For you cannot live in this world without engaging the pairs of opposites – joys and sorrows, life and death, light and darkness, depression and escstacy.

So, our goal is to keep returning to the heart chakra – to live centered at this place of open heart and compassion, with the freedom to move fluidly between the other chakras as demanded by life moment to moment. The heart thus becomes the fulcrum of the machine called our life!

This is a dynamic, “breathing” model for life that can be lived with grace and dignity in the midst of all its suffering and ambiguity.

So, at the end, I leave you with these words from my favorite Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, which seems to summarize this way of living:

“We need to return to the solitude within, to find again the dream that lies at the hearth of the soul. We need to feel the dream with the wonder of a child approaching a threshold of discovery. When we rediscover our childlike nature, we enter into a world of gentle possibility. Consequently, we will find ourselves more frequently at the place of ease, delight and celebration. The false burdens fall away. We come into rhythm with ourselves. Our clay shape gradually learns to walk beautifully on this magnificent earth.”

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Imperfection As Teacher

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Imperfection As Teacher

For Light

Light cannot see inside things.
That is what the dark is for:
Minding the interior,
Nurturing the draw of growth
Through places where death
In its own way turns into life.

In the glare of neon times,
Let our eyes not be worn
By surfaces that shine
With hunger made attractive.

That our thoughts may be true light,
Finding their way into words
Which have the weight of shadow
To hold the layers of truth.

That we never place our trust
In minds claimed by empty light,
Where one-sided certainties
Are driven by false desire.

When we look into the heart,
May our eyes have the kindness
And reverence of candlelight.

That the searching of our minds
Be equal to the oblique

Crevices and corners where
The mystery continues to dwell,
Glimmering in fugitive light.

When we are confined inside
The dark house of suffering
That moonlight might find a window.

When we become false and lost
That the severe noon-light
Would cast our shadow clear.

When we love, that dawn-light
Would lighten our feet
Upon the waters.

As we grow old, that twilight
Would illuminate treasure
In the fields of memory.

And when we come to search for God,
Let us first be robed in night,
Put on the mind of morning
To feel the rush of light
Spread slowly inside
The color and stillness
Of a found world.

~ John O'Donohue
(To Bless the Space Between Us)

 

My (unintentional) experiment with light and shadow

The lines above summarize a teaching I was given a few days ago, which was so profound that I thought it deserves a blog post of its own. 

It was 2 AM, and I was wide awake. I had just heard a difficult news about someone I care deeply about. To sort through my own feelings, I decided to do something that often helps me. I decided to create an image that captured strands of what I was feeling. The image I had in my mind as I started was: joined palms holding a candle, as if shielding it from a breeze. It appeared to me as a symbol of hope in the midst of darkness. So, I downloaded an image of the palms, and that of a candle, making sure that neither was copyrighted. I opened them both on Photoshop. The candle image was on a black background. I thought I would be done in just a few minutes. All I had to do was resize the hands and copy them onto the image with the candle. So, I started using the magic wand function in Photoshop to copy the hands - an act that I have done thousands of times before. 

That's when I realized that there were just too many shades of pink through brown in the hands, and that some of these colors were very, very close to the background color! If I chose one area, I was losing another one, or picking up too much background! By this time, it was past 3:30 AM, and I was getting really frustrated. I was about to give up.

And then, I had a thought - a kind of throwing up of my hands in resignation! Or, may be it was a revelation! I said, ok, I'll just take all the pieces I can get with the magic wand, copy them, and then try to fill in the gaps. 

So, I did.

And lo and behold! I had parts of the hand that I had copied, and the black background showed through the places where there was no copied content. As I moved the pieces of the palms around the candle - I realized that I had created something much more complex, much more textured, than I had originally set out to create! In fact, it was much more than what I had conceptualized, and much closer to what I was actually feeling!

I had created these cupped hands holding both light and shadow! Literally - holding the paradox - the pairs of opposites! It was something I had not planned to do. I realized then that if I had continued to insist on perfection, I would have never received this gift! What I had to do was to stop struggling for perfection, and trust that the Universe knows what is best - better than me. I had to stop "managing" my life.

I am now sitting with this realization. How many genuinely worthwhile thoughts and ideas and projects do I sacrifice every day at the altar of perfection? And how would it be, if I really start to see every project as alive, as having its own intention? What if I truly accept my job as a custodian of creativity, as a conduit, rather than a task master? What if I am fully present, moment to moment, to what is arising? What if I stop defining when something is "perfect?"

First, I feel a warm wave of freedom ripple through my body! What? You mean that the responsibility of this entire Universe is not on my shoulders? That I am actually allowed to play? To have fun? Even to mess up? And that things of unexpected beauty can arise from my failings, my imperfections? And then... Does this also mean that I can let others be imperfect? That they don't have to live up to my definition of what is acceptable? And I can still love them? And love their work?

This is my radical realization. Not only is imperfection okay, but it is one of the best teachers.

So, I end with the words of Jalaluddin Rumi:

“Dance, when you're broken open.
Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance when you're perfectly free.”

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Kintsugi: The Japanese Art of Celebrating Brokenness

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Kintsugi: The Japanese Art of Celebrating Brokenness

“The wound is the place where the light enters you” ~ Rumi

Can you imagine a life where we do not hasten to hide our wounds, or paste a smile on our faces when we are hurting inside? At the same time, we do not mope and blame and feel eternally sorry for ourselves or murderous toward someone else? Instead, what if we are able to turn our wounds, our brokenness, into works of art?

That is exactly what the Japanese art form of Kintsugi does. When a precious porcelain object is broken, instead of repairing it and hoping that no one will see the cracks, the seams and cracks are deliberately highlighted by filling them with varnish or resin mixed with powdered gold (sometimes silver or platinum).

The lightning cracks highlighted with gold now tell the history of the object. It dignifies the brokenness, even celebrates it. Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) reflects a more general philosophy one finds in Japanese aesthetics, that of wabi-sabi – an embracing of the flawed or the imperfect. The Japanese have a word – mono no aware – which is impossible to fully translate. It is a word that can form the core of a lifelong meditation, may be the only one we need to live our amazingly beautiful flawed lives! Mono no aware has been translated as “the pathos of things.” It is a word whose contemplation can bring us in touch with the poignancy of impermanence, of the transience of things, even with our own imminent death and dissolution.

In our Western culture, the way we deal with brokenness is primarily clinical. It is a sterile, tense type of attention that we offer to a wound – external or internal. The attention has a quality of intellectual aggression. Why was this object (or this part of me) broken? Who was/is responsible? Could it have been avoided? Can it be avoided in the future? And most importantly, how can I fix it so no one can see that it/I is/am broken? This is what the Irish poet, John O’Donohue, referred to as the “neon glare” of our usual mode of attention. What if, instead, we sat with our brokenness, illuminating the space with candlelight, which in O’Donohue’s words, has a certain “hospitality for the shadow?” How would our brokenness feel then – to be held gently in this welcoming light, just as it is?

Maybe modern technology offers us a way today. We can find a piece of Kintsugi that speaks to us, and just sit with it. We can just look at the pattern of brokenness and let it wash over us. Welcome all the feelings that arise. Ride them like waves, without judging whatever arises. Trusting our inner wisdom.

We do not have to understand our brokenness. We have to learn to see the hidden gifts it bears.

Image courtesy: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License

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