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“I Am That!”: mystical unity and psychological inflation

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“I Am That!”: mystical unity and psychological inflation

The mystic quest for oneness with the divine

Most mystical traditions, in one way or another, speak of being “one with the divine.”

This is the final goal of the quest.

As Joseph Campbell says, there comes a time in the practice when the seeker is no longer satisfied with beholding the beloved. At last, the beholder wants to become one with the beloved. Campbell likens it to the moth who, after many failed attempts, finally breaks through the glass of the lamp, and for one brief moment – that “eternal” moment – becomes one with the flame. The moth has finally experienced the divine without any intermediaries. This is the goal of all mystical seeking.

In Hinduism, one hears repeatedly the refrain, “Soham.” Composed of two Sanskrit words Sah and Aham, it means “I am That.” Similarly, the phrase “Shivoham” means “I am Shiva.” Or, the teaching, “Tattwamasi” means “You Are That!”

Al Halláj (858-922 AD), an Iranian Sufi master who came some three centuries before Rumi, is famous for his utterance “Ana al-haqq,” which earned him eight years of trial and then a gruesome prolonged execution in the central square of Baghdad, for blasphemy. Al-Haqq, literally meaning “the Truth,” is one of the ninety-nine names of Allah. Thus, Ana al-haqq means “I am God.”

Some three centuries later, another Sufi mystic, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, would write thus (translation by Coleman Barks):

"There’s nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight."

This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
and told the truth!
The ruby and the sunrise are one.”

Angelus Silesius, a Christian mystic from the seventeenth century, describes his encounter with the divine using these words (translation by Andrew Harvey):

“What God is, no-one knows.
God is neither light, nor spirit
God is not bliss, not unity,
Not what we call “deity.”
God is not wisdom, nor reason,
Nor love, nor will, nor goodness.
God is not a thing, nor a nothing,
Nor is God essence.
God is what neither I nor you
Nor any creature can understand
Without becoming what God is.”

Deity Yoga in Vajrayana Tantra

Tantra is one of the paths within both Hinduism and Buddhism. In the latter, this path is known as the Vajrayana, or more generally, as Tibetan Buddhism. It is this version of Tantra that is most well known in the West.

The word Tantra means a loom, and refers to the act of weaving.

Weaving what?

Of course, there can be as many interpretations as there are interpreters. It could be seen as an interweaving of various teachings, texts, rituals. It could be the interweaving of masculine and feminine energies. The Yin and the Yang. The opposites.

Also, it is the interweaving of the profane and the sacred.

Tantric practices are often held suspect by other practitioners because of its explicit use of the “forbidden” material – such as alcohol, meat, hallucinogens and sexuality.

One of the central practices within Vajrayana, the “Diamond” or “Thunderbolt” Vehicle of Buddhism, which is explicitly tantric, is what is called in the West as “Deity Yoga.” The adept here is invited to more and more deeply “embody” their chosen deity.

This concept of the “chosen deity” is very common in the East. In Tibetan, it is called the Yidam, whereas in Sanskrit, the Ishta devata. The words translate to a “preferred” or “desired” or “cherished” deity. The relationship here is personal.

The adept does not “worship” their deity, they “become” the deity. Typically, the practice progresses from the “outer” deity, with attributes that can sensed by the five senses, to the “inner” deity, who is felt more internally, and finally the “secret” deity, where the adept is filled with the essence of the deity.

It is also important to note that not all deities in Vajrayana are benign and “peaceful.” There are many who are “embodied” in their “wrathful” aspects by the practitioner.

Below is an image of the deity Yamantaka (called Vajrabhairava in his Hindu incarnation). His name literally means the “ender,” or “terminator, of Death.” His teaching is thus about conquering death. He is a wrathful expression of Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva associated with prajñā (insight) in Buddhism. If Yamantaka is the yidam of a practitioner, they would then work to embody this buffalo-faced deity whose hands hold various weapons, while he sits on a water buffalo, exposing his immense manhood. This very masculine deity is shown in embrace with his feminine consort, Vajravetali (the wrathful form of the patron Goddess of learning and the arts, Sarasvati). He is adorned with a garland of severed human heads, strings of human bones, and a crown made of human skulls. He is drinking blood from a human-skull-cup offered by his consort, while wisdom-flames emanate from, and envelop them both. The entire scene rests on the trampled, naked body of “ignorance.” Interestingly, however, the entire scene, including the body of ignorance, is held within the matrix of the world-lotus, a symbol of cosmic renewal and “primordial purity,” which in turn floats on the ocean of eternal bliss!

It is this complex, magnificent, and yes, terrifying deity, that the adept is asked to embody - in order to one day himself/herself become the “Destroyer of Death” (in other words, escape from the cycle of rebirth, and achieve nirvana).

By Wonderlane from Seattle, USA - Yamāntaka riding an buffalo (Sanskrit: यमान्तक Yamāntaka; Tibetan: Shinjeshe, གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་, རྡོ་རྗེ་འཇིགས་བྱེད།, gshin rje gshed; rdo rje 'jigs byed) a Mahayana Yidam, holding skeleton wand & noose, consort, flames of wisdom, wall mural, Pharping, Nepal, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52291450

By Wonderlane from Seattle, USA - Yamāntaka riding an buffalo (Sanskrit: यमान्तक Yamāntaka; Tibetan: Shinjeshe, གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་, རྡོ་རྗེ་འཇིགས་བྱེད།, gshin rje gshed; rdo rje 'jigs byed) a Mahayana Yidam, holding skeleton wand & noose, consort, flames of wisdom, wall mural, Pharping, Nepal, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52291450

What about the risk of psychological inflation in such practices?

The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, used the term “archetypes of the collective unconscious” to describe precisely the kind of potent primordial energies that are represented by the deities of Vajrayana. Jung warned repeatedly of the risk of what he called “psychological inflation” if one became identified with aspects of an archetype. According to Jung, precisely because these archetypes are “numinous” (i.e., magical, and with the power to impress and fascinate), if one becomes identified with them, then one loses their conscious ego function. It is often said within Jungian circles that when you are able to consciously relate to a “Complex” (an affect-laden activated archetype), you “have the complex.” If you are unconscious of it, however, then “the complex has you!”

We all know how it looks like when a complex “has” someone. We see extreme examples in psych wards where someone believes they are Jesus Christ, or Hitler, and act the part. A more day-to-day example may be someone who is so taken by the positive polarity of the Mother archetype that they will carry out the task of being available and nourishing to their children to the point of smothering them, and preventing the children’s own personalities and resiliencies to arise. Or the spiritual teacher who is taken over by the Wise Old Man aspect of the Father archetype, and does not see how his actions are making his followers dependent on him, rather than them cultivating their own relationship to the divine. Remember, the opposite polarity of the Wise Old Man is Chronos, or Saturn - the father who devours his own children to avoid his power being usurped by them!

In Jungian understanding, then, the more we consciously identify with one polarity of an archetype, the opposite polarity “constellates” in the unconscious as a “Complex.” If constellated with enough force, this complex can completely submerge the ego-consciousness and take over the functioning of the psyche.

If psychological inflation is indeed real, and we can see it being played out all around us (and if we are honest, in us), is then there something fundamentally wrong with Vajrayana, and other tantric practices? At least for the Western person, as Jung suggested? Is the Western seeker indeed better off “praying” to God, instead of “becoming” God?

The answer lies in our angle of relating to an archetype

The risks of psychological inflation, and in extreme cases, a complete loss of ego identity and with it, the ability to function in consensus reality, are indeed very real. And this risk is invariably present when a novice approaches a tantric practice such as Vajrayana.

This is precisely the reason why, within the cultures where Tantra is a known and practiced path, it is not a path entered into lightly. One can think of a tantric practice as preparing to climb Mount Everest. One doesn’t roll out of bed one morning and head over to the base camp of Everest. There is years of training – developing optimal physical and psychological fitness, learning the techniques of rock and ice craft, learning survival strategies. And then climbing smaller mountains, over and over again, before heading to Everest. Finally, when one is ready, one plans the expedition carefully, looks at the weather, the fellow climbers, the guides, the equipment, and then starts off slowly – acclimatizing as one goes – and always keeping an eye out for the odd storm or the cantankerous relationship between two expedition-mates that can derail the whole show!

Similarly, before one begins serious deity yoga, one practices different aspects of what in the West has been translated as “emptiness practices.” One of the fundamental Buddhist practices in Vajrayana – as in all other form of Buddhism – is called Prajñāpāramitā. The Sanskrit words prajñā means "wisdom," or “insight,” and pāramitā means "perfection". Prajñāpāramitā thus refers to a set of practices that leads to a perfected way of seeing the nature of reality. A central element of this practice is the so-called “Heart Sutra,” whose main contention is that “Form is Empty.” What this sutra, and its repetition daily by the adept, is designed to do is to convince the adept’s deep psyche, that ultimately all phenomena are “śūnya,” empty of any unchanging essence. This emptiness is a “characteristic” of all phenomena, and this emptiness itself is "empty" of any essence of its own.

What a practice like this does, is that it places the adept in a mental stance where they are aware – in a deeply felt way – that they themselves are empty and all experiences are empty. Becoming this empty vessel, they can now fully embody a deity – whether peaceful and wrathful – and work with its poisons and get to its medicine, without the risk of their ego becoming identified with the deity (i.e., becoming “possessed”). There are many, many tools that help the adept along the way – tools of imagery, tools of ritual, tools of meditation, tools of sacrifice. And it is all done under close supervision of an experienced guide – the Lama – who has made this journey themselves, and is familiar with the terrain, and its dangers.

Eventually, though, the reason one can practice the Deity Yoga of Vajrayana, and does not fall prey to permanent psychological inflation, is that at all times during the practice, and during their daily mundane life, they are hearing a constant refrain, "Form is emptiness (śūnyatā). Emptiness is form."

The Heart Sutra concludes with the mantra:

“Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā”

which means, "gone, gone… everyone gone… to the other shore… awakening… and so it is!”

It is only from this place of total surrender that one can safely engage numinosity, without being devoured by it.

If nothing else, may this passage serve as a warning against approaching tantra as a “flavor of the month” weekend workshop!

Finally, like everything that is alive, deep mystic experience is a dance of opposites

I want to emphasize as we end this reflection, that the “surrender” or the “sacrifice” of the ego that we speak of here, is not static. We are not asked to be ego-less forevermore! Because we all know, from our lived experience, that what is static is dead. And what is alive is ever-changing, pulsating with the life force.

It is the same with psychological inflation.

The risk, really, is not of being inflated, but of being stuck in the inflated place forever. Indeed, the repetition of inflation and deflation – of expansion and contraction – is what is essential for any birthing, and for the elimination of bodily (and psychic) waste. In medical language, this movement is called peristalsis. It is this movement that propels forward the fetus along the birth canal – from the maternal womb of darkness and unity-consciousness, and into the outside world of light and duality and ego-identity.

Similarly, to be a tantric practitioner, or a spiritual practitioner of any kind for that matter, psychological inflation is unavoidable. Too much fear about any possible inflation can leave us dead on our tracks - never risking to deepen our spiritual practice to the place where a real encounter with the divine is possible.

It is no wonder that the encounter with a divinity is described as “numinous.” This word was popularized by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential 1917 book Das Heilige (which appeared in English as The Idea of the Holy in 1923). Translating from Latin, Otto describes the experience of the numinous as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans).

Translating this into Jungian psychological parlance, we can say that a true encounter with the divine (including our own divine essence, the Self) is not all roses and holy choir – that it involves both positive and negative inflation. We may think of the negative inflation as the surrendering or “sacrificing,” (i.e., “making sacred”) of our ego. It is about emptying the cup. It is about becoming the hollowed out reed flute. It is about embracing the Buddhist notion of Emptiness. And the opposite polarity of this stance will be the positive inflation - where I am Shiva. I am the deity of my worship. It is the movement of identifying with, and fully embodying, the divine.

Neither of these positions are dangerous in themselves. Indeed, both are necessary for a true “numinous” experience. What matters is that we do not get stuck on either polarity. If that happens, then we are no longer having a numinous experience. Then, we are “possessed” and “devoured” by the deity.

The invitation, then, is to a dance. A dance along this infinity symbol where inflation and deflation flow into and intermingle with each other. We dance - over and over again in this graceful spiral movement – until we are brought to that numinous experience of a mystic birth!

And then, when this particular movement of the dance is concluded, we come back to “chop wood, carry water.” Or, as the Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield says, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry!”

May it be so.

May it be so for you. May it be so for me. May it be so for all beings everywhere.

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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 scientist’s dance with the divine

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A scientist’s dance with the divine

Fractals: a prayer in images

This post is personal, where I trace my journey with the divine, vis-à-vis my identity as a scientist. As a teaser, I first offer you this delicious visual meditation of the many faces of the divine. These are images from various parts of the famous Madelbrot set, taken at different levels of zoom, and using very similar color schemes. We will speak in detail about fractals another time. Here, I just offer you the beauty and the mystery that is invoked by these infinitely self-similar images. The reason I love the Mandelbrot set in particular is that no matter how close you get to a structure, or how far you move from it, the patterns are very similar. Mind you, they are similar - not exactly the same. This, to me, is important. These are not just mechanical repetitions like a marching army - each image is unique, while also being intimately related to all others.

A Confession

Unlike many of my other posts, this one starts with a personal confession. Although I am an ordained minister, I still have a HUGE problem with the word God. When I really take the time to ask myself – what makes my belly tighten when I hear the word God, I realize that my critique is not really so much about the idea of God. Rather, it is about all the social, cultural and political meanings that have accrued onto the word, and all the horror and divisiveness that has been wreaked in its name. First, the word God, for me, conjures up a patriarchal hierarchy – “our Father who art in heaven.” It also conjures up a cultural supremacy – the dominant culture’s God thrust upon colonized and enslaved people the world over –without any consideration of their inherent beliefs.

I have much less problem with “the gods” (small “g”) of people from various cultures and various times. I love those stories and the powerful symbols they embody!

For a very significant part of my life, I lived the identity of “the scientist,” who by definition, had to be an atheist or at least, an agnostic. Science and the divine could not have a place at the same table – I was told. And I bought it - for the most part; although I must say I was always a reluctant atheist! As an adolescent, I was fascinated by Vivekananda, and his erudition on Advaita Vedanta (the Hindu philosophical school that is based on non-duality of Self and God). Around this time, I also fortuitously laid my hands on physicist Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Thus, Vivekananda and Capra were my earliest influences, but it took me a long and often angry detour, to finally get to the place where I am now. I credit the poets - Rumi, John O’Donohue, Tagore - and the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell - in facilitating my return. Each of them, in their own way, gave me the permission to pursue the divine through beauty and wonder and awe, and leave aside the dogma.

Encountering the numinous

The honest answer to the question of why I went into seminary is that even though I resisted the call for a very long time, it is the very part of me that drew me to science in the first place, that has now drawn me to ministry. There’s a part of me that just cannot stop being in wonder – in awe of the world we are gifted to live in. I truly feel that we live in a magical world. I am reminded of it every time I think about the baby galaxies being born in the galactic nurseries, of the massive stars going supernova, of the idea that our “Universe” came out of nothing in a fiery Big Bang, and that we are still riding that initial wave of expansion! …Just sit with that for a moment…

Nearer home, I think about the hundreds, if not thousands, of metabolic pathways that have to work, and coordinate and feed back into each other, just right, for me to take my next breath!

I am right now thinking about a Planet Earth video showing a lion, resting after a prolonged chase and kill, satiated and yawning. The amazing camera work allows me to see right up close; I can see those fluttering whiskers, those twitching muscles in the face, and those huge teeth still with bits of meat stuck between them! I get chills looking at that face!

Is this not what has been called “numinous” by the philosophers? Numinous is a word derived by Rudolf Otto, a German theologian and philosopher, from Latin “numen,” meaning an image or a symbol that has the power, presence, and/or realization of the divine. Otto posited that for an experience to be counted as numinous, it has to provoke a “mysterium tremendum” (i.e., a sense of mystery that has the power to invoke fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (i.e., the ability to attract, fascinate and compel).

By this definition, my encounter with the galaxies, with my own metabolic pathways and with the yawning lion, are all numinous (i.e., divine).

And then there’s so much we can’t make sense of! So much that seems horrible, unconscionable. I think of the lion in whose image I just encountered the divine, as he pounces on the baby antelope, drags it, plays with it, and eventually devours it. I think of the mother of the baby antelope, who runs away to save her own life, leaving behind her fragile offspring. I think of the school shooters, of people blowing themselves up in public places in the name of God, I think of violence and rape and torture that is so much a story of our species. I think of my own daily uncertainties and yes, fear, as I parent a teen.

Are these experiences also not numinous – invoking mysterium tremendum et fascinans?

There is just so much poetry in this world of ours! So much beauty and so much pain that it makes your heart ache!

How do we be with it all?

“Living prayerfully” as a choice in the face of unknowing

Could all of this beauty and all this heartbreak be fully explained by a merely random roll of dice? Could it all be nothing but the logical turning of gears by a blind watchmaker?

I cannot bring myself to believe so. Because to believe so will be lose that wonder, that awe… that sense of adventuring into the unknown.

I remember a story told to me by a teacher. I don’t know whether the story is true. But it is a powerful teaching story irrespective of its factual veracity. According to the story, a student asked Socrates whether he believed in life after death. Socrates said he did. The student then asked him whether he had any proof to support his belief. Socrates said he didn’t. But then, Socrates said this: he said that he chose to live his life “as if” life-after-death were true – because it gave meaning to his life. It oriented his life and his choices in a certain way. And if when he died, he found out that it weren’t true… well then… it would be too late then, wouldn’t it? First, he wouldn’t really care one way or another at that point. And second, he would have lived a good life. And if it were indeed true, then he would have been off to a good start!

I think my going to the seminary, and living a prayerful life (although I have no traditional “God” that I pray to), is about a similar philosophy. For me, a prayerful life is a life oriented by awe and wonder and mystery… of always being willing to be surprised. I do not want to live my life cowering under the knowledge of the immensity of this creation, the immensity of my own unknowing and my lack of power in the greater scheme of things. I want to look up to this immensity and unknowing with awe, and with reverence, and say with Rumi:

“Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

When I really think about it, I do not think that the battle is truly between a worldview imbued with divinity and a world governed by science, but rather, about what we mean by “science.” Whose science is it that we are talking about? If we limit our “science” to the Galilean/Newtonian rationalist/positivist ideas, then yes, there’s a conflict. But if we now extend our science to Quantum theory, Systems theory and cutting edge Astrophysics and Cosmology, then the world of spirituality and science could happily coexist. Indeed, they magnify and enliven each other.

I think what is common between all these pursuits is the sense of mystery, of wonder, of beauty, of not being sure… Each of them requires us to be comfortable with not knowing, with not having the final answer. It is about, in Rilke’s words, “living the question.”

Encountering “the Universe” anew

Below I offer you just two quotes from Brian Green’s latest book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene, a contemporary physicist and popular science writer, highlights in these quotes the degree of our unknowing about things we have always taken for granted. Here, he is talking about the possibility of us living in a Multiverse. It is an understanding of cosmology where the idea of “The Universe” somehow feels parochial!

“There was a time when “universe” meant “all there is.” Everything. The whole shebang. The notion of more than one universe, more than one everything, would seemingly be a contradiction in terms. Yet a range of theoretical developments has gradually qualified the interpretation of “universe.” The word’s meaning now depends on context.”

While warning us that physicists are far from proving – in any rigorous way – that we indeed live in a multiverse, he suggests that the idea of multiple – even an infinite number – of Universes – seems quite probable. And indeed, the concept of multiverse itself is not unitary, since different cutting edge theories in physics predict different types of multiverse!

“Each (theory) envisions our universe as part of an unexpectedly larger whole, but the complexion of that whole and the nature of the member universes differ sharply among them. In some, the parallel universes are separated from us by enormous stretches of space or time; in others, they’re hovering millimeters away; in others still, the very notion of their location proves parochial, devoid of meaning. A similar range of possibility is manifest in the laws governing the parallel universes. In some, the laws are the same as in ours; in others, they appear different but have a shared heritage; in others still, the laws are of a form and structure unlike anything we’ve ever encountered. It’s at once humbling and stirring to imagine just how expansive reality may be.”

Given this science, how can I conceive of a God that still makes sense?

This is a question that has been on my mind and heart for a long time. Given my deep ambivalence about formal religions and the harm they have caused to humanity by pitching one’s God against the other’s, the only seminary I could go to was “One Spirit” Learning Alliance.

Among all the religious traditions we studied at seminary, the ones that speak to me the most deeply are the indigenous traditions. No matter whether we are studying Native American spirituality, or Yoruba tradition, or the spiritual beliefs of Australian Aborigines, one thing we find in common. And it is the belief that the entire creation is alive, and ensouled. Everything, in this scheme of understanding, is alive – and has a right to exist on its own terms. We have the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the creepy-crawlies, the Flying Nation, the Green Nation. We have the Stone People. We have Mother Earth, and Brother Wind; we have Father Sun and Grandmother Moon. We revere the Stone People as our ancestors, because they were on this earth a long time before we got here! We look up at the stars lighting up the night sky, and we hear the story told by the elders that each of those twinkling lights is a campfire of an ancestor! What a magical way to live! In this way of approaching life, every act of living – eating, sleeping, bathing, hunting, mating –becomes a prayer. More than any religious dogma, this is what I understand as prayerful living – a life that is in direct engagement with divinity at all times. If you truly believe that everything is alive, and everything is related to you, you still take what you need from the earth. But, you give thanks for what you take. You thank the animal who gave its life so you could eat. And you never take so much that the bush, the grove, the herd, will not be able to replenish what you took. If this is not prayerful living, I don’t know what is! And how different this is from our “scientific” and rational lives – which routinely denude rainforests, cause and sustain oil spills, support fracking, and cause extinction of species by the thousands, whose effects on the ecosystem we cannot even begin to fathom…

Indra’s jeweled net: an image of God that (for now) works for me

When I see where science is going – away from reductionist silos of knowledge to Integral and Systems understanding – to interconnected webs that constantly feedback on each other – I find that my understanding of God has to keep up with this movement. My sense of the divine has to be vast enough to encompass my science. For me, that is the only way that the symbol of the divine will remain alive and vital in my life.

Lately, I have been sitting with the idea of “indrajaal” (Indra’s net), as a possible symbol of the divine that I can relax into. Indrajaal is a beautiful symbol that comes out of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It perceives divinity as a net, or a web, spread over the entire creation. At each junction where two threads of the net meet, there is a jewel. Each of these shining jewels – of which there are an infinite number – reflect every other jewel in the net… Take a moment to sit with this image… A gossamer net with an infinite number of jewels – one jewel at every contact point – each reflecting all of the other jewels!

I love this image for several reasons.

First, this image is able to hold the tension of the polarity of one God/many gods. The net is one. But each point of the net is manifested by a specific jewel – which is both unique, and at the same time, reflects all other jewels. Each jewel could be a divinity, a religion, a planet, a galaxy, an Universe… Or a point in my fractals above…

Plus, a net is inherently flexible. It has no rigid shape. It turns, folds, twists and adapts, and still stays whole. The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, invokes an image of the webs spun by the Wolf Spiders. These spiders spin their webs not between two solid objects such as stones or wall corners, but between two blades of grass. So, as the wind comes and lifts the blades of grass, the web sways, only to relax back, intact, when the wind has passed! What a beautiful image of tenacity and resilience that is not harsh and rigid! What a beautiful image of the divine!

To me, this image of Indra’s jeweled net is very close to Carl Jung’s idea of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious can be thought of as the ocean, in which we are all immersed (he did say, repeatedly, that we live in the psyche, rather than the psyche living in us). Throughout this ocean of the collective unconscious are scattered the archetypes – condensations of instinct and psychic potentialities – that may manifest in our lives at times, in response to inner or outer stimuli – only to relax back into the unconscious when the stimulus recedes. Although this particular post is not the place to discuss archetypes in detail, I want to point out that unlike the “Jung lite” that pervades New Age thinking, an archetype is a potentiality that can NEVER be integrated into a person’s psyche, and thus depotentiated. We can integrate parts of their manifestation in our lives in the form of understanding and owning parts of our complexes, but the underlying archetype never loses – yes – its numinosity. Archetypes are our common inheritance, like the jewels of Indra’s net, and no one person can own them or vanquish them.

Many people from many cultures over time have tried to put into words this dialectic between the general and the specific nature of the divine. However, the concept is so ineffable, that what they have provided us with are more images. So, here are a couple of other images.

One of these images comes from the Indian saint, Ramakrishna, when he tried to explain the nature of God to his disciples. His image was that of a body of water – say an ocean. The water is everywhere, and you can’t distinguish one part of it from another. It is all the same water. But now, imagine that in certain places, the water freezes. Now, there are chunks of ice which have solidified. They have now become manifest, embodied. However, they are still the same water.

Another image comes from Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux medicine man from South Dakota, USA. In a conversation with ethnologist John Neihardt, he says that the center of the world – the axis mundi – is the Harney Peak in South Dakota. In the very next statement, he says, “but, the central mountain of the world is everywhere!”

These statements are very reminiscent of the quote below from the medieval theological text, Liber XXIV Philosophorum (The Book of the Twenty Four Philosophers):

“God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

This is the paradox we are called to live with. Divinity is not just transcendent or just immanent; it is neither spirit nor soul. It is both. And much, much more – that we cannot put into words.

Thus, in my worldview at this moment, I believe that we live in a world permeated with divinity, and that this divinity “crystallizes” wherever we pay attention to it. In other words, God is present at any place, at any time, and in any activity - as long as we inhabit it in awe and in prayerful wonder!

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Burning with Rumi

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Burning with Rumi

An Illustrated Mathnawi from Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived most of his life and eventually died.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masnavi#/media/File:Turkey.Konya049.jpg

An Illustrated Mathnawi from Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived most of his life and eventually died. 
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masnavi#/media/File:Turkey.Konya049.jpg

The Reed Flute Song

Listen to the story told by the reed,                                          
of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty."

Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment

melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn

and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy

and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender

and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.

A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect

because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes

is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying

that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.

Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,

who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!

No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.

But if someone doesn't want to hear
the song of the reed flute,

it's best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave.

~ Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi
(Translation: Coleman Barks)

Ney, the Persian reed flute

The lines above open the Mathnawi (or Masnavi), a massive work of mystical poetry, consisting of 50,000 lines of rhyming couplets composed by Rumi. Many Sufis treasure the Mathnawi as much as the Qur'an itself! 

In this section titled "The Reed Flute's Song" by translator Coleman Barks, the reed flute ("ney" in Persian) speaks, in plaintive language, of the pain of separation of the Lover from the Beloved - that of the aspirant from his/her divine source. What I find so attractive about Rumi is that he speaks so eloquently about this human longing for the divine, without making it dense with the language of theology and creed. 

The original poem, "Beshno az ney " in Persian (Farsi), has been translated by many translators, and each translation brings out a different nuance. Persian is a lyrical language, and Rumi's poetry are meant to be spoken out loud - and sung. Thus, no translation can do full justice to the poem. At the end of this piece, I have provided a link to a video of the this poem sung in Farsi, and also a transliteration of the original poem.

The experience of being a reed flute

The words that, for me, are the soul of this poem, and the ones that set Rumi aside as the "king of mystics," are the following:

"...The reed flute
is fire, not wind
."

And

"Be that empty."

What does it mean - that a reed flute is fire, not wind?

And what is this emphatic invitation to be empty?

I received a beautiful explanation to this question from a fellow student at an elective course on Rumi at my seminary. She told us a story from her Sheikh (her teacher). According to this story, when a reed stem is cut from the reed bed with the intention of making a flute, it is still green and wet. To serve as a container for the vibrating column of air which will make the magical song, it first needs to be dried out completely, then hollowed, and finally have holes drilled into it.

The part about the reed flute being fire, not wind, comes from an ancient process of hollowing out the reed. A reed stem, in its natural state, has segments, separated by fleshy pith. According to my friend's teacher, in the olden days, after the reed was adequately dried, it was filled with molten metal, in order to melt away all the pith. Once the metal could flow through the reed without interruption, it was considered empty enough to become a flute. A reed stem is born to make music, but it cannot do so until the loving hands of the flute-maker fills it with scalding molten metal! My friend's Sheikh told her that this was exactly the job of a spiritual teacher - to pour molten metal into his/her students, until they became empty enough to make the music they were born to create!

Rumi uses this metaphor of passing through fire, of melting - again and again - as an essential part of the mystic path. This fire, this melting - is understood as the pain of separation from the divine Beloved - and of this desperate longing for reunification. He speaks of the young chickpea drinking water in the gardens, only so that it can later be cooked by the teacher, to make food "for the Friend." He speaks of the wine-maker trampling the grapes - even though the grapes cry out and bleed - in order to make wine. Again and again, the imagery reminds the student that this path is not just wine and savory delectables - not just ecstasy, but that one does not arrive at these culminations without going through extreme mortification and pain. 

Indeed, the Mevlavi Sufi order that Rumi founded, is one of the most ascetic and rigorous of all Sufi orders! Thus, Rumi's Sufiism is by no means "Islam Lite." On the contrary, through his poetic language, he is able to enter the heart of devotion, and illuminate the essence of both suffering and ecstasy for all of mankind.

In the utter emptiness of the reed flute lies its music. It is this stripping away - that feels ruthless at the time - which births a reed flute - a "friend to all who want the fabric torn and drawn away!" 

Thus, Rumi's invitation to us is to not shy away from darkness - from deep process - from what Christian mystics have called via negativa - in order to one day be able to make music like the reed flute.

Transliteration of the Reed Flute's Song in Persian (Farsi)

Aatasheh ishq ast kandar ney fetaad
Jooshesheh ishq ast kandar mey fetaad

Ney, harifeh har keh az yaari borid
Pardeh hayash pardeh hayeh ma darid

Hamcho ney zahri o taryaqi keh did?
Hamchon ney damsaaz o moshtaqi ke did?

Ney hadiseh raheh por khoon mikonad
Qesseh hayeh eshq e majnoon mikonad

Mahrameh in hoosh joz bihoosh nist
Mar zaban ra moshtari joz goosh nist

Dar ghameh ma rooz ha bigaah shod
Rouz ha ba souz ha hamraah shod

Rouz ha gar raft gu ro baak nist
To bemaan , ey aankeh chin to paak nist

Har keh joz maahi zeh aabash dir shod
Har keh bi roozist, roozash dir shod

Dar nayaabad haaleh pokhteh hich khaam
Pas sokhan kootaah baayad, vassalaam

Beshno az ney chon hekaayat mikonad
Az jodaayee ha shekaayat mi-konad

Kaz neyestaan ta maraa bebrideh and
Dar nafiram mardo zan naalideh and

Sineh khaaham sharheh sharheh az faraagh
Ta begooyam sharheh dardeh eshtiyaagh

Har kasi ku door maand az asleh khish
Az jooyad roozegareh vasleh khish

Man be har jamiyati naalaan shodam
Jofteh bad haalaano khosh haalaan shodam

Har kasi az zanneh khod shod yaareh man
Az darooneh man najost asraareh man

Serreh man az naaleyeh man door nist
Lik chashmo goosh ra aan noor nist

Tan zeh jaano jaan zeh tan mastour nist
Lik kas ra dideh jaan dastour nist

Aatash ast in baangeh naayo nist baad
Har keh in aatash nadaarad nist baad

Beshno as Ney in Persian by Ayeda Husain Naqvi

The Reed Flute's Song recited by the translator, Coleman Barks

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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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