I wrote these stories not only as a way to introduce Buddha’s Four Noble Truths to my students, but also as a way to reveal the general madness of the human situation…especially, the many ways that we all—ordinary people, living ordinary lives—make ourselves suffer. It is a special type of suffering Buddha calls Duhkha, which is similar to what is known as angst. And in virtually every case, the suffering has arisen because of an inability or unwillingness to accept and or take care of what is right in front of us.
The result is the pain we cause ourselves while persisting to look for our peace of mind everywhere else but within.
The people in these 10 Houses are all of us, in some way or another.
Lead-in—Imagine a row of 10 houses facing a creek. Each one is big and beautiful, except the last one, the tenth one, which is smaller and needs some upkeep.
Inside the first house is a man who suspects his wife is sleeping with somebody else. He spends every minute of every day, in a state of paranoid suspicion. Right now, listening to her phone conversation, creeping along, crouching under the row of expensive paintings in the long corridor, he hopes the floor doesn’t crack with his sneaky footsteps, giving him away, and betraying his jealousy.
Inside the second house is a 25-year-old woman with an eating disorder. At least five days of every week are spent alternately binging and purging, and taking no pleasure from the compulsive acts. Her throat, her teeth, and her stomach are destroyed, and she lives with the fact that she is killing herself, and can’t stop. The other two days are spent in isolation, hunger, and vile self hatred.
Inside the third house is a mother too afraid to answer the phone, yet simultaneously too afraid to stray too far from the house, because her son is in Iraq, and news of her only son’s status might be delivered at any moment.
Inside the fourth house is a 33-year-old aging cover model, losing jobs to 18-year-olds. She curses at her face in the mirror, and doesn’t have any more will to get out of bed in the morning. She owes 20,000 dollars in debt from lost pay, yet just accepted one more credit card offer to schedule plastic surgery on her neck and eyes, in the hope that it will make her prettier and simply… better, and that it will help her to like herself.
Inside the fifth house is a heroin addict. He is missing out on his children’s young years, but can’t stop. Making it worse, is his wife, who calls him a loser, taunting him daily for his weakness. Every time he tries to give it up for good, he gets violently ill, and gives in to the urge to shoot up again, even though he knows it is only a temporary pleasure. It’s gotten to the point where he stands to lose his job, his wife, and the house. He no longer enjoys being sober because of the sickness and because of the agonizing guilt that eats him alive.
Inside the sixth house is a 60-year-old woman who has just been diagnosed with incurable cancer. She knows her body will soon start to break down, and that she will have to soon face her death. She will have to come to grips with the fact that she will never see her grandchildren, or her husband, or her dogs, again.
Inside the seventh house is an 85-year-old woman who lost her husband five years ago. Having lost her will to live, she lies in bed all day long, surrounded by the dusty antique knick-knacks she spent her life collecting. Her social security checks go entirely to the caretakers, paid to help her go to the bathroom, bathe and to take her to the doctor. She refuses to leave her home and go to an assisted living facility.
Inside the eighth house is a 19-year-old boy with agoraphobia. Stepping outside of the house is like hanging off a bridge… sweaty fingers slipping, and no one to catch you. He takes his Xanax to relax a bit, and then sits in front of his computer, wearing the mask of his artificial identity, chatting in forums while projecting a witty and sarcastic online personality, while hating himself all the while on the inside. The loneliness and self-loathing never seems to diminish.
Inside the ninth house is a 30-year-old ambitious office worker, who just missed out on a promotion due to the fact that his scheming female colleague in the next cubicle claimed his idea as her own, taking all the credit and the rewards. He takes his seething hatred out on other women, in the form of abusive relationships that leave him feeling more empty and worthless, rather than potent, and valued.
Inside the tenth house is a newlywed couple who bought this fixer-upper because it was the only house they could afford, given their loan qualifications. Because their house is at the end of the street, they are forced to drive past the other more expensive houses every day, going to and from work. He imagines his neighbors’ luxurious lives… weekend parties and expensive toys; and she is filled with increasing bitterness toward him, for promising a new kitchen, and bathrooms that she can decorate in coordinated colors just like in the magazines, none of which have come to fruition. Their relationship is quickly turning bitter.
This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness on the outside. This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness at all – it’s not a thing to get! This is why the masters say to wake up to what is… to love what is.
In my philosophy of film class, I always include Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, a veritable philosophy fest in words, ideas, colors, conversations, and even sound. With all held together under the grand question of what it means to live authentically, the topics span from free will to lucid dreaming, to the role of creativity and art in the human experience—touching on the central inquiry in the branch of philosophy known as Aesthetics.
In one scene, two people lie in bed, speculating about about things of an esoteric nature… especially reincarnation and the notion of “collective memory.”
“Maybe reincarnation is collective memory,” the character played by French actress Julie Delpy, suggests… “What I’m trying to say is that somehow I believe reincarnation is just a poetic expression of what collective memory really is.” And then she continues with a couple of examples, most notably, the crossword example, now of some repute:
There was this article by this biochemist that I read not long ago, and he was talking about how when a member of our species is born, it has a billion years of memory to draw on. And this is where we inherit our instincts. I like that. It’s like, there’s this whole telepathic thing going on that we’re all a part of, whether we’re conscious of it or not. That would explain why there are all these seemingly spontaneous, worldwide, innovative leaps in science, in the arts. You know, like the same results popping up everywhere, independent of each other. Some guy on a computer, he figures something out, and then almost simultaneously, a bunch of other people all over the world figure out the same thing. They did this study. They isolated a group of people over time, and they monitored their abilities at crossword puzzles… in relation to the general population. And they secretly gave them a day-old crossword, one that had already been answered by thousands of other people… And their scores went up dramatically, like 20 percent. So, it’s like once the answers are “out there,” people can pick up on them. It’s like, we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences. (Waking Life, 2001)
This phenomenon, whereby somehow, in a way that seems to exceed what we understand about reality by way of Newtonian causation (which applies just fine on the materialistic level), we are able to affect one another and share one another’s knowledge collectively, is sometimes referred to as the collective consciousness – a term first coined by French sociologist, Emile Durkheim.
Yogis Knew it When—
Yogis have had a similar belief for thousands of years… My own teacher, Guru Singh, speaks often about how we carry seven generations of familial information in our mind-body system:
It’s both a hologram within countless holograms, and a mirror of your consciousness reflecting images and experiences from the programming of your evolutionary history and future destiny. Your consciousness is an assemblage of all these images and stories from throughout the entire history of your incarnations and generations of your ancestry, and then projected through countless opportunities into your future…Your evolution — through tens of thousands of lives — makes up this kaleidoscope of your body and consciousness. The lives of your ancestors — for seven generations — all contribute to the makeup and experience of your physical body. Whenever you don’t realize that your experience is a mirror of all this, that’s when you’re living as a slave to the actions and reactions of the moment. Freedom is to experience your experience, while acknowledging it as a holographic reflection — an assemblage of personal perspectives experienced through the window of this projected consciousness and a mirror of reflections. This all takes place within your mental body — a result of your brain and its connection, or disconnection, with the Universal mind. When your brain is connected to the Universal mind — achieved through consistent meditation and contemplation — your thoughts are fresh and intuitive . . . flowing with the ease and grace of willingness. (Guru Singh, 2019)
So, to “wake up,” is to consciously recognize these tendrils of influences without remaining enslaved to the stories they carry. This is part of what it means to heal. For, to become liberated from “the story” is to heal. And when we heal ourselves, we also heal those past generations, as well as the future ones. There is no such thing as living in a solitary or isolated state… we are all interconnected, as one, in ways that we are just beginning to understand.
Telepathic Connections Abound… And Yet, We’re Still Bound to the Senses—
The characters in Waking Life pondered the idea that somehow, once “the answers are out there,” we can all tap into them telepathically… in a way that mirrors what the Yogis have said throughout the ages… in a way that cannot be accounted for by the traditional five senses. And yet, still today, centuries after the Age of Enlightenment, scientists run into all kinds of barriers and road blocks when trying to explore these sorts of topics.
Consider the case of British scientist Rupert Sheldrake, whose theory of Morphic Resonance was rejected as “heresy,” as if it were the 17th century. In short, he proposed that DNA is insufficient for explaining much of the behavior that is seen in all of nature, including the means by which we communicate with one another. He suggests that the missing gaps in science may be better explained by the idea of what he calls a morphic field, which is described as a field of information that influences everything, and also stores the collective habits of species. Think of it as something like an electromagnetic field, but as it relates to the extension of our “mind.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Sheldrake’s idea is its ability to account for telepathic experiences:
The morphic fields of social groups connect together members of the group even when they are many miles apart, and provide channels of communication through which organisms can stay in touch at a distance. They help provide an explanation for telepathy.
But, the mystical nature of what he was proposing was so offensive to the traditional scientific community that upon the release of his book, one influential reviewer proposed, in no ambiguous terms, that it would be well to burn it.
Eight Personal Anecdotes of Telepathy (Or… Music, Bed and Instagram)—
1.I had just reconnected with an old friend from when I was 14 years old. Gino is two years older. We both worked in the Italian deli (I said I was 16). We became fast friends and quickly bonded over our shared obsession with Elvis Costello. When we reconnected, it was just before the pandemic hit, so I was sitting in my regular spot in the neighborhood coffeeshop, and had just begun typing out a response to his email when Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” started playing over the coffeeshop speakers.
2.This one also involves Gino and music: I sent him a link to a Joe Jackson video on Youtube. His response was immediate… “No way! Just two hours ago I was filling out security questions for an online form and it asked me for my first concert, which was Joe Jackson. I hadn’t thought of him in years. Then you send me this video!”
3.I was finishing the watercolors for my storybook The Sycamore That Wanted To Be a Cactus, and one of them required a detailed rendering of the Fed Ex truck, with its readily identifiable purple and orange logo. I enjoyed doing it and this feeling was enhanced by my recollection that my biological father, who passed away when I was a young girl, had done sign work as a career. His father (my grandfather) had also been a Graphic Artist. I felt the need to share this moment, which was imbued with all kinds of special significance… that I was somehow carrying out my family lineage… a sort of “divine right”… through the act of painting a little sign in great detail. So, I sent a text to my friend Sharon, saying that “this is what my dad did in the 70’s, and back then, it was all by hand, and I really like doing this…” One hour later, I received a phone call from my aunt DD, his sister, asking for my mailing address. I hadn’t spoken to her in years. She explained that she’s going to be sending me a cherished ring that my dad wore… one that my mom had given to him.
4.It was last April, 2020: I had just posted another singing video to my karaoke channel on Instagram. The song was “Hello It’s Late,” by Stone Temple Pilots, a rock group I have followed for many years. I had gotten to know them a bit during my years as a music reviewer, especially bassist Rob Deleo, who I talked with the most, and so I decided to look for him on Instagram, thinking it might be fun to reconnect after all these years, or at least tag him. When I found him, I saw that he had just posted a picture from the making of that very song, only a few minutes prior.
5.I had just woken from a dream, imagining myself in conversation with a relative. I was responding to a “made up” question, saying “I’m small…” And then I clarified, as if having a real conversation, “What I mean is that I’m not very tall… I’m a small person.” And I continued repeating this imaginary, one-sided dialogue in my head, when I decided to check my email. I saw that there was one from him in my Inbox. After the usual greetings, there was a random by the way… “I’ll explain later,” he said, “but I was wondering… how tall are you?”
6.It was just before going to bed one night. You know those loose, out of left field thoughts that swirl through your mind, just before slipping into dreamland? But I was still cognizant of one thought in particular… I was thinking about how neat it would be to name a baby girl “Misty.” A strange thought to be having, considering I’m past my childbearing season. And besides, I never wanted more than my one wonderful son, anyway. But I continued my musing on the name “Misty.” Like a misty, foggy beach… And, like that wonderful song, “Misty.” And then, I was wishing I had had better luck singing that one, but alas, it didn’t seem to suit my voice. Then I decided that I couldn’t sleep yet, and so I opened up my phone. Because Instagram was the last place I had visited earlier, it popped right up. At that moment, the latest post from a fellow singer who calls himself “Jazz Cat” was right there. He was playing “Misty” on guitar while a female vocalist sang the song.
7.It was in the evening, when I often watch live music on Youtube. I had just watched a recording of Burton Cummings, from The Guess Who, on the Stern show. Youtube now offers me things that it “thinks” I’ll like, and say what you will of Stern… he rescues cats and gets good musical performances out of artists! So, then I turned off the TV. Not quite ready to go to bed, I looked through some old texts from a boyfriend of the past. I was hoping to find a link to another Cummings performance of the song “Undun.” Unsuccessful, I got tired of scrolling and went to bed, but it must’ve gotten into my psyche… I woke up in the morning from a dream with him in it. I immediately had the thought, Whew, thank God it was just a dream. And then I had another thought, Wouldn’t that be something if there was a text from him? And just at that very moment, as if to test it out, I picked up my phone, and there was, indeed, a text from him. But it gets better… It was simply a link to… The Guess Who Greatest Hits, on Apple Music. I checked the time of the text… it was sent at exactly the moment when I awoke, although I hadn’t heard it, as sounds were silenced.
8.This one is to the point: One day, one of my good friends and I sent each other pictures of the Eiffel Tower, by text. At exactly the same minute, without any prior conversation leading up to this seemingly random exchange.
*For more on Rupert Sheldrake’s story, see the BBC documentary on Youtube entitled “Rupert Sheldrake: The Most Heretical Scientist of Our Time *I also published this on awaken.com, which I contribute to regularly.
I was asked to compile this list for a soon-to-be-launched website that will be similar to Goodreads and which will include my own book, The Buddha in the Classroom. These are my own top five spiritual reads! Thought I’d also share here. Enjoy! ~Donna
1.The Four Agreements ⎜ Don Miguel Ruiz
The Toltec wisdom in this classic is simply told, and immediate in its applicability. For example, the second Agreement reminds us to never take things personally. How much of our suffering comes from doing just that? These teachings bring our awareness to this tendency. And awareness, however basic, does the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to stepping out of old patterns that keep us from feeling at peace within.
2.The Wisdom of Insecurity ⎜ Alan Watts
In my own book, The Inspired Teacher (Originally The Buddha in the Classroom), I tell the story of my fortuitous and life changing first encounter with this book, while in my first year of college. Foreshadowing my career as a teacher of eastern philosophy, it lit the fire of my ongoing interest in Zen and had a profound impact on my personal journey into meditation. I sensed that the ironic title held some precious secret. I would discover, within its pages, the magic that happens when we learn to lean into the unknown, rather than fight against it. Indeed, the search for assuredness in life only seems to perpetuate the angst that is at the root of all the anxiety that characterizes the human condition… at least for many of us! Through letting go, we become more free.
3.The Divine Romance: Collected Talks and Essays on Realizing God in Daily Life ⎜Paramahansa Yogananda
This is part of an anthology of collected talks by the beloved Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, which also includes Man’s Eternal Quest and Journey to Self-Realization. They are what I keep in my own nightstand and what I open during times of trouble. And this one is my favorite of the three.
Paramahansa Yogananda is direct and loving in tone. This is the kind of book that doesn’t need to be read at once—you can open up to any page and find solace. The theme revolves around the importance of dropping the self-sabotaging bad habits that keep us from true joy.
4.Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind ⎜ Shunryu Suzuki
This may be the most loved and widely known book on Zen. Like the Paramahansa Yogananda selection I spoke of above, it is transcribed from a series of talks, and so, it has a direct and intimate feel. Like many Zen masters, Shunryu Suzuki speaks with humor and conveys deep wisdom through Koans and lighthearted parables. The relaxed tone reminds us that enlightenment isn’t meant to be complicated. It’s right here, but we miss it because we expect deep wisdom to come cloaked in armor and difficulties.
If you only read one book on Zen, let it be this one, as it covers everything from the basics of sitting to the notion of emptiness, and in a way that feels as effortless as a breeze.
5.Be Here Now ⎜ Ram Dass
When I first held this definitive item of the late sixties counterculture in my hands, I was delighted by the unconventional design of the whole thing, from the front cover through to the way the text is laid out… sometimes coming at you in spirals, carrying the whimsy and free spirit of its era. There was nothing else like it and there never has been. Technically published in 1971, it relays the atmosphere of change that was engendered by the events spanning the Vietnam era, including the general spiritual awakening which followed, and which Ram Dass (then Dr. Richard Alpert) helped inspire.
In a highly readable and artistic fashion, he shares the most essential messages from his own transformative experiences, spanning his journeys into psychedelia and later into life as a Yogi, following the life-changing meeting with his teacher, Neem Karoli Baba, in a stripped down, compelling and relevant way.
Growing up in the west, we were told to stand with our chest out and our belly in. But, from the perspective of eastern wisdom, it’s all wrong. The belly is not only our center of gravity, but the location of our life force, known as ch’i. Mystics and masters of old will tell you that you have a special power in your belly. I remember my own Zen teacher saying to me once: “There’s a little Buddha in your belly, why don’t you see if you can wake him up.”
Relationship Between Belly and Breathing—
The first step to waking up the Buddha in your belly is to relax. Holding in your belly creates constriction and blocks energy flow. The idea is to let go of any tension within the belly, so that the diaphragm can move easily with the breath. “Belly breathing” brings the latent powers, that are said to lie just below the navel center, to life. The belly should appear to inflate with each inhale. It’s easy to see if someone is doing belly breathing or chest breathing by whether the belly or the chest rises with each in-breath. Most of us aren’t taught to breathe deeply unless we study some form of Yoga or martial arts. Or, if you’ve taken singing lessons, which is where I was first taught to breathe with my diaphragm. Consequently, the too-shallow and too-rapid “chest breathing,” which is emblematic of a stressed out and anxious world, tends to be the default… but more on the nitty gritty of breathing, below.
A Rose By Any Other Name—
Although most of the different meditation traditions that I’ve encountered emphasize deep breathing as a counterpart to any meditative practice, the Taoist styles, and the martial arts trainings that draw from them, are particularly focused on breathing techniques that work to generate ch’i. Once this life force is accumulated, it can be stored in this area that we have mentioned, right below the navel, and then later harnessed, much as you would draw power from a battery. This special place goes by many names. The Kung Fu masters call it the Tan-tien, the Zen masters call it the Hara, the Tibetans call it the Windhorse, while the Yogis have always referred to it as the Solar Plexus… meaning, “sun center”—conjuring up the idea of the “fire in your belly.”
Aligned with our third chakra, known as the Manipura Chakra, the Solar Plexus is the storehouse of untapped power. It is just below the belly button and is believed to be the cradle of our character, emotions and overall physical energy. The western vernacular word mojo comes to mind, since this can mean different things, but also suggests the idea of an inner spark and feeling of motivation. When tapped into, this vital center is also the source of virtues like patience and willpower, which may sound contradictory, but not when you consider that patience requires strength… and this strength is just another application of life force.
The Story of the Archery Master—
There is a story I like, which illustrates the hidden power that lies within the belly:
Kenran Uneji, the archery master, bade his pupils test his arm muscles at the moment when his bow was drawn to its fullest extent—a bow which nobody but himself was able to draw. His muscles were completely relaxed. He laughed and said, “Only beginners use muscle power—I draw simply with the spirit,” and he meant by that the power that comes from Hara. (Karlfried Graf Durckheim, 1977)
This story demonstrates the ease at which tasks are accomplished once we tap into this magical font of personal vigor, rather than relying on brute force.
As mentioned above, breathing kickstarts the flow. Like a gas line… it begins the pumping action that starts the cumulation of ch’i, direct from the universe to the belly, by way of the breath. And there are many different breathing techniques which are appropriate, from simple long deep breathing, to variations of kapalbhati, or fire breathing, which have roots in Ayurvedic healing traditions. But even before focusing on the breath, the process begins with our awareness; we first learn to anchor ourselves here.
Try it with me:
A simple meditation in Awareness—
Where ever you are… in a chair, or on a pillow or meditation cushion…
Close your eyes and bring your attention to your belly. Place your right hand on your belly. Do you feel it move with your in-breath?
If not, that’s okay. Simply concentrate here for a moment. Envision a little flame in your belly.
Can you feel the heat that this flame is generating?
Let the breath go.
Now, try and take another big breath and direct it into your right hand, as it rests on your belly.Imagine this breath fueling that little fire... bringing it to life.
Do you feel your belly expand outward with your inhale?
Now, exhale…Do you feel it deflate?
It is often said among mystics and Zen masters that simply bringing our attention to our belly keeps us grounded and out of the ego. Because it is the ego and the thinking mind which imagines that it has to do everything itself, and thus turns everything into a struggle. In Taoist language, which is part of Zen’s root system, being stuck in the head pulls us out of our natural alignment with nature. But on the other hand, when you learn to tap into this hidden well stream of power, you simultaneously surrender that superficial mechanism of control, in deference to something unseen. Something bigger than us. And when we direct our breath here, and let our actions come naturally from this power spot, we maximize our effectiveness in everything we do.
It is admittedly difficult to let go of our addiction to doing and to controlling. Even though this business of control is but an illusion. We aren’t used to trusting the flow of nature.
Another Real-Life Example—
There is an Alan Watts video I like to show my students of eastern philosophy, which includes old black and white footage of a celebrated Japanese Judo master who was over 70 years old at the time of filming. In that footage, Mr. Mikuné is challenged by a series of younger British black belts, all of whom are twice his size and half his age, and each one of them finds himself thrown down in a seemingly effortless way, by Mr. Mikuné. As a tiny little thing, it’s certainly not due to brawn, but rather because the master understands how to harness his chi force. With hardly a perceptible movement in Mr. Mikuné’s wrist, the large lads find themselves defeated, one by one. And it all appears so elegant. And then they bow.
Wu Wei (Efficiency of Movement)—
We may not all have black belt aspirations, but learning to awaken the energetic potential of the solar plexus, gives influence to the way we approach everything, and in turn, positively affects the subtle aspects of our lives, from the physical to the psychological… having a healing effect on our moods, sleep and even metabolic process, like digestion.
All of the Yogas—and by “Yoga,” I mean all practices designed to connect us to the divine within via breath, movement or devotion—and similar mystic traditions, such as Chi Gong… typically encompass some form of diaphragmatic breathing. This breathing style is generally taught in conjunction with the principle of maximizing efficiency in the way we utilize our ch’i. In the Taoist tradition, this is called wu wei, which translates as Non Action. However, “ease of movement” captures the spirit of its meaning better.
To get the sense of wu wei, consider the example of floating. I remember when I was a child and was first learning to swim. I saw someone floating and was captivated… Wow! You mean you can lie on the water without sinking?! Of course, as I quickly learned, the more you kick and flap your arms, the quicker you sink. But more to the point of wu wei, the more you flail about, the quicker you deplete your ch’i. And as I always remind my students, the conservation of ch’i is at the root of all Taoist teachings, which is, in turn, the source of martial arts training, as well as Chinese medicine.
The question to ask is: “How can I get the job done without depleting my reserves?” Or, similarly, “How can I solve my dilemma in the most simple and graceful way?” The well loved scholar on world religions, Huston Smith, called wu wei “creative quietude,” which nicely points to the gentle nature of whatever answer we decide on. Music and sports are replete with applications of wu wei. For example, any swimmer knows that to maximize speed and minimize exhaustion, form, movement and breath have to work together in a streamlined way. Wild, excess movement will have a deleterious effect on time and performance.
The Particulars of Breathing—
As it turns out, we can all benefit from efficient breathing… even if we’re not out to win any races. In the Yoga tradition in which I was trained, it is said that most people breathe close to 20 cycles per minute, a number that goes even higher under stressful conditions. You can feel it… when you get nervous or angry, can’t you just feel your heart pounding? That’s the “sympathetic nervous system” response in action! We need that when we’re in duress, but we don’t want to live there. So, it’s important to learn to activate the other side of the autonomic nervous system, known as the “parasympathetic system.” To activate this part of the system, known popularly as the relaxation response, it is ideal to breathe less than 15 cycles per minute.
And to add insult to injury, not only do most people breathe too fast, but most are also breathing too shallowly. The chest style breathing, which is the norm, only utilizes about one third of our lung capacity. Both habits leave our cells hungry for oxygen.
Many people never give breathing a second thought. Your body will continue to breathe without you bothering about it. But consider other automatic processes, like digestion… it will work on its own, but what we eat, how we sit, and how we move, all affect how it works. To our chagrin and discomfort, we’ve all undoubtedly experienced the debilitating aftershocks of… shall we say…. bad food combination choices!
Like any tool, we can maximize our system’s efficiency, if we’re clever in the way we use it. Consider: To better cut wood, we use the right saw… we hold it properly and cut along the natural lines of the wood. And for more effective communication, we choose words thoughtfully… or perhaps say nothing at all (True wu wei/non-action). Similarly, in our digestion example, eating foods which agree with us, along with other lifestyle choices that complement the process, shows likeminded wisdom. And continuing on… with the breath, we start by directing it to the right place… the solar plexus.
So, the breath and the belly work together, like bow and arrow. The solar plexus is the bow and the breath is the arrow.
In the kundalini tradition, in which I teach, this is the center of prana (our word for life force, similar to ch’i) and the fount of the kundalini energy. But, this wellspring of power would run dry without breath. Interestingly, it is said that if you don’t speak from this region, you will not be heard. Inhale down to the diaphragm. Breathe until you look like you’re pregnant! And when you are speaking from this region, you will be more effective and more convincing because it will be thrust from this source of God energy. Note that this has nothing to do with volume. You could whisper and be more effective than someone who is yelling, so long as the whisper is being drawn from this bow—the belly.
Getting Scientific About It—
It is only recently that science has taken an interest in understanding the workings of these mystic practices. Although the mechanisms are not fully understood, psychiatric journals speak in these terms:
“Qigong and Tai-Chi frequently involve anchoring attention to interoceptive sensations related to breath or other parts of the body, which has been shown to enhance nonreactivity to aversive thoughts and impulses. Preliminary studies suggest that the slow movements in Qigong and Tai-Chi with slowing of breath frequency could alter the autonomic system and restore homeostasis, attenuating stress related to hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis reactivity and modulating the balance of the autonomic nervous system toward parasympathetic dominance.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6519567/)
In plain language, this means that when we breathe in the ways dictated by practices like Tai Chi, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes our stress response, as I discussed above. This makes us feel more in control of our impulses and moods. I have witnessed in my own students, the improvement of addictive tendencies as well, since the need to take in energy from outside sources diminishes naturally, when we are energized from within. Sleep improves, as overall balance takes the place of the artificially generated surges and corresponding drops in energy that follow from unhealthy consumption habits.
The Spiritual Dimension—
The Yogis have a saying… that the breath is the bridge between the physical realm and the spiritual realm. So, while we can observe and describe the changes that are palpable, like better digestion, sleep, and overall mood, the deep belly breathing opens the portal to a less tangible but even more exalted realm. The moment we begin to breathe consciously, we begin our spiritual journey; we traverse that bridge into timelessness. We invite the infinite within, so that we may discover that there was never any separation at all. It is because we are taking the leap out of our thinking minds and into our belly… out of our worries and into our breath. And thus, the mystic experience is directly correlated to our ability to engage this region.
Breathing turns the key to the process of self-transformation and is a superior conduit for the evolution of our consciousness and the culminating awareness of ourselves as divine beings. Its origin is the navel point–and when this region is strong, we can then harvest that energy to “pierce into the upper realms of consciousness.”
*I wrote this article for Awaken.com, an online journal which I have been contributing to for many years.
I remember the first time I water colored. My best friend came over one night, with some tubes of paint and a couple sheets of huge, cardboard-like paper. It was part of a college project, she said, and invited me to have a go. I had no idea what I was doing, but I remember being transfixed by the way the colors mixed and swirled together with the addition of water. That was over 30 years ago and through those years, I have not only found water coloring to be a wonderful healer, but a holder of great wisdom, which I have distilled into bite sized entries, below.
1. Know When to Stop—
In watercolor… if you mess with it too much, the colors get over-blended and the whole thing becomes “muddied.” A suggestion is often more than enough. No need to fuss and overwork your point. A light touch has a kind of magic about it. Get in and get out.
Like in life, it’s so easy to overdo things. As a philosopher and teacher, I have seen this in my own tendency toward thorough and detailed answers to questions, not only in the classroom, but in day to day life. It hit home when one of my spiritual teachers said to a small group of Yoga teachers once, in a masterclass, “you don’t need to over explain.”
Sometimes… for example, in a courtroom, we need complete and protracted presentations and arguments, but in life, simple is often the most elegant approach. Know when you’ve said enough and leave it alone. Just as the colors blend themselves most beautifully once they’re already on the paper, ideas and words spoken are best digested and reflected on by the listener, with time… in the space of their own silence… without us hammering the point. The Tao Te Ching takes this approach with its poetic entries that continue to ripen with meaning with every re-read.
The point is, we really don’t need to work so hard!
2. Let go of control—
In watercolor… you can never create the same thing twice. That’s because you never have complete control over the way water moves. Or over a dozen other factors, like the humidity in the room, which will affect the way your painting settles and dries.
Like in life, mostly all we really have at our disposal, is our experience. Which gives us deftness and good judgment… We can take a better guess; I know what will happen if the paper is too wet or too dry, etc.
In every situation, you do what you can, and leave the rest to the universe. Because anything else is a lie. We think we control more than we actually do. I remember someone asking my Zen teacher about this letting go business… “but what if you want to go to law school?” he asked, expecting the Roshi to validate the need for excessive poking and prodding. The Roshi’s response was to the point: “fill out the form.” The assumption is that you do your best; with proper effort, you’ve gotten yourself to this point, and now it’s out of your hands.
What’s left? This moment. And the process of creating. Enjoy it, and let’s see how it turns out!
3. It’s (More Than) Okay to Screw Up—
In watercolor, you can’t dip a rag in linseed oil and wipe away a bad painting. Yes, you can scratch off little things with a scraper brush or find a way to creatively camouflage a little mistake. But, with watercolor, those fixes reach their limit quickly. I have “wasted” many pieces of expensive watercolor paper.
But I have come to see it differently. It is not “wasted.” It’s “putting in your time.” It’s “paying your dues.” After all, how much would you spend on lessons? Consider the throw-aways the price of experience. There is really no other way to get here, without trudging through the swampland of growth.
Think of “bad relationships.” Rather than seeing them as failures, recognize that through them you came to know your own needs better. It’s wonderful. It’s as Esther Hicks says about those Step One moments (the act of noticing the unwanted things in your life)… you have to know what you don’t want in order to know better what you do want. For a more specific example, through that relationship with the narcissist, you learned that you require more thoughtfulness from a partner.
In short, the lost paintings in the bin are just as important as the successful paintings (knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does work, in cultivating any skill).
4. Things Always look Different in the Morning—
With watercolor, the pigment gets absorbed, right along with the water, as the painting dries, leaving the colors more muted than they appeared to be while wet. In other words, once the painting has dried and settled, it will look lighter in color. The colors will also continue to blend as it dries. So, when you look with fresh eyes in the morning, the painting you thought was a goner may surprise you! It’s like finding something new. (It can go the other way too!)
How often has this happened in life… We get ourselves worked up over something, only to see it differently and with a more understanding perspective under the light of a new day. For example, you realize that what was said, was said out of fear by the other person, and not with the intent to be hurtful. It was about them, not you, at all.
The point is… Don’t be too quick to conclude! See how it looks, with fresh eyes, in the morning.
5. Progress Isn’t Visible Except in Retrospect—
In all artistic endeavors, the creative charge comes in surges. Known as “writer’s block,” among writers, it makes us feel as if we’re all dried up! Worse, like we’re inept and can’t perform in our craft. But, then you get a glimpse of your early work, and it dawns on you that your perspective is distorted. You see how far you’ve come when you compare it against your current stuff.
You don’t recognize your progress until you look back. And that is because we are all works in progress, in every way. Do we ever really “master” anything? Medicine is a practice. Spiritual practice is “a practice;” not an “accomplishment.” Take meditation, for example. How can you ever master it, when the mind is the way it is? Some days you’ll be more settled than on other days. So, it’s all a part of it… the good days and the bad days. And then you get to a point where there’s no judgment about it at all. You just practice.
But then at some unexpected moment, say, in traffic, or some other situation which would have ordinarily left you frustrated, you suddenly look at yourself, as if witnessing yourself from outside your body… and you say, with some amusement, “Wow! That woulda pissed me off a couple of years ago!” Must be the meditation, you think. It has yielded fruit in a most surprising and subtle way. You never saw it happening, any more than you saw yourself aging. You only see it in intervals. And especially, when looking back, at old pictures.
It’s also that our expectations are higher as we progress, so we’re less impressed with what so easily impressed us at the beginning. This is when, as the Zen saying goes, Beginner’s Mind serves us well… To be able to dive in without the self-censorship that comes from knowing better. In the beginning, we knew no disappointments in our work… we were just having fun! But as “experts,” we’re constantly getting in our own way, with our hefty expectations and difficult-to-please selves.
So, the take away on this one is… you have improved immensely, you just don’t see it yet! But also, have fun… remember that spirit of abandon that you had in the beginning. Because if you’re not having fun, then why do it?
Occasionally I share my college students’ end-of-semester project journals. They may choose from among different project options, which all relate to the Yogic 8-Limbs in some way, and which all require “personal experience.” This one was so well done that I decided to share it for two reasons… firstly, in the hope that it may inspire others. But also, because it is personally gratifying and makes me feel as if I have done some good for this world, during my time here on earth. This is especially meaningful to me in the years leading up to retirement. ~DQ
Below is her work…
Renunciation Project—My Vegetarian Journey
Why I chose this project…
I have always wanted to become vegetarian but I never knew where to start. I chose this because I thought this would be a good trial run to see how I would handle it and if I would like it. If I can handle being vegetarian for four days maybe I could go longer. I am going to renounce meat for four days. I cherish animals and I have always felt guilty about eating meat but I never could stop eating it. Hopefully with this assignment, I can enlighten myself on what goes on behind the scenes of factory farming and understand the dangers of eating meat.
How it relates to eastern philosophy…
Vegetarianism is connected to Dharmic traditions that originated in ancient India and Nepal such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. In Hinduism and Buddhism, vegetarianism is promoted by scriptures and religious authorities however, with Jainism, vegetarianism is mandatory for everyone. The First Precept prohibits Buddhists from killing animals. The doctrine of karma teaches that people who perform cruel acts on animals will be punished in their next life. Buddhists treat humans and animals equally. Buddha described eating meat as an ignorant craving. Hinduism is the oldest of the Eastern religions and it is an early supporter of vegetarianism. To Hindus, vegetarianism leads to the path to being truly holy. The scriptures of Hinduism set out the principle of non-violence, called Ahimsa. Ahimsa is a major part of many Eastern religions. Killing any animal is seen as a violation of Ahimsa. Some countries respect animals greatly such as India. In India, the cow is sacred because it is considered to be an animal favoured by the Supreme Lord in the Vedas, Lord Krishna.
Research prep and how it affected me…
For my first info item from the Gentle Barn I chose the article “These 6 Things Happen When You Give Up Meat” by Megan Othersen Gordon. I chose this article because I have always wondered what would happen to the body if I would give up meat. I thought giving up meat would have negative side effects but after reading this article, I learned that there are some positive sides to giving up meat. I learned that by not eating meat, you could gain some healthy bacteria in your gut. This was kinda surprising to me because I didn’t know that not eating meat could help your stomach. With this fact, you would think people wouldn’t eat meat. I also learned that you can bloat from not eating meat at first, which was weird. The second info item I chose was “7 Things That Happen to Your Body When You Give Up Dairy” by Perri O. Blumberg. I chose this article because since I already read about what would happen if you give up meat, I also wanted to read what would happen if you would give up dairy.
One thing I learned from this article is that giving up dairy will help your digestive system. It can help reduce bloating, gas, and constipation. It was crazy to think that giving up dairy can be so vitale for having a healthy digestive system. I also learned that giving up dairy will clear your skin, which is great to know because I sometimes break out. The third info item I chose was “Meat Consumption on The Decline Let’s Keep The Momentum Going!” by The Guardian. I chose this article because I wanted to learn more about how low the numbers are getting for meat consumption. I learned that the demand for meat has declined for a decade in the US. That’s really big coming from the second-largest consumer of meat per capita. I also learned that with the decline of meat production, many businesses like Beyond Meat and Beyond Eggs are getting bigger and bigger. It was surprising to me that so many people have switched over to Beyond Meat given that Beyond Meat is terrible.
From watching the “Meet Your Meat” documentary, it talked about the real life of meat and dairy farms behind the scenes. It showed how they kill animals, how they are put in small cages, and how they actually treat animals on these farms. In most of the clips, it showed how pigs and chickens were in cages smaller than their bodies and how cows were in horrible milking cages. I couldn’t believe how people would treat animals. The documentary gave you a day in the life of what these animals go through every day. It showed the conditions the animals were kept in and how badly they were treated. This affected me by not wanting to eat meat again. If it’s hard for me to watch the whole documentary, I should tell myself that I shouldn’t eat meat. How is that fair to the animals that I find this appalling yet I still eat meat. This video has affected my work by showing me that giving up meat for four days isn’t just for an assignment, it’s for the animals that are living in terror every day. It’s informed me that millions of animals are being crucified every day and for what? So I can eat meat? There are other options to meat that I need to try to at least stop some of these animals for being hurt.
The second documentary I watched was “Vegucated”. The documentary shows people who are usually meat eaters trying converting to a vegan diet. The documentary follows three people who are not vegan who agree to adopt a vegan diet for six weeks. The three people who were being documented visited an abandoned slaughterhouse and saw the reality of animal farming. After they visited, they realized how amazing being a vegan was because they know they are doing good. The documentary talks about the struggle that some people feel towards becoming vegan, how people eat meat but love animals, and how being vegan helps your health and the world. This has informed me that even people who love meat can be vegan so maybe I should too. If they can do it even if it’s for a little time then I should be able too. This documentary gave me hope that I can become vegan or vegetarian. Normal people in New York did it so why can’t I? My work has also been affected because I have more hope that I can accomplish four days of being vegetarian. Seeing normal beings become vegan for six weeks made me realize that I can be a vegetarian for four days.
Support buddy interview…
“Why did you become a vegetarian/vegan?”
I became vegetarian when I was 6 because I came to a realization that I didn’t want to contribute the commodification of and cruelty to animals in our food system, and became vegan in 8th grade for environmental reasons (water consumption, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions).
-“How do you deal with opposition?”
I deal with opposition by not getting overly defensive and explaining myself when necessary. Essentially knowing when to choose my battles and to do so without attacking the other person. Like planting a seed.
-“How has it impacted your life?”
It has prompted a deep passion for food and made me more comfortable to step out of my comfort zone and advocate for collective progress through individual change. I am also more socially aware and compassionate as a result.
-”Do you have any advice for me?”
I would say that something as seemingly unimportant as a dietary choice is something that can actually have a big impact, so evaluating decisions you make on a daily basis can make you more self-aware
My write up…
-”Did you feel you like you were successful?”
I feel like I was successful. I did not eat meat for 4 days and I was proud of myself for it. Even though I wanted to eat meat very badly, I kept up with it for four days. I have never done anything like this before especially cutting out something that I eat everyday. I would watch my family eat meat for dinner and breakfast and I told myself I have to keep going to achieve my goal.
-”Did you encounter support or resistance from family and friends?”
Yes I did encounter support from my family. My mom loves animals and has always wanted to not eat meat. She was very proud of me and she was the most encouraging. When I wanted to give up she would encourage me to keep going. She was probably the reason I accomplished this. Having a supportive family can get you far and I’m glad I have one.
-”Did you have cravings and how did you deal with them?”
Yes I had tons of cravings. Almost everyday I have eggs and bacon for breakfast and to me, bacon makes the whole meal. Not having bacon in the mornings was the worst. The eggs didn’t taste good without the bacon. To deal with this craving, I went to the store and bought fake bacon. However, that tasted worse than the actual bacon. I decided to have pancakes in the morning for the rest of the 3 days instead of having plain eggs. For dinner one night, my mom made pork chops. Pork chops are my favorite meal and not being able to have it was the worst since my mom hadn’t made them in a while. Instead of having meat, I had a trader joes salad for dinner. Overall, dealing with these cravings was hard. I had to deal to them by reminding myself to keep going and finish the challenge. I can’t give up because of cravings, I have to do it for the animals. After the first two days, my craving started to get a little easier and that was when I told myself that I have to keep going.
-”Did it impact your worldview and way of looking at animals?”
Yes, it did impact my worldview. I see animals as equals now since I have enlightened myself on the pros of being vegetarian. It also impacted the way I see animals. Watching the videos on how animals are actually treated was haunting. I couldn’t believe that humans could do that to animals. I always thought that animals were killed humanely for the most part but after watching the videos, I know they don’t. Animals don’t choose to be slaughtered for our meat, they want to live freely. The least I could do is not eat meat and save a couple animals a year. I am more sympathetic for the animals now that I have seen what they have to go through to give us meat.
I’ve spoken about the power of presence many times… And those much greater than me have spoken about it plenty… Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass, Pema Chodron, just to mention a few. I love Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s explanation of the wonders of presence, as expressed during my interview with him last year:
So, you say, “what’s so special about where I already am?” Nothing, except everything. Do your eyes work? What’s so special about that? Are you breathing? What’s so special about that? Can you think and feel? What’s so special about that? Only everything. So, we take everything for granted, until we lose it. Until our eyes don’t work. Or we can’t catch our breath. Or, it feels like life is falling apart. Or, the body is falling apart.~Jon Kabat-Zinn
Except… Is that all there is? And the Peggy Lee song plays in my head, while musing that it’s just… not… quite… the whole story.
Change Your Frequency—
One of my teachers, Gurudhan Khalsa, always said, “If you want to change the way you feel, change your frequency.” Sounds a bit abstruse, but not if you accept the ancient model of the way subtle subtle energies move in the body. It is essentially the same model that Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian Ayurvedic medicine has been built upon, and which the practice of Yoga has been drawing from for thousands of years, while correlating this process with the quality of human enlightenment.
Essentially, changing your frequency has a physiological component. And in the language of Yoga, it corresponds to the seven revolving wheels of energy, called chakras, which correspond in turn, to organs and nerve centers in the body. Each of the seven chakras affect the way we feel, emotionally and spiritually.
You might say, they are an extension of our consciousness, itself. Our mind is not localized in the head… but rather, runs through our entire body. Thus, the mission of a Yogi, or one who practices Yoga, is to care for the health of these energy centers, which are situated along the spine, from its base, up to the crown of the head.
These energy vortexes are connected by way of an invisible highway, by which life force, or prana, travels in both directions. As this healing life force moves along the meridians, it influences everything we do and everything we perceive. In turn, it influences the way we feel.
Our physiology affects our psychology as our psychology affects our physiology. It goes both ways. Put very simply… one thought can affect your subtle energies, just as your subtle energies can affect what you think. And this is what my teacher meant when he said that what we are here to do is change our frequency. It’s why we go to Yoga, basically.
Put even more simply, by way of a metaphor… one thought sends out a wave of motion within the body that affects the way you feel, and by extension, affects who and what you “attract” to your world, just as one pluck of any guitar string will send out waves of vibrating sound, which will affect the other strings on that guitar, as well as anyone around who hears that sound… and by extension, will affect the whole world in myriad, unknown and uncountable ways, by the actions of those who heard the sound!
So, Now… Back to Presence (All Agree On One Thing)—
All wisdom schools seem to to agree on one thing: We’re anxious because we’re too preoccupied with ourselves. Eastern schools would take this even further by questioning the very notion of the self. To this end, some schools emphasize selfless service, while others emphasize prayer or meditation… all of which make us feel better by dislodging us from our self oriented concerns. By focusing on someone else’s happiness instead of our own, by letting go of our worries though the act of surrendering them to a higher power, and by training ourselves to continually stop identifying with our thoughts, these methods all work and all bring relief to our everyday anxieties. Essentially, they help us to come out of our heads and into this present moment.
And… Back to Energy Movement—
But, what if we couch the idea of anxiety in the language of chakras? We could say something like, all that self-interested, ego trouble is low chakra stuff.
Everyday worries, like getting credit, being recognized, being right, proving our point, having enough resources… friends… money… likes… anything… getting validated, being approved of… have an energetic equivalent, much like moods have a brain state equivalent.
Nothing Can Touch You When You’re Flying—
And so, the idea is that you clear the chakras and the energetic pathways, much as you’d clear a tunnel for the metro to move through it. And when the energy is able to move unobstructed, you feel better. And when you feel better, you do better, you say better, you look better, you think better. In short, you’re flying, and nothing can touch you. Not sickness, not poverty… nothing.
But wait, there’s more! When the energy has risen, and your higher chakras have opened, you can touch the angelic realm. This is where I’ve been able to ask for the deepest comfort from my angel guides during extremely challenging times. It is nothing less than the channeling of spirit. And it’s a profound comfort that can not be described.
Being a music lover as well, I now think of Jimi Hendrix’ words:
Angel came down from heaven yesterday She stayed with me just long enough to rescue me
Presence Then, Is the First Gate—
It is certainly not that the practice of mindfulness or coming into presence is of lesser value than channeling. It is a healing place to be and a fine forever home. And if you should have the interest in traveling into deeper cosmic realms, it is a necessary dwelling place. It takes a tremendous amount of practice to be here, now. Since, at any given moment, the mind wants to swing. It wants diversion and distraction and endless entertainment. It wants satisfaction of habitual, but needless desires. Corralling the mind is a full time, tireless task.
And it’s not that everyday prayer is of any lesser value, either. It’s deeply healing to the heart, mind and spirit… the deep connection through prayer enables our self-important worries and sufferings to simply melt away.
What I’m saying is that, although presence is necessary, it’s not sufficient for “transfer flights.”
Like Reaching the Summit on Everest—
If the sherpa or mountaineering guide got you to Base Camp and then said “okay… we made it! Let’s go back down, now!” You’d protest that you really wanted to make the summit. You brought your flag to plant there and everything. You know there’s more. But base camp is the necessary pass through point. You have to acclimate yourself at base camp. It’s the portal to higher realms, for those that want to go and can manage the trek.
In the reflection of the candlelight I looked at the faces of my guru brothers and sisters and saw their expressions of love and the purity of their hearts. And finally I was able to cry – not out of sadness at the loss, but rather because of the presence of pure and perfect love that is Maharaji and which I felt in this gathering of hearts. ~Ram Dass
It is rare and beautiful to be moved beyond what words can describe and beyond what the body can comprehend—it is to step into the realm of magic, where the only response the physical body can give is to break into chills. This started happening so regularly that I began referring to the phenomenon as the tinglies. They would very often come during prayer, like a soothing divine presence wrapping itself around me.
This magical realm opens up when we go beyond the senses… to essence—to the realm beyond time and space. To the realm beyond words and rational thought.
It is often said that faith is the portal to this realm. To an extent, I have found that to be true. But I found that the other necessary quality is desire. That is to say, an ardent longing to connect.
Although we tend to think of faith as a weakness in this culture, it requires great courage. Without faith, only intellectual knowledge can be achieved, but we’ll never be able to hear the wordless messages of our soul.
In my work as a healer, we learn to state our intention and then “get out of the way.” The most effective healers are the ones who understand that they are merely channeling the healing energy, that it doesn’t originate with them.
In the same way, with prayer… actively stating your plea is only one way to pray and one part of the prayer. Like the Yin and the Yang, this active component requires the softer counterpart of allowing. Without this essential moment of stepping back, and truly relinquishing attachment to the outcome, the prayer is incomplete. It’s a subtle balance between proclaiming and letting be. The allowing is when we rely on faith.
I experienced the miracle of faith most pointedly when a student asked me for help one day. I told him I would like to reflect for a day or two on his situation. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how to help and yet I continued probing my mind for a solution—until I asked for advice from my spirit guides.
Then, as if on cue, right at the moment of surrender, I perceived the answer. Like a thunderclap, it hit me, that if I’m asking for help, then I have to allow help in. I have to get out of the way. It’s the way it works. It’s the inexplicable magic behind the adage to let go and let God. But, the most important part is that your trust has to be real.
Just then, as I was driving, a car suddenly swerved to the side of me, just missing my car. The personalized license plate triggered my recollection of a biblical quote that I never remembered learning in the first place. My grandmother’s prayers were the extent of my religious training and I had never read the bible. This quote enabled me to see into my student’s situation with perfect clarity and I knew in my heart, what he should do.
When I contacted my student, he was shocked because the quote I mentioned to him was the very same one his mother used to read to him as a child. I didn’t even know his religious background, and it wouldn’t have mattered to me. I simply took a chance and related what had come to me. He later told me that after we said goodbye, he had made amends with his situation. It was the correct solution, indeed.
I no longer remember what the quote was.
Through practice, my antenna was becoming better attuned to the messages that were always there. It’s a practice that has to be maintained. I am less likely to connect when I get lazy in my practice.
But the openness to receive was always in my heart. In Prayer Part 1, I shared the way my grandma used to teach me how to say my bedtime prayers, as a girl. The effect she had on me was diametrically opposed to the effect she had on my mother. Since my mother had understandably rebelled against Catholic school as a teen, she wanted nothing to do with anything religious. But, I had no resistance and I liked the prayers, the holy water and the church days. I especially loved the images of Mother Mary in Grandma’s house.
And I dreamed of one day witnessing a miracle. I liked wondering about God. It was cozy to think that someone was watching over me. I think my grandmother saw me as her last hope… to instill within me a love of God, and so, out of love for me, she tirelessly endeavored to make me a believer when I would spend summers with her.
I like to think that she would come to see her efforts as victorious, even though my love of things spiritual (and religious) have no denomination. After all, as Caroline Myss says so pointedly, “God has no religion.”
I value true experience above belief… and there is nothing so comforting than truly feeling a benevolent presence within, like a “little friend” that is always there. It is perhaps like “the witness” that Swami Rama’s teacher described. Or, like the “little teddy bear” that Ram Dass, admired author of Be Here Now, spoke of.
Perhaps the most beautiful prayer I know is the one that came to me from the 16th century Sikh saint, Guru Ram Das, when I was angry one night… When I got into bed, I prayed to him, asking for a prayer and I received this:
“May I see through your eyes and may I know through your heart.”
As for the quality of desire, I again recall Caroline Myss’ words about the hard knock, or the dark night. In other words, something usually has to happen… to awaken within us that ardent and passionate desire to connect. And in more cases than not, it is because we are in some sort of physical or psychological anguish… all of which arguably reduces to spiritual crisis. And so, we reach a point where we are ready to be liberated.
True prayer is an expression of the soul, an urge from the soul. It is a hunger for God that arises from within, expressing itself to Him ardently, silently. Vocalized prayers are wonderful only if the attention is on God, and if the words are a call to God out of the abundance of the soul’s desire for Him. But if an invocation becomes merely a part of an ecclesiastical ceremony, performed mechanically—concentration on the form of religion rather than its spirit—God doesn’t much like that kind of prayer. ~Paramahansa Yogananda
I remember my beloved grandmother teaching me how to say my bedtime prayers when I was little. I liked saying them. For many years, I felt that something was missing and incomplete whenever I would forget them. I always had a spiritual longing, for as long as I can remember, but as a child, I didn’t know how to interpret these feelings. Also, coming from a decidedly non-religious home, I lacked any kind of framework for anything resembling a spiritual practice. It makes sense to me now, why I would embrace my grandmother’s urging to prayer. It is also why I jumped at the opportunity to go to church with a religious friend of mine.
You see, my mother, raised in Catholic school herself, swore it off, like so many others, who found the heavy-handed methods of institutionalized Catholicism rigid and hostile to metaphysical questions. So, she left it to her own children, to decide and choose for themselves about all spiritual matters.
Because I was now the “third generation,” I was entirely without the resistance my mother had, to my grandmother’s religious ways. And so I not only listened… I lapped it up.
But then, as a college student — especially as a philosophy student — I encountered all of the arguments against God and later even lectured on Aquinas’ notoriously flawed five proofs for the existence of God. I pointed out all of the irrefutable logical fallacies to my own students.
During those years, I wondered about the absurdity of it all. God, that is. And by extension, the whole idea of praying to this God, which, as shown, doesn’t exist! In my logically trained young mind, I also wondered about the idea of a God that would proceed with his plans for annihilation and devastation, only to suddenly cancel those plans at the request of a petitioner.
After all, I reasoned, that’s why people pray… to convince God to alter some undesirable course of events. How could he change his mind so whimsically, the way we waffle about, while standing in the cereal isle, wondering which granola to buy?
Then one day, I realized how differently things can look when you flip them around. Or, when they’re flipped around for you.
I eventually came to see that God is within, not without. A part of us, not separate from us. The kingdom of God is within.
Even when you meditate on the name, or the form, of a God or Goddess… you are, in fact, meditating on your own self, not on some external object. ~Amma
Praying isn’t about loving a God out there. And changing the course of events is secondary to the understanding of prayer as connection, rather than petition. It is about connecting with that which has no boundary, of going beyond the confines of what you thought of as your finite self. This sensation of expansiveness leaves no room for fear, as in the idea of fearing God, for, there’s no room for fear where divinity lives.
About altering the course of events… divine consciousness reveals our own role in creating the very shift we seek. And that makes it all the more awe-inspiring and wonderful. As Zen says, “you create your own universe,” or, as Yoga sometimes puts it, “you control the universal consciousness.”
In the end, praying isn’t really about personal pleas at all, but rather, the heart-felt expression of gratitude and completeness. And this sensation has the tendency to attract more of the same. This is the real miracle. And the exquisite sensation of connection is not necessarily meant to serve some purpose. Like a flower reaching up toward the light, leaning over permanently to one side with time, devotion expresses this feeling of affection and longing, but with no object of desire and with no agenda.
“Prayer is when you talk to God; meditation is when God talks to you.”
Aesthetics has always asked, What does all good art have in common? Is there some common denominator? What is art, anyway? What is beauty? There may be more than one answer to those questions. Sometimes art does different things and serves different purposes. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes stood as art (and not Brillo Boxes) because of what they were “saying” about consumer culture. I spoke of that here.
As Immanuel Kant said, art invokes within us, a sense of awe and deep pleasure. Like nature, it takes us where words cannot.
This helps us understand what art does, but still feels inconclusive, as far as what art has. Or is.
Yet, after taking great interest in aesthetics as a philosophy student, through my 20s, I still couldn’t answer, at least to my own satisfaction, the question: What does all good art have in common? Even if there are multiple answers, or none at all. (Maybe it’s like asking what religion is… there is no common denominator. Only what scholars have termed “family resemblances.”)
Nonetheless, it is only now, through direct experience, after 30 years of painting in watercolor, and writing poetry… and writing in general, have I started to get a glimpse of what I feel to be a truthful response.
But first, indulge a memory with me… I promise, it’ll bring us back to the question of art!
The Storm Rolling In—
I remember running to the classroom window, pushing aside those heavy beige, vinyl drapes, to see the sky turning dark, and the sudden burst of light that illuminated the asphalt outside. Then the rumble. And the anticipation it brought on… how loud will it get? How close will it come?
It wasn’t merely because we rarely get ferocious storms in Southern California. My excitement, which I still feel when storms approach, reveals more than that. Alluding to Kant again, who recognized that nature most powerfully elicits that sense of awe, that all art is but a kind of exemplar of the sublimity we find in nature, we find our clue as to what makes both art and nature riveting in the same way. And, the storms outside of LA were all the more so.
It was in the Midwest somewhere… we heard it coming. Like a high speed train roaring. Getting closer. As we ran to open the door, the wind pushed it against the wall. Yet, we couldn’t resist and so we charged into the flurry and out into the middle of the street and it felt like the world was coming to an end. We stood and watched with wild hair and our arms outstretched against the electric jet stream of warm air. We were buzzing. Suddenly turned the heavens poured out a river and in 20 minutes, it was gone.
Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience—
I felt that frenzied excitement when I saw John Bonham’s son and his Led Zeppelin Experience last year. My own reaction was totally unexpected. But that’s the whole point, as I’ll explain below. A genuine reaction to art is, and has to be, totally uncontrived. And to do that, the art will possess some element that is wild, like the storms above. More on that in a moment. When those first notes of Immigrant Song exploded, I was, at that moment, like a teenager. I remember jumping up out of my seat, straining on my tiptoes to see… at any cost and discomfort… perhaps managing to blurt out Oh My God a few times because I couldn’t say anything else. Because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing. Because teenagers do crazy things. Because teenagers have energy (except for when they can’t get out of bed).
Presence (The location of Beginner’s Mind)—
More to the point, a youngster’s sense of physical presence exceeds their mental ruminations. And since thinking is draining, the result is vitality… and there has always been an inverse relationship between presence and the degree to which you are in your head. Meaning, the more you are in your head, in the world of thoughts, the less present you are. It starts when we become adults. When we become rational. Teenagers haven’t gotten there yet. So, they are still free.
That’s why we adults have so much fun at events like that, we don’t just act like teenagers for that moment in time. We become as kids again. Because we are in our bodies… not in our heads. The music (and all art… and nature) is a conduit for feeling. We are feeling the music, and leaving the world of thought behind for that moment. And thus, we have no sense of “should be’s.” We act naturally, in all our exuberance. In Zen, this is what it means to have a “Beginner’s Mind.” To be blissfully ignorant of the world’s ideas and judgments. And so, free to express oneself authentically.
Crazy… It’s The Same Criterion for Both The Artist and The “Feeler”—
It’s not holding back. When a singer moves us it’s because she’s not holding back. She’s willing to sing at the edge, right at the place where her voice might crack. But she’s not concerned with that. She’s not playing it safe. She’s not tightened or constricted or self conscious. It’s what good writers do. It’s what good actors do. She’s doing, in her art form, what we wish we could do in life. She’s purging emotions as we wish we could. And thus, there is a purification process in the art exchange, for both artist and viewer, through the feeling of release.
And so, we’ve come around to what I feel answers the question… What does all good art have in common?
It could be said this way: It’s the element of crazy. Something wild and crazy has to happen in that painting, in the dance, in the routine, in the song, in the performance.
Why? Because art unleashes something that has been laid to rest in the depths of our soul… Ultimately, it’s fear. At the very least, it reveals what we wouldn’t do in “real life.” In that sense, it is therapeutic. It is revelatory. It reveals the capacity to let go and to abandon ourselves. It reveals possibilities we thought weren’t for us… to be whimsical, carefree and unguarded. To be fearless.
Which ultimately means… To be FREE.
When asked, “what does freedom mean to you?“ the iconic singer Nina Simone simply said, “to be fearless.”
But we don’t dare, in our everyday lives. We were taught to be rational. We’re careful. We’re measured. We’re prudent. We’re tight. We don’t dare take a chance!
The Wild Stuff Makes it Special—
It’s the big, bold tree stroke in the foreground of a painting. The stroke that makes you think, as an artist, or someone watching from behind, as you’re about to do it, “Oh no!… You’re going to ruin it!“ because the background was done so carefully. Reason will dictate… Leave well enough alone.
That’s where art steps in. Art messes it all up, like crazy hair. Like that sky that turned black before it opened up and flooded the streets for those 20 minutes.
Art is where convention is, ipso facto, irrelevant, since creativity is by its very definition, the birthing, or the configuration of something new. And this process often looks weird or wild or simply… crazy. To be clear, this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean harmful. Nor necessarily loud. But it does mean bold… in myriad ways. Think John Cage in his silent symphony. Think Marina Abromovic, in her meditative, interactive art. Think Cindy Sherman in her performance pieces, which feature herself as objet d’art, in different guises. All pushed boundaries and convention in their own weird and wonderful way. Keep in mind, to sit still is bold. To be quiet is bold.
In a more prosaic example, I remember seeing footage of Joe Cocker singing at Woodstock, as a girl… I asked my mom what was wrong with him… why was he shaking? Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
It’s that element of crazy, again. It feels like freedom—the most basic human requirement. It’s the quality of being uncontrived. The Zen masters call naturalness. And it springs forth from the “Beginners Mind,” which is a mind that is free of concepts. In plain terms, it is a mind that is free of the “should be’s”. Free from fear of failure. Free from the corruption of other people’s judgments and opinions. Free from the rules of convention that we spoke of. Totally spontaneous and totally yourself. Joe Cocker let the spirit move through him (and the drugs). Cindy Sherman had to disappear, in a sense, in order to become the characters she became.
A Strange and Perfect Pairing of Chutzpah and Selflessness—
It’s chutzpah. It’s bold. It’s brave. It breaks the rules. It can’t be tamed. It’s why every new genre has to break from the past. It’s rock and roll. And by rock and roll, I don’t only mean rock and roll as we think of it today. Using it loosely at this moment, I mean that which possesses that quality of boldness that I have been speaking of… Vivaldi, by this standard, was as rock and roll as it gets, with his reputed flamboyance and innovative spirit. He just couldn’t “plug in.” He was wild, like all rockers, who do whatever the hell they want to do. They scream and yell and kick and move their hips, like Elvis. They growl like Gregg Allman and Leon Russell… just growl on tune!
But, in some measure of paradox, the artist has to lose himself, through the boldness. Or, said differently, the boldness must not come from ego, lest it be contrived, which is the antithesis of beginner’s mind. And the same is true for the viewer. And together, the journey is taken into abandon. And this is freedom.
It’s what good acting does… The actor loses himself. He lets go of control, for that moment. He becomes the character, as effort gives way to effortlessness. It’s why Joshua Bell, the violinist, once said that at the moment of performance, all practicing is let go of. He has to trust at that moment that it’s in his bones.
The Enzo Brings it Back Around—
The Japanese Enzo displays this element of naturalness and spontaneity. Which is wild and irrational in its appearance of not-caring. And… free. Like all good calligraphy, you would never “go back over it.” Because perfection has nothing to do with it. Because perfection is in the head! The question is rather, is it “felt?” Not, “did you think it through?” Were you inspired at that moment? Was it free? Was it confident (and thus, bold)? Was it authentic?
Like me, at that concert… when we act naturally, out of beginner’s mind, there is no limiting or constraining sense of “should be”… there’s no sense of embarrassment. There’s no sense of “not good enough.” Like the wild storm, you just pummel through and do what you came to do… with no inhibition.
For a plant or a stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem… The true practice of zazen is to sit as if drinking water when you are thirsty. Then you have naturalness. ~Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shunryo Suzuki)
In this way, art conveys what we wish we could be in “real life.” We long for that spirit of abandon. It’s why we love road trips; it’s why we love falling in love (“we are not in our right mind”… it’s been called a kind of temporary insanity, but we love it). That’s why we miss being children.