Tag Archives: enlightenment

A Prayer Called “Krishna’s Flute” (What Is Devotion?)

Krishna and RadhaThis is a picture of a vintage print. It is from my personal collection and hangs on the wall in my meditation room. The actual size is 18″ by 18.” It depicts the Hindu God, Krishna and his beloved, Radha. He stands behind her, seducing her with the enchanting sounds of his flute. Yet she looks away. Why?

Krishna the Amorous
All the girls in Krishna’s town of Brindavan, loved Krishna. Upon catching a distant high-pitched note or two from his flute, carried by the wind, through the open windows of their homes, the cowherding girls would escape into the night to follow him. He was irresistible and delightfully mischievous. For example, he would hide the clothes that they had hanging to dry—anything to rouse them into play. They would suddenly find themselves overtaken by an unbearable need to follow him, along the river and through the forests, and where ever he may lead them. As his notes transformed into the most delicious melodies, they would lose themselves in irrepressible bliss. And they would all dance together in mutual joy and delight.

Heartbreak & Longing
Because everyone loved Krishna so much, it was unendurable to withstand his absence. And so, whenever he would leave the village for any reason, his beloveds, especially his most adored Radha, would ache from the pain of his separation.

Merging
Their sadness and despair were inconsolable until they realized that his love was within themselves, all the while. He was never separate, at all! With his song, He led their souls to Spirit. This is why Radha looks away. She is in the ecstacy and bliss of divine communion—a love so great, so pure and so all-encompassing that it is beyond the confinement of the body of her lover.

The Role of Krishna
To borrow a phrase from Paramahansa Yogananda, each spiritual path is part of an all-encompassing “divine highway,” leading to union with our true Self. Each path invites us into the stillness of the sacred space that lies within—the wordless tranquility that emerges when we quiet the noise. The challenge is always the same, no matter how we refer to it—to become empty like the hollow reed Krishna brings to his lips. To become empty of resentment and distrust. To transform ourselves into a clean and beautiful vessel fit to receive God’s light. (Would you want to live in a dirty house?)

Just as Krishna’s breath blows softly through his flute, Spirit expresses itself through our selfless surrender to the divine will. Here is a prayer I wrote, as a gift to you, that you may use to give voice to this inner longing and purpose, if you find it helpful:

Prayer: “Krishna’s Flute”
Oh, that I may become like Krishna’s flute—an instrument for the melody of divine song…Oh, that I may see through your eyes, hear through your ears and know through your heart…Oh, that I may vibrate at such a high frequency that my absorption with the infinite becomes inevitable…Oh, that I may recognize in my heart and in every cell of my being, the spark of divinity…Oh, that I may see through my temporary role in this grand play and know that I am really an eternal soul—and that I am perfect, as I am…Oh, that I may have the courage to live as a witnessing consciousness, disabused, finally, of my illusions as a do-er.

What Is the True Role and Meaning of Devotion?
It brings us into grace and ease. As my own Dear teacher explains, “when you get a sense that you have to hold everything together, you’re not living in trust.” We all feel overwhelmed at times, but we forget that struggle is the ego’s game. We feel we are more productive if we fight everything at every step. Letting it go requires trust. It doesn’t mean we stop putting in the effort, it just means we detach from the outcome. This is what it really means to live in a state of devotion. And it requires no object. It’s simply a state of being and a way of living. It is not a matter of being devoted to something any longer. It is, rather, a matter of surrendering, in humility, the false illusion of doing. It is allowing whatever needs doing, to get done.

True Freedom Is More than Free Will

“It might sound funny coming from a guy in prison, but never before have I felt so free.” ~Denzel Washington in Flight

The kind of freedom the philosophers talk about in the west is quite different than the freedom of the saints and mystics and Yogis.

The philosophers speak of defining our own purpose and identity through the choices we make, of carving out our own paths and therefore, living an authentic life. In philosophical terms, it means rejecting the traditional notion of destiny and the corresponding idea that things are inevitably the way they are, set and fixed, in a pre-planned, determined universe.

Existentialists like Sartre—so called, because our very existence is ours to shape—would famously ask, where is this plan? The very idea left too much room for excuses, he said, since it would then be all too easy to pawn off our actions on circumstances, falling back on such clichés like It must have been in the cards, or That’s just the way I was made. And so, the urging was to use our free will, the natural byproduct of being born as a conscious human being.

Is this the same as the injunction, in the eastern mystic traditions to wake up? To actively shape our own Karma by making conscious choices and to reshape our plethora of long-established, unconscious habits through mindful awareness? Insofar as we are to create our own lives, with all the responsibility that goes along with this freedom, there is a parallel.

But existential freedom has more to do with conscious choosing than one’s state of consciousness.

For thinkers like Sartre, consciousness is the source and spring of free will. But, this unyielding and often rigidified consciousness is exactly the source of trouble from the point of view of Buddhist and Yogic teachings. Existential freedom (free will) is an ability to choose from among genuine alternatives that exist in the world, whereas the freedom the Yogis speak of refers to an awakened state of mind that shapes what we see as choices in the first place.

* For more on this topic, see my book, Buddha in the Classroom (Chapter 19. Sartre and Buddha—True Freedom is a Settled Mind)
* The next post will expand on this theme, exploring the differences between spiritual development and traditional methods of self help.

The Brahmin and the Cobbler (A Story of Enlightenment)

Here is an old story from Indian lore. It takes for granted the spiritual expectation, in Vedic philosophy, that with good karma and spiritual advancement, we may gratefully escape samsara, the seemingly endless cycle of birth and death that keeps us trapped in the torment of our own karma and misery. It also takes for granted the assumption that the Brahmins—the high-caste priests—would have earned the privilege of liberation first. But watch for the twist! Here, The God of time, Narayan—another name for Lord Vishnu—offers a surprising decree. I am retelling the story as I remember it.

—   —   —   —

Once on a sunny day near the Ganges, a Brahmin priest, who had just finished his oblations, came across Narada, the messenger of the Gods. After bowing deeply in respect, the Brahmin took the liberty of asking the divine sage for a favor:

Brahmin priest: “Could you be so kind as to ask the supreme Lord, Narayan, when I’m going to be liberated from this world and joined with him in holy bliss? I know it will be soon because of my station, and all, but I would just like to know, all the same.”

Narada: “No problem, my sir. I’ll ask when I see him.”

Further along down the river, a lowly cobbler, fixing shoes by the wayside, also stopped Narada, as he was passing through, and chanced to approach the great emissary:

Cobbler: “Could I appeal to your kindness by asking you to speak to the great God on my behalf?”

Narada: “I’d be happy to.”

Cobbler: “You see, I’m growing more weary each year, and I’d just like to know how many more lifetimes I am doomed to suffer in this material world?”

Narada: “I’ll be sure to pass on your message.”

And Narada continued on, passing seamlessly through to the spiritual world. When he saw the great Lord Narayan, he bowed to his feet, as is the custom in approaching great spiritual masters. The Lord then asked if there was anything he could do for Narada, who proceeded to put forth the concerns of both the priest and the cobbler.

As Lord Narayan can see through the barriers of time, and into eternity, he thus knows all. With a brief pause, he informed Narada of the destiny of his supplicants:

Lord Narayan: “The cobbler will come to me at the end of this present lifetime. But the Brahmin will live through at least 100 more lifetimes.”

Seeing the confused look on Narada’s face, the Lord only smiled and gave these instructions:

Lord Narayan: “Next time you see the cobbler and the priest, they will ask you what I was doing when you saw me. Tell them I was threading an elephant through the eye of a needle. When you see their reactions to this, you will then understand everything.”

So, Narada went on his way. The first man he saw was the Brahmin, who was shocked and insulted by the news:

Brahmin priest: “A hundred rebirths in this hell! I don’t believe it! You probably didn’t even see the Lord! Tell me, what he doing when you saw him?”

Narada: “Threading an elephant through the eye of a needle.”

Brahmin Priest: “Threading an elephant through the eye of a needle? That’s totally absurd! You must be lying about everything!”

So, Narada excused himself and pressed on until he found the cobbler. He gave him the news that he would soon be liberated and would be joining the realm of the Lord at the end of this lifetime, at which point the peasant exclaimed in joy:

Cobbler: “Oh, what blessed and glorious news! But, alas, tell me my good sir, what was the Lord doing when you saw him?”

Narada: “He was threading an elephant through the eye of a needle.”

Cobbler: “Lovely. Absolutely lovely.”

Narada: “You mean, you believe that?”

Cobbler: “Why, sure! You see that huge old oak tree up the hill? It grew from a tiny acorn. So, if the Lord can squeeze a gigantic oak tree into a little seed like that, He can just as easily thread an elephant through the eye of a needle.”

And with that, Narada understood the difference between the priest and the cobbler, as well as why the priest was not yet ready for liberation.

What’s Wrong with Distractions?

Can you just sit, without the need to go shopping, have a drink, play some slots, meet some girls…or guys,  place a bet, see the game, look at magazines, call people, surf the net or have a smoke?

But what’s wrong with those things? You might ask.

In philosophers’ patter, let’s presuppose three things: (1) That the highest purpose of human existence is to awaken our consciousness (2) That by ethically wrong, we mean the deliberate causing of harm to a sentient being (3) That there is a difference between ethical wrongness and and spiritual wrongness.

With that in mind, we first have to understand what is meant by “wrong.” We can rule out the idea that anything is ethically wrong with those things mentioned (presumption #2)—because in doing them you’re not causing direct harm to yourself or others and you probably have no intention to. But, those kinds of attractions may be considered wrong in the sense that they fail to support us in our longing for true inner contentment. Moreover, they don’t serve in bringing us nearer to the most exquisite goal of spiritual awakening (presumptions #1 and #3).

We’re talking more about what an activity doesn’t do for us than what it does do. And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ever engage in amusements for the sake of amusement. It just means that we shouldn’t expect them to deliver what they are incapable of delivering.

Joy and happiness never derived from the external world. It is only the ego that looks habitually and incessantly for the next new thing—attached as it is, to the illusion of fulfillment by these things, as well as to the illusion that fulfillment happens at some other time. So, we are deceiving ourselves, from the beginning, by looking for happiness from anything, amusements, novelties, fantasies, experiences, in short, from things—things external to ourselves, things whose novelty quickly wears off, whose initial thrill wears away and whose very fabric wears out. All external things have a shadow side. The addict crashes every time and every time goes looking for another fix. The shopper needs the current issue, the gamer needs the latest version.

We even look to other people as potential sources of happiness, thus converting them into possessions and approaching them in the spirit of ownership, with negative emotions, like jealousy, suspicion and resentment the inevitable result of such an arrangement.

Meanwhile, we become prey to our own never-ending search for fulfillment out there. By doing so, we are essentially giving up our power to the world. And when we disempower ourselves, we become further distanced from the ultimate goal of awakening and further entrenched in illusion.

In Zen terminology, true joy comes from waking up to this moment. In Yogic language…from the realization of your own divine, abiding Self.

Nothing is more empowering than our liberation from the chains that bind us to the mistaken belief that joy is external to us. Distractions, by definition, keep us from this realization, thus leading us astray from our spiritual goal, wasting our time and disparaging our sacred purpose as humans.

And this, we may call spiritual wrongness (presumption #3).

The Long, Swollen Pause

The idea that pauses in conversation are bad has been indelibly etched into our belief system. We even have an expression for this unwanted interval: The awkward silence. Because in our minds, conversation should be a lively flowing exchange. The good conversationalist, we are told, should know how to keep the dialogue moving.

But even in the context of what we would call “small talk,” a well-timed pause is of great benefit; it not only allows for a moment of reflection, but gives a greater sense of intention to what will eventually be said.

In a potentially heated conversation, a befitting pause is not only beneficial, but vital. A deliberate pause can totally prevent fall out. In Kundalini Yoga, we talk a lot about the neutral mind. The simple act of waiting before speaking—for as long as you need to—can bring us there. Yet, as simple as it is, we forget to do it.

The neutral mind is the mind of the sage. It is the mind that stays cool, come what may. So called because it neutralizes our reactive tendency. Staying neutral is easier said than done. Yet we all know someone who is just naturally that way—unaffected by the things that throw most people into melt-down mode. The neutral mind allows you to step back rather than getting sucked into the drama.

This reservoir of calm, called the neutral mind, opens us up to our own intuition—that deep-rooted confidence and conviction that is quite outside of the senses. When our intuition is working, it is like a good radio antenna, which makes us more attuned to information that we don’t pick up through the noise of sense data.

The long, swollen pause is like Lao Tzu’s empty cup—it is that space which the universe can fill. The neutral mind is nonjudgmental. It listens without classifying or condemning. It has to, so that it can receive, rather than impose. And when it does, it’s like a trouble maker getting out of the way. That’s when a connection is made. That’s when the station is tuned in. That’s the state of no separation. That’s when we see through, to the other side of the words—the words that are so baffling: How could he say that??? That’s where we see the cry for help, attention, or  understanding—the true intention behind what is actually uttered (because, remember, people don’t always know how to say what they really want to say).

Finally, it is the neutral mind that is the bridge to reality itself, unfiltered by our triggers and reflexes, and all the story lines that give rise to them. It is pure and unspoiled by our criticism and preferences, and free of all the static that gets in the way of effective response and judgment. In short, it debars the reactive tendency.

As one of my teachers puts it, it is the neutral mind that allows us to see it and then un-see it. The pause is the way. But it takes courage because it means busting through what others expect of us, as well as our own old habits. But the rewards are well worth it because it is the key to effective communication.

The Ego—What Is It?

Ego is a misconstrued phenomenon. I often forget this fact when I say something like, It felt ego-driven to me. And the person with whom I’m speaking will say something like, Really? You think he was arrogant? So, here, I offer a little portraiture of this elusive, oft-misunderstood, conceptual thing.

Ordinarily thought of as arrogance, in its subtler shades, ego is desire, attachments, expectations. It is greed. It is the picking and choosing mind. It is jumping to conclusions, clinging to positions, single-minded stubbornness. It is anger. It is pushing your agenda. And it is all grounded in fear. The ego is the insecure part of us that needs constant recognition, approval, reassurance, and flattery (of which there is never enough). Mostly, ego just needs to be right. It is ignorance. It is the dualistic mind. And because of the fear generated by its exaggerated sense of self, and because of its dogged fixation on meeting its needs, it is in a constant state of alienation, worry, and suspicion of others’ intents. When these pestilent mental states are painstakingly peeled away, layer by layer, the light of compassion shines through, and we find that in this new state of lightness, we are able to harmonize with our surroundings, enabling others to effortlessly harmonize with us.

(Excerpted from my book,  Buddha in the Classroom; Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers, 2011)

Heal Thyself First

It is February—the month of love, so, in the spirit of the season, I offer a note about the importance of healing your own heart first.

There is a consistent message found throughout the higher wisdom traditions, that of tending to your own healing and transformation first. They say that it is imperative to purify yourself before trying to fix the world. To put it slightly differently, although we do exactly the opposite, in the form of finger-pointing, whistle-blowing and fault-finding, the call is to look to the inside before looking to the outside.

Rather than simply take it for granted, I would like to explore the reasons why this makes sense.

Firstly, because when we are miserable, depressed and despondent, or angry and in great angst, we are less likely to be open to the needs of others. We are more likely to close ourselves off and tuck ourselves away into a cocoon where we are both unavailable and unable to be of service to anybody else.

Secondly, because while we’re on this planet, the very least we can do—even if we don’t do much good—is refrain from causing harm. And when we’re suffering, we’re likely to lash out on others in myriad ways, from the little things, like general rudeness, to the big things, like the Columbine massacres.

Finally, in a more etheric sense, an open and balanced heart center—what the Yogis call the anahata chakra—can have a natural healing effect on others. When we start to heal and our hearts start to open, we tend to radiate warmth, and that creates joy all around.

Yes, Yoga Is Wise!

I recently had lunch with a few old friends. While sharing our current goings-on, the fact that I teach Yoga was met with general interest: I would love to take Yoga…It seems so wise, one woman said.

Well, that’s an understatement, I thought! It is wise—but how? What does it mean to be wise? Something that is described as wise, conveys the suggestion that by practicing it, you’ll become privy to a better way of living.

Yoga is defined as a technology and set of practices that are employed to enable human beings to achieve Self-Realization. Will this Self-Realization lead one to a better way of living?

Firstly, what is Self-Realization?

It is a state in which one is profoundly aware of his/her true nature. And if that is vague it is because it has to be, for it is a state that must be experienced. According to Yogic traditions, it is a process by which one ceases to identify with the ego-self, and the sense of separateness that characterizes this ego-based, state of illusion, known to Yogis as maya.

And so, as for the first question, how this awakening may improve the quality of life, we must remember that this condition of maya is plagued by a roster of negative emotions, like fear, suspicion, envy and anger. Accordingly, a practice meant to bring us back to a realization of wholeness, and away from this false sense of separateness, would restore a feeling of inner peace, while removing the adverse emotions. If we can speak in terms of goals, we might say the ultimate goal is increasing the joy in our lives.

Of course, like any noble and worthy goal, true practice takes work, but as my dear teacher Gurudhan is wont to say, life without Yoga takes even more work.

This worthy goal involves the pacification of our thoughts, emotions and habituated reactions—nothing short of the management of the mind—that unruly, rebellious thing, that does not want to be managed. Yoga offers us various tools to help us do that. And the many diverse Yogic traditions emphasize different tools. Like trails that lead to the summit, all will lead you there. In my own practice of Kundalini Yoga, we make copious use of kriya, mudra, eye-focus, powerful breath work and mantra meditation, all of which are often enhanced by sound modalities.

In the language of Yoga, the process of awakening is just that—a process, meaning that on a subtle level, you start to approach life in a different way, relate to people through new perspectives, see through open eyes, perceive with a clearer, less reactive mind. Problems may not be interpreted as problems any longer, and when they are, you have the clarity and presence with which to approach them more skillfully. All of this results in a higher quality of life.

Yes, Yoga is wise!

Emotions Don’t Make a Man

Sometimes I receive notes from people I don’t know. Sometimes they ask me for advice, and sometimes I’m able to give it. Here is an (edited) version of a recent one.

Question from an unknown friend:

I have always read about “letting go…” and specifically about letting go of the ego. Isn’t this the purpose of Yoga and Buddhist practice? I think it sounds good but I wonder if it is healthy overall to let go of so much in life. Isn’t part of life just feeling good and acting upon emotions? Isn’t that part of a fulfilled life to accept those feelings? How do I know when I should allow feelings and emotions to exhibit themselves or not? I struggle with this immensely. I almost feel like ego is me and therefore only death would detach me from any thread of ego attachment. When I have an opinion – am I just supposed to suppress it? Thank you for your time.

————

My response:

Friend:

You said: ” Is not part of life just feeling and acting upon emotions? Isn’t that part of a fulfilled life to accept those feelings?”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could tell you, “Yes, you’re right, I guess that’s what life is for.” But I can’t be the one. You see, this very idea is what Yoga (and Buddhist practice) is there to correct.

The whole purpose of “having a practice” is to steady the mind. Yoga is about the mind, not the body. It is about managing your energy, your emotions and your thoughts, so that those emotions don’t manage and overwhelm you. It’s therefore about you managing you.

Imagine if we took your question (in quotes, above) and made it universal, which is to say, allowed for society at large to act on it as a sort of “rule.” The result would be exactly like the fourth grade school yard, where anytime anyone gets angry, they just stomp and scream and throw their toys at others. After all, they would simply be “acting on their emotions.”

But, here’s the thing. Society is actually like that. Most people have not learned to manage their emotions, have not evolved to where life is about anything other than their passing feelings, nor have they come to identify with any higher purpose of existence.

It’s all about “how I feel.”

And so, we have road rage, prozac, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, war, hatred, envy, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, emotional disorders, a never-before-seen number of learning disabilities, stress, tension, and political elections that resemble an afternoon at the local kindergarten.

When body, spirit and mind are in a state of balance, which is to say, at the very least, that the “negative mind” doesn’t govern, those emotions don’t seem so overwhelming and living becomes more peaceful. What does this have to do with “letting go?” We stop getting so caught up with those habitual thoughts that only keep us limited—judgment thoughts, self-deprecating thoughts, doubtful thoughts and resentful thoughts—the kinds of thoughts we don’t want to characterize our ideas of ourselves and others. Because our thoughts weave the fabric of who we are.

It’s as Yogi Bhajan once said, in his characteristically straightforward and slightly mischievous way, “it’s not emotions that prove you’re alive. The way to find that out is to check your nose. If the breath goes in and out, then you are still alive.”

You see, once we begin to quiet the spinning mind, once we begin to relate to that which is infinitely greater than our passing trifles, once we begin to become truly conscious beings, then we relate to those emotions differently. We learn not to define ourselves by them and they begin to lose their hold and power over us. We become more stable and more able!

Kind Wishes,
~Donna

On Meaning

I am in the process of phasing out my old blog. But before removing it completely, I backed it up and pulled a few to the side that I thought should be made over and brought out for another curtain call.

Why not leave them exactly as they were? Because I’m not exactly as I was. Here’s a short and sweet one.

What is the meaning of life, philosophers ask.

It is rather like asking, what is the meaning of the sound of the violin.

The very question of meaning seems so very meaningless unless we understand that it is only according to our individual perspectives, shaped from the changing position of our conscious minds, that anything has meaning—even our very own lives.

There are 87 different meanings found in every breath we take, in every second of every day, in every one of our thoughts and in every action we take.

We shape the world with our thoughts—and our thoughts, in their turn, shape who we are.

The sound of the violin means one thing to the conductor, another to the lovers in the restaurant, and another to the feisty old grouch who doesn’t like anything. To many others, it has no meaning, at all.

There is meaning in every-thing, and meaning in no-thing. There is a profusion of meaning in every little thing, and no single meaning in any one thing.