Archive for October, 2010


What does it mean to be a “spiritual person?”  This question is at the heart of “Bird of Spirit” and it takes one’s entire life to answer it properly.  What I know so far, is this:  a spiritual person can be religious or not.  He or she can be atheist or agnostic or not.  He can be a scientist or she can be a secularist, but they don’t have to be.  The only real requirement is that a spiritual person is a tolerant, open-minded person who tries to rise above the rough and tumble of the world.  He and she know that they are not merely the roles that life asks them to play, such as mother, father, boss, employee, professional, clown, nerd, geek or jock.  They are all people of Spirit and we are all people of
Spirit, whether we know it or not.

But what does this really mean?  Recent advances in neuro-science have taught us a lot about the human brain and how it functions.  One of the results of all the neurological research is that people are now thoroughly familiar with the concepts, “left brain,” “right brain.”  Nearly everybody knows by now that a “left-brained person” is logical, rational and methodical.  Our mechanistic mass society teaches that the key to achieving social and financial success is to lead a left brain-dominant lifestyle.  The linear thinking associated with the left brain has guided human beings to devise and perfect computer operating systems and software and to compile and enforce complex lists of rules for doing everything from investing money to preserving natural resources.  Closely associated with the ego, the left brain helps us carve out our roles within human society.

Nonetheless, the left brain is only one half of the human mind.  Metaphorically connected to it by a slender cord of neurons, the right brain is the center of intuition and artistic inspiration.  It automatically sees pattern and wholeness where the left brain merely perceives dots that need to be connected.  The gestalt of the right brain compared to the logic of the left is analogous to a computer screen displaying a frame of a video game compared to the formula of zeroes and ones from which it was constructed.  What happens when the right brain is severed from the left is vividly described in the book, My Stroke of Insight:  A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, by Jill Bolte Taylor.  After a severe stroke, Taylor entered a prolonged state of euphoria and intense aesthetic pleasure.  Her sense impressions merged in such a way that she could not distinguish the human figures she saw in a room from the “ground” around and behind them.  This state is akin to the concept of “synesthesia,” where sensory impressions merge so completely that sounds can be said to be seen and sights to be heard.  Synesthesia is an aesthetic concept that was much explored by the great French poets of the nineteenth century, such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine.

Jill Bolte Taylor concluded that the intense euphoria she experienced was due to a complete dominance of her right brain, resulting from the severe atrophy of her left brain, caused by her stroke.  Gradually, over a number of years, she taught herself to re-build and re-integrate her left brain so that she could function in our physical world.  For the rest of us, the central lesson of My Stroke of Insight is that the right brain rises above linear logic, role-playing and egotism.  As such, it is the realm in which the spiritual person dwells.  We need our left brains to anchor ourselves in the daily world:  without them, we could not perform our earthly duties.  At the same time, we need our right brains to transcend our responsibilities and roles, and to perceive them as it were from above, from the point of view of Spirit.

Spirit is the alternately effervescent, compassionate and soulful animus of human life energy.  As such, Spirit is at the heart of what it truly means to be human.  We can never pin down what it means to be a “spiritual person” because there are so many amazing, creative ways that Spirit expresses itself in every human individual.  Perhaps it is most useful simply to say that a spiritual person is one who is on a path or a quest toward a bigger, brighter inspiration of Joy and Light.  Over time, a spiritual person becomes increasingly aware of the Spirit energy animating his or her soul.  He and she become increasingly adept at listening to the inner voice that represents the guidance of the right brain, for those who are scientifically grounded, or of the Divine Energy, for those who are Believers.


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In an article about  Dr. Madan Kataria, India’s “Laughing Guru,” in the August 30, 2010 issue of The New Yorker magazine, author Raffi Khatchadourian asserts,

“Kataria believes that true mirthful laughter can have a liberating, transformative effect – one that momentarily erases all practical concerns, fears, needs and even notions of time, and provides a glimpse into spiritual enlightenment.  This puts him at odds with the world’s major religions, where laughter is rarely celebrated, and where virtue and spiritual self-awareness are usually matters of discipline and solemnity.”

The idea that laughter or humor is incompatibility with spirituality could not be further from the truth.  First, there is the testimony of  Kataria’s new teaching, “laughter yoga,” itself.  This is a movement founded on the core belief that we can attain spiritual peace and come closer to God simply by laughing.  It could be described as the injunction, “lighten up,” elevated to the role of therapy and it is growing rapidly in popularity.  Laughter yoga is based on a very simple but radical premise:  not only is laughter infectious, but a joke or humorous stimulus is not strictly needed to induce laughing.  Instead, one simply begins to laugh on the spot, with no prompting whatsoever.  When a group of two or more people engages in this activity, at first the laughter sounds and feels forced.  Then an amazing thing happens:  the sound and sight of impromptu stage laughter, produced as if on cue, magically begins to tickle the funny-bones of the participants.  At this point, the real laughter begins, and it is infectious. 

In the article, Kataria explains that originally he began his therapy sessions by telling actual jokes, but after two or three days, his repertoire of jokes ran out and the old ones had become stale.  So he simply began laughing on the spot and encouraged his followers to join in.  Those who engage in laughter yoga have reported significant improvements in their physical, mental and psychic well-being.  It seems that “laughter is the best medicine” is a truism, and why should it be so surprising that elevating our moods can in turn elevate our spirits and souls?

But laughter yoga is not the only evidence of the role of humor in spirituality.  In his Autobiography, Yogananda recalls being amused by many of his followers, youthful peers and devotees.  He describes with delight the boyish antics of his beloved students in his school at Ranchi, and when one reads these anecdotes, one cannot help but hear his rollicking Indian accent, bubbling over with good humor at every turn.  Similarly, the Dalai Lama is described in a New Yorker profile by Evan Osnos in the October 4, 2010 issue as being of a self-deprecating, humorous disposition:

“To get those around him to relax, he has honed a sense of ‘radical informality.’  He giggles, makes jokes about digestion, cleans his glasses with a handkerchief…”

Warm, kind smiles like Nelson Mandela’s, gentle laughter and expressions of humorous amusement and bemusement are all characteristics of true spiritual leaders.  There may also be solemn or stern spiritual masters, but the point is that solemnity is not a requirement or a prerequisite of spiritual leadership.  If anything, the contrary is true.  Great leaders like the Dalai Lama communicate by their example that simplicity is a virtue, that humor is an attribute of simplicity, and that it can be simple to live a good, virtuous and spiritually attuned life.  A positive sense of humor, together with an attitude of innocent delight in the sights, sounds and smells of this world, are all a hallmark of attunement, harmony and compassion.  As such, they are to be embraced and emulated enthusiastically. A case in point: Yogananda’s guru, Sri Yukeswar, is described as being stern and demanding, but even with him, there are moments when the youthful devotees in his ashram elicit at least a smile of fond amusement if not a belly laugh from their formidable master.

One of the underlying life lessons Yogananda imparts to us in his Autobiography is that we can find as much spiritual inspiration on the hot, crowded plains of the Indian Subcontinent as in the lonely, craggy peaks of the Himalayas, despite his youthful and determined desire to go to the mountains to seek God.  This point is aptly illustrated by the stereotype of the Western seeker who hikes to the peaks of the Himalayas to search out hapless hermit gurus—gurus who are so advanced and unworldly that one imagines they have entirely forgotten what it is to laugh at a joke. 

Just as we can find God as readily in Calcutta as in Kathmandu, we can find God in persons with good humor just as readily as in formal and solemn clerics.  God is a living principle that not only operates us, but operates inside of us at our request and with our consenting acquiescence.  God is always in good humor because God is Good.  To put it another way, God is in at least as good a humor as we choose to be.

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For anyone on a spiritual path or a spiritual quest, one of the most challenging things to grapple with is the question, where does sexuality fit into the puzzle?   The world’s religions have answered with the entire gamut of possible responses, all the way from endorsing the sacred ecstatic (think kundalini yoga, for example) to outlawing sex entirely.  The Roman Catholic Church could not be more clear:  sex is for the purpose of reproduction only; all other sex is recreational and “recreational” means it is sinful.  More moderate views were taken by the Deist philosophers of the Enlightenment.  One imagines that comfortable, tolerant old Benjamin Franklin, who believed simply that God wants us to be happy, would have said that one of the ways God shows his approval of us is by granting us the orgasm.  Still, most religion, in line with the Catholic Church, would have us put away our sexual desires in a locked box.  Stomp on them and stamp them out.

Then again, there is the principle of rising above sexuality.  Like monks who devote themselves to God or nuns who “marry” Jesus Christ, Indian yogis like Yoganana forsake the world and transcend their sexual natures.  Here, the guiding vision is that our bodies occupy the physical world but our immortal souls dwell on a spiritual plane.  Anything associated with our baser, animal nature must be overcome, and what is more animalistic than an urge to copulate?  In his Autobiography, Yogananda does not mention whether it was hard for him to overcome his sexual nature, although he makes clear that renouncing sex is a prerequisite to becoming a yogi.  The vows of a monk or devotee require renouncing one’s sexuality in order to devote oneself more fully to the only true ecstatic bliss:  that of “samadhi,” or God-union, which is presumably a non-sexual type of bliss.  In striking contrast, Yogananda speaks movingly of how hard it was for his “young stomach” to fast for hours on end when as a youth he briefly entered an extremely ascetic order.

Apparently, it was much harder for the Buddha.  Deepak Chopra presents the Buddha in his larval stage as the monk Gautama, as having to fight hard against his sexual desires.  In Chopra’s Buddha:  A Story of Enlightenment, Gautama goes deep into the forest where he finds a hermit and sets up camp next to the holy man’s tent.  Days of quiet meditation pass between the two men until one day, Gautama sees the image of his wife’s face on the back of his eyelids and bang!  He has a hard-on.  Lucky for Gautama, it was not the male hermit’s face that aroused him in this manner.  Deeply embarrassed by his erection, Gautauma prays to rise above that which rose and eventually his hard-on subsides.

In the October 4, 2010 issue of “The New Yorker” magazine, in a profile on the Dalai Lama, Evan Osnos tells a similar tale about Tibet’s spiritual leader:

“Spalding Gray, the late writer and performer, once asked him in an interview how he deals with distractions like ‘women in bikini bathing suits.’  The Dalai Lama, who has been bound by a vow of celibacy since childhood, responded, ‘Sometimes in my dreams, there are women.  And, in some cases, fighting or quarreling with someone.  When such dreams happen, immediately I remember, ‘I am a monk.’”

Clearly, it is a lot harder for the rest of us ordinary mortals.  I know that I must have many lifetimes ahead of me before I attain Nirvana, because I’m not ready to renounce sex in this lifetime, nor do I particularly feel like turning my love life into kundalini yoga exercises. 

What is one to make of all this bewildering range of religious doctrines, apart from the rich tapestry of erotic fantasy that they help weave into our healthy sex lives, from S & M to cross-dressing to any variety of sexual “tastes?”  What is a spiritual seeker to do, who has not gone so far as to renounce the world?  Can we actually be spiritual without being monks or nuns?  I think one answer to these questions may be, be spiritual when you are feeling spiritual, be sexual when you are aroused, and rejoice when the two overlap in such a way that your foreplay and your orgasm, in the love of your partner, both feel sacred.

Sometimes when we share a meal with a loved one, family or friends, it can feel like a sacred occasion, and sometimes, as with Thanksgiving, we declare in advance that it is sacred.  At other times, the meal feels like we’re just eating.  Why should it be otherwise with sex?  At the same time, in this world where the sacred and the profane are so inextricably woven together, the more we can feel and express the sacred principle, the more elevated we become in Spirit.  We need more meals that feel sacred and more sexual encounters that feel loving and blessed.  It is never enough to feel that we are just eating or coming.  When we make love, turning the profane into the sacred is not a bad thing, and the more you can do it, the more I say bravo!  Every moment is sacred and if we only felt that in our hearts, we would all be much closer to enlightenment.

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Lory Misel is the Pacific Northwest-based spiritual counselor who is known as “The Holy Pig Farmer” in Jessica Maxwell’s Roll Around Heaven (www.rollaroundheaven.com).  One of Lory’s lessons is that the ego is always attacking us and it wants us to dislike ourselves.  This truly resonates with me because I vividly remember as a child feeling and saying, “I hate myself.”  Sometimes I would even yell it.  In retrospect, the curse of my self-loathing grew strongest in puberty, which also marked the time at which my ego took up permanent rule in my psyche.  My ego came of age even as my body came of age.

Long before my on-and-off-again teen-age self hatred began, I remember being very proud of my accomplishments.  As a child, I was always drawing and making cardboard sculptures, models and creations.  I loved nothing more than showing these off to my parents’ friends, many of whom were highly accomplished university professors and their wives.  I proudly gave them the tour of my room, displaying my creations left and right.  Then, when I was about 7 or 8, all at once I noticed that a boy in my class, a boy with giant blue irises flecked with vivid yellow rays, was indisputably conceited.  He too was proud of himself but he didn’t need cardboard models to display his pride:  his face and body sufficed in and of themselves.  My new perception of the boy’s conceited nature made me wonder, am I also conceited?  At that moment, my heretofore innocent pride fell away and suddenly became egotism.  Filled with a new humility which was probably false, I began to cut short the group tours of my beloved room.  My ego was growing and it was healthy:  I felt the conscious pride of my ego and with it, simultaneously, my conscious self-loathing.

In time, my innocent childish pride grew at my ego’s nudging into a teen-age superiority complex:  I felt that I was better than others.  At the same time, paradoxically, like all teen-agers I felt desperately awkward and inferior.  Flash forward to today and now I am in my mid-fifties, but it was only within the last week and thanks to Lory Misel that I had another epiphany:  an inferiority complex is nothing more than the flip side of a superiority complex.  They are two sides of the same coin.

For example, it goes something like this:   finding myself at the gym to work out, I look around at the other people and I realize with pride that I am more buff than the others in the room.  My ego tells me that I am this body and my body is superior.  Then, only moments later, a younger man with rippling biceps enters the room.  Now my ego quickly shifts gear:  it tells me that I am a body and my body is inferior.  Here’s a second example:  recently, I attended my professional association’s annual convention in Washington, DC and I was wowed and awed by all the gleaming accomplishments of my professional peers.  My ego quickly told me that I am a brain and my brain is inferior.  Feelings of weakness and vulnerability swept through me.  Returning home a few days later, I was quickly comforted by surrounding myself once again with people who, fortunately, were never schooled or skilled in the esoteric knowledge that was mother’s milk at the conference.  Reassuringly, my ego now told me that I am a brain and my brain is (once again) superior.

The problem with all of this Jesuitical self-analysis is that my ego is simply wrong on both counts.  I am not a body and I am not a brain.  I am not even an ego.  On the contrary, I am an immortal soul.  When I work out at the gym or go to my annual convention, I only think of myself as playing a role, regardless of whether it is the role of superior brain-person or of inferior body-person.  In truth, I am neutral.  I am not playing a role and I am neither superior nor inferior.  Momentarily cured of my inferiority-superiority complex, I briefly realize that my soul is lit with the infinite and eternal Light of Spirit.  With a little luck, I can say goodbye forever to that pesky inferiority-superiority complex and open the door of my soul to the Light.

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Just as in physics, there is a law of cause and effect—that every action is accompanied by a predictable and measurable reaction–karma is the spiritual law of cause and effect, that every human action leads to an equal response levied upon the actor. The law of karma explains a lot, but it doesn’t explain everything.  It does not explain injustice.  It doesn’t explain how innocent people can be victims of hate crimes. Karma seems best at examining the individual perpetrators of sins or crimes, explaining how they will receive their come-uppance at a future date or in a future life.  It doesn’t seem as effective at explaining what happens to innocent victims of crimes. How did their own karma land them in a hospital or in a jail cell?  When genocide or holocaust occurs, can it really be said that every injured, tortured or killed victim is receiving his personal due from poor karma accumulated in a past life, and all at once?  Doesn’t such a view only lead humans to commit even more genocide?

How can we reconcile the logic of karma with the senseless and horrifying fact of genocide, which is a manifestation of thousands of human egos collectively going mad simultaneously and en masse?  This is a philosophical and psychological problem more than it is a spiritual one.  A useful way to characterize the insanity of people in the aggregate is to suggest the concept of social karma, in which entire societies act out their senseless, ego-driven dramas on the world stage.  In this sociological perspective, victims of genocide might be viewed less as perpetrators of their own individual karmic dramas than as soldiers or pawns in a society-wide karmic meltdown.  In other words, they truly are victims of society and are not responsible for the evil conflagration surrounding them.  To take just one example, even if every single person killed in the Rwanda genocide of 1994 had committed a murder of tribal hatred earlier in life or in a past life, that does not mean that we can sit back complacently and say, “they had it coming to them.”  Such a conclusion only breeds repetition of more senseless evil social karma in the future. 

In the end, it all comes back to the ego.  One way to describe the ego is to say that it is rooted in the left brain, the seat of logic and cognition, which we need in order to function effectively as temporary beings on the physical plane.  The ego is not content to pilot the left brain only, however:  it wants to take over the entire mind, which encompasses also the intuitive, loving and God-perceiving right brain.  The ego is like a power-crazy general or emperor:  if the brain is Europe, then the ego is Napoleon or Hitler.  Individual insanity is caused by the ego’s need to control the entire mind and collective insanity occurs when a sufficiently large number of a population agrees to submit in lock step to the Napoleons in their minds.

Parts of this entry were inspired by remarks made by Jessica Maxwell and Lori Misel at the RAH! Workshop, Vashon Island, Washington October 2, 2010, and also by Eckhart Tolle’s descriptions of the ego in The Power of Now.  For more information about RAH (Roll Around Heaven, by Jessica Maxwell,) see www.rollaroundheaven.com.


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The emphasis of official Christianity is always upon action:  we must pray to the Lord our Savior to deliver us from evil, from the sins we’ve committed in the past and from committing new ones.    A sin is a wrongful act committed by the sinner and we are all sinners.  When we pray to be led not into temptation, we are speaking of the temptation to do evil or wrong.  What appeals to me about Hinduism and Buddhism, on the other hand, is that they place the primary moral emphasis on thought, rather than action.  It is our thoughts, after all, which lead us into committing acts that have negative consequences on our loved ones, friends, and in a ripple effect, on a wider and wider pool of humanity.  Yet the Eastern religions go far beyond a prescription simply to avoid wrongful thought – they teach that all thought must be transcended.  It is the very preponderance of our thoughts, in the ceaseless buzzing of our ego-driven brains, that result in human cruelty, misery and suffering.  Not only do “evil” thoughts lead to evil acts, but the act of thinking itself leads to poorly judged action.

The antidote to thinking is to stop thinking altogether.  This is the alarmingly simple prescription of Buddhist meditation and it can only be achieved by focusing on the tiny, short gaps between our thoughts, which are like brief patches of blue sky between fast-moving clouds.  At the most basic level, the goal of meditation is to enlarge the patches of blue sky, while slowing down the moving clouds.  Eventually, the sun beams through unchallenged in a cloudless blue sky.  Thus the daily practice of meditation becomes central to achieving “dharma” or rightful action.  The first step in meditating is to bat away one’s thoughts as if they were so many pesky mosquitos, buzzing and ready to bite at any moment.

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