Archive for January, 2012

In a “Bird of Spirit” blog entry from October, 2011, titled “Buddhism Versus Franklinism,” I alluded to “the Buddhist notion of destroying the self.”  Recently, I received a correction on this statement from a professional colleague named Dave Merrill, who is a local Buddhist practitioner and student teacher of the Buddha path.  Dave also teaches specialized breathing techniques, and more information about his breath work is available on his website, www.breathnorthwest.com.  Dave explained to me that Buddhists don’t say you should destroy the self, because how can you destroy something that does not already exist?  According to Buddhist teaching, the “I” does not exist in the first place.  Instead, we create our own phenomena, our own “samsara.”  What each of us does every day, without realizing it, is that we construct and re-construct our illusory “self,” so that we have an erroneous conviction of our own independent existence.  Buddhism teaches that this process is simply a bad habit, because the self is an illusion.


This assertion that the self is an illusion reminds me of an image of a face on a television set or a computer screen.  We look at the picture and we see a face, but in actual fact it is an optical illusion made up of a finite number of pixels on the screen; it doesn’t exist as an independent entity.  The only thing that really exists is the bursts of color in each individual cell or pixel.  As if to drive home this point, I have seen clever posters of large faces that are in turn composed of an array of tiny individual faces:  each pixel or visual cell contains a face that presumably, if you were to take a microscope to it, would be composed of an array of infinitesimal faces, and so on and so on.


That God or Buddha nature transcends the linguistic symbol, “face,” or the psychological concept, “self,” is eloquently described in the first chapter of Jessica Maxwell’s marvelous book, “Roll Around Heaven:  An All-True, Accidental Spiritual Adventure.”  In the opening chapter, Jessica relates her memory of seeing a gigantic picture of her father’s face etched upon the sky at the moment of his death.  The giant face of her father communicated to her the bliss he was feeling in being reunited with “Reality,” as Buddhists might put it, or otherwise with God.  The reason her father was experiencing bliss at that moment was presumably due to the fact that he had entirely stopped perceiving himself as anything separate from the universe or from God.  Look for future “Bird of Spirit” blog entries on what the “self” might mean, and whether our sense of self, or of having a self, is in fact nothing but an illusion.










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Bliss-Consciousness and God

Most of us have experienced a few fleeting moments of bliss in our lives, often at completely unexpected moments.  In “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert describes her release at finally achieving such a state, after years of crippling depression, during a long group meditation at an ashram in India.   In Chapter 1 of “Man Seeks God,” former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner describes one such moment of bliss that he had filed away in a drawer of his memory for years, and nearly forgotten:


“Waves of bliss broke over me, inside me.  Tears rolled down my cheeks.  My body trembled, almost like a seizure, and on my lips came these words: ‘I didn’t know, I didn’t know.’  I didn’t know such joy was possible.”


When Eckhart Tolle had a similar sort of seizure after thinking suicidal thoughts, he awoke to a state of bliss so powerful that he walked around the streets and parks of Vancouver B.C. in blissfulness for two years without coming down from it.  Talk about a “natural high!”  In “The Power of Now,” Tolle describes how many of us experience such moments, but only fleetingly.  He goes on to explain that the chief obstacle to a more sustained experience of bliss is our egos, which cut us off from it by refusing to let us be fully present in the moment.  The tick, tick, tick of our thoughts is like a clock that imprisons our minds in the future and the past, preventing us from experiencing the only true reality, which is the present moment.  The remedy is to practice experiencing the present moment until one can forget oneself in the “now.” 


As Eric Weiner expresses it in his chapter on Sufism, sadness and depression can be viewed as a form of grief that the human soul experiences, due to a feeling of being cut off and separated from the divine.  This grief is the dark night of the soul, the clock that traps us in the future and the past.  It is the obstacle to experiencing bliss, but it is also the catalyst for finding one’s way back to bliss, or to what both Hinduism and Buddhism call “awakening.”  In Christianity, the Fall of man is an allegory for the grief of separation from the divine, in which man and woman feel overwhelmingly self-conscious and alone in their expulsion from our natural union with God in the Garden of Eden.  In almost any religion, the life of a man can be described as a path of first developing an individual ego so that one can function in the world of human society, and then of shedding one’s ego, which is the embodiment of the concept of a separate identity, so that one may become re-united with God.


Many if not all religions, or at least the mystical orders within the religions, encourage people to find their way back to a sustained state of bliss.  The conversion of St. Paul, the ecstacies of St. Theresa of Avila, the meditations of St. Francis, the transcendent state of whirling dervishes, the awakening of the Buddha – all are examples of this.  Experiencing bliss may not be the same as attaining enlightenment, especially if it is not actively sustained over time, but it is certainly a significant signpost along the way.


One interesting difference between the religions is whether or not bliss-consciousness is directly associated with God.  Sufism and Hinduism clearly interpret blissfulness as issuing from God.  For example, in his “Autobiography of a Yogi,” Yogananda describes the purpose of meditation as being the attainment of “samadhi,” or state of union with God.  He called his organization in America the “Self-Realization Fellowship,” in which “Self” refers to the ‘Higher Self,’ which is capable of re-unifying with God.  However, Buddhism differs from this interpretation.  In Buddhism, the bliss-consciousness which the Buddha achieved is an attribute of enlightenment, but enlightenment is not thought to be a state of union with God.  Instead, the leading Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh defines nirvana as the “extinction of ideas and concepts and of suffering based on ideas and concepts; the ultimate dimension of reality.”  Since the word “God” is only one more human idea or concept, it needs to be extinguished along with all the other constructs. 


If the extinction of ideas and concepts is in fact the ultimate dimension of reality, it is “reality” that exists, not God.  One could say that in Buddhism, “reality” is the ultimate value, instead of God.  The difference may be semantic, because those of us who believe in God could just as easily choose to call God “Reality,” as those who believe in “Reality” could choose to call it “God.”  Either way, these are concepts that need to be annihilated, because any concept is merely a symbol blocking our perception of the actual Reality or God.  While the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron warns her followers against veering into “theistic” thinking, I believe it would be wrong to characterize Buddhists as atheists.  Unlike the gauntlet thrown down by Christopher Hitchens, that atheism is the true ‘Reality,’ Buddhists would be much more likely to say that atheism is merely another concept that needs to be annihilated.

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What does it mean to believe in God without being a Christian, Jew, Muslim or Hindu?   Is it even possible?  Society wants to label each and every one of us according to our religion as well as our race, gender and sexual orientation, as if society cannot function without categorizing us.  Traditional societies would also prefer it if each of us remained a member of the religion in which we were born and raised, as if choosing another one or no other one were a sort of defection to be frowned upon. At the same time, the bird of spirit flies above, a muse calling each of us to beliefs that cannot always be categorized.  I have always been most interested in the intersections between science, philosophy and religion.  Perhaps a spiritual philosophy of life can best focus on these intersections, synthesizing and reconciling the insights offered by all three of these very different lenses with which to view life.  At any rate, this is what my life experience has led me to believe.


When I was a sixth-grader, sitting and fidgeting at my desk before the afternoon recess, Jeri Johnson suddenly turned around in her chair in front of me.  “What religion are you?” she asked.  Startled, I replied that I was a Protestant.  “You can’t be a Protestant,” Jeri scolded.  “You have to be a Lutheran or a Methodist or a Baptist or a Presbyterian.”  I was unsettled, and had no idea what to say.  Finally, I stammered, “I’m just a Protestant; we’re Protestants.”  This is what my parents had taught me to say if I was ever asked about my religion.  Having grown up in the small towns of Montana, they had struggled and rebelled against Sunday school and resolved not to foist religious instruction on my brother and me.  In fact, my mother’s mother had simply dispatched my 7 year-old mother across the street to the Lutheran church in Helena, without bothering to accompany her.  Her instructions were to tell the teacher that she was reporting for Sunday school.  When my mother later reported to my grandmother her observation (expressed in a 7 year-old’s language, of course) that she found the paintings of Jesus hanging in the classroom to be naively rendered and aesthetically repellant, my grandmother was secretly pleased and relieved my mother of any future duties to attend.  Thus it was that my parents gave me what turned out to be a marvelous spiritual gift:  no instructions in religious dogma whatsoever.  I was left to my own devices and began sorting out my own views on God at an early age, believing happily that I had every right to do so.


My first inkling that I believed in God must have come from a vivid experience of synesthesia when I was only a baby, just beginning to crawl.  I remember being fascinated by the white-on-white, highly textured pattern of a cotton bedspread on which I crawled, with its alternating smooth and rough striped surfaces woven into a diamond lattice.  I felt that I was the bedspread, its look and feel, that there was no difference between it, my perceptions of it, and me.  I was suddenly aware of myself as an awake, sentient being, but I was in no way detached from the pleasurable universe surrounding me.  This innate belongingness, this awareness and oneness of self, perceptions and objects:  this was God.   Later, when I was in grade school, anxieties overtook me from time to time, but in the midst of my fears, I discovered a warm feeling arising in the pit of my stomach.  Intrigued by the feeling as I walked home from school one day, I slowly began to understand that it was hope, and if hope is real, there must be a God.


As I matured into puberty, I came to see that hope was only one of many attributes of God.  When you put all the attributes together, they added up to something extremely significant and important, but it didn’t really matter if you chose to call them God or not.  I experienced a few satisfying, contemplative moments as I went on long, solitary walks, staring at distant snow-capped mountain ranges rising over deep blue waters and emerald lawns, and I began to seek out contemplation as a refuge.  In contemplation lay transcendence and I felt sure that in transcendence I would find God.  As a teen-ager, I came to see God as the ultimate transcendent consciousness and I embraced a philosophy of pantheism.


After a wonderful summer vacation spent with my French relatives in Paris and the Loire Valley between my junior and senior years of high school, I decided I wanted more than anything to return to Parisfor college.  Since going to the Sorbonne was a cultural, educational and bureaucratic impossibility, I enrolled in the American College in Paris in the fall of 1971 and spent the year living with my French great aunt in the 13th Arrondissement.  Although the experience was wonderful, stimulating and broadening, the French sights, sounds and smells and the French culture were all alien to me and I was terribly lonely and homesick.  I vividly remember how depressed I was when a giant trunk of my belongings arrived from Seattle, weighing me down with the reality that I had signed up to stay in Paris for my entire freshman year.  While the familiar things were meant to console me, the heavy weight of the trunk only confirmed that I was not going home any time soon.  I’m as materialistic as the next American, but I like to flatter myself that this was my first inkling of the almost universal religious teaching that in possessions happiness does not lie.


For spiritual nourishment and solace, I relied on my mother’s lovely letters, which arrived at regular intervals, often at least once a week.  Then I discovered that if I lay down on my bed and tried to imagine that I was at home or in a peaceful favorite place, I gained some relief from the grief of my homesickness.  I would arise after these late afternoon deep-relaxation sessions feeling re-energized for the evening.  One afternoon in late fall or early spring, as dusk was settling in, I lay on the bed taking deep breaths.  Eyes closed, the sounds of Parisgradually filled my ears.  I heard the clatter of children’s feet on the sidewalk below my aunt’s apartment, their cries of delight and excited laughter as they teased each other, running down the street.  I heard the windy, thunking whacks as the “femmes de ménage” shook heavy formal Oriental carpets out the upper story windows of apartment buildings across the street.  I heard the raspy rattle and roar of motor-scooters shooting around street corners.  Church bells rang melodically in the distance.  This wasParis.  At that moment, I regained the sensation of synesthesia I had experienced as a baby on a white bedspread:  if this wasParis, and I was hearing it, I was Paris.  I was Paris, Paris was me, and all of it were part of the moment.  Not only that, but the moment was part of God.  The experience reminded me of my summer in the Loire Valley, when I first heard the bells of the country churches ringing the “Angelus,” and I’m here to tell you that when you hear those bells in the early summer morning calling people to rise, it is almost impossible not to believe in God.


Ever since that moment taking deep breaths on my little monastic twin bed in Paris, I have been practicing what I call “energy-regeneration,” in which I seek to energize and attune myself by taking repetitive deep breaths, inhaling and holding my breath for as long as I can count, and alternating with shorter breaths.  This self-taught technique helped restore my emotional well-being in those moments of extreme loneliness, when I thought I was too young to bite off an entire academic year in Paris, and it has saved me countless times from moments of mental exhaustion in my adult life.  When I heard the bells ring, the children laugh and the carpets go “thwack,” I first experienced fully what it means to be present in the moment.  It is still hard for me deliberately to attain full awareness of the present moment,  to dwell in what Eckhart Tolle calls “The Power of Now,” but at least I now know that being present is the only way to experience the divine bliss that is the fulfillment of the bird of spirit.

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Sin, Sleeping and Awakening

 At the risk of stating the obvious, Christianity’s starting assumption is that we are all sinners until we are saved by Christ.  While it certainly cannot be denied that man commits wrongs on a daily basis, I believe that regarding ourselves as essentially sinful can be just as harmful to spiritual growth as it can be useful.  For me personally, it is much more helpful to adopt the alternative starting assumption of Hinduism and Buddhism:  that we are born asleep in ignorance.  While being saved is the goal of Christianity, awakening is the goal of the Eastern traditions. 


Since most cultures, including Christian ones, believe that babies are born innocent and fresh, coming into this world without any sins of their own, the Christian idea that we are born in sin really implies that each new baby is born polluted by the sins of his parents and ancestors.  It is as if these ancestral sins are like toxins of alcohol or recreational drugs, imparted to the fetus through the mother’s bloodstream.   This notion, which seems to implicate the baby in the sins of others, does not ring as true to me as the idea that we are born asleep, or that we gradually fall into a metaphoric sleep, as we learn to separate ourselves from our mothers and our immediate surroundings, developing the hard shell of our individual egos.  I believe that life’s spiritual purpose is to wake from this sleepfulness, and if we commit sins along the way it is only because we remain at least partly asleep in ignorance. 


On the other hand, to regard oneself as sinful can be extremely cathartic for people who have lived very hard lives, people who have struggled against drug addiction or physical abuse or racism, or who have committed violent crimes.  For people who live in misery, psychically tormented by their feelings of guilt, anger or fear, their dawning perception that they have sinned can become a transformational force leading them toward the redemption offered by Jesus and a Christian God.  Strong emotion is one of the principal motivators leading people to God.  The experience of shared emotion in the community offered by church, the sense of belonging imparted by the minister’s invocation, the choir’s affirmation and the congregation’s active participation, can offer powerful psychic relief – an emotional high.  Nowhere have I seen the spiritual value of this emotional relief, this dissolving of the individual in the spiritual community, portrayed more convincingly and eloquently than in James Baldwin’s wonderful novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”   


Still, for lucky people like me, who have been blessed by suffering only the most minor of emotional traumas, God seems more easily or compellingly approached in the quiet of contemplation, rather than in the grip of strong, transformational emotion.  I desire to awaken spiritually as fervently as some people want to be forgiven for their sins.  Still, it is easy to be ecumenical about these formulations, simply by expressing the notion that to be saved is to wake up, and to awaken is to be saved.

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Living with Samsara

 “Samsara” is a Sanskrit word meaning the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.  Samsara is closely associated with the human predilection for attachment to all the pleasures and pains of the world.  In turn, the dualistic nature of pleasure and pain, two threads coiled together as inextricably as the two spiraling strands in a molecule of DNA, is captured by another Sanskrit word, “maya,” meaning cosmic delusion or illusion.  Hindus and Buddhists believe that human beings are slaves to samsara, because our desire for physicality and bodily pleasure, working together with the laws of karma, leads us inexorably into each new incarnation.  The key to enlightenment is to find a way to step out of the bonds of samsara, which is another way of saying that the goal of life is to step out of the endless cycle of birth and death, known as the great ‘wheel of life.’  Out of our intense attachment to the physical world, we must somehow find a way to be detached, while still continuing to live our daily lives.


If we are challenged to renounce samsara, does this mean that we are enjoined to live a monastic life, renouncing every form of pleasure that comes our way?  The great holy men of India, the gurus and saints so vividly described in Yogananda’s “Autobiography,” appear to have lived a life of ritual, discipline and restraint, if not the pure monastic path that Gautauma followed before he became the Buddha.  Still, in all of my readings to date, I have not yet come across a text that says we should  retreat from life by resisting all the worldly pulls of pleasure and pain.  Indeed, the whole point is to stop resisting, as Pema Chodron so eloquently relates in “Renunciation,” chapter 11 of her book, “The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness.”  This seems like a Rubik’s cube of a puzzle:  how do you stop seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, without resisting your natural tendency to do both?  The first part of the answer is that the formula or self-directive we all follow, “seek pleasure and avoid pain,” is actually resistance to life. 


The other part of the answer is that you can embrace pleasure and pain without giving yourself over entirely to either one.  Naturally, we already embrace and seek out pleasure, but we invariably do so without stepping outside the pleasure while we’re engaged in it.  Therefore, the injunction is to transcend samsara by rising above both the pleasure and the pain.  For example, at the point of orgasm, or as you take an exotic and tasty morsel of food into your mouth, or as you thrill to the wide-open freedom of speed on a ski slope, you might say to yourself, “this is pleasure and it is transitory.  I rejoice in it, but it is not my whole life and it is not who I am.”  At the same time, when pain appears on the horizon, instead of turning to flee, what if you stepped into the pain willingly, like the yogis who walk calmly over a bed of hot coals?  This is the opposite of resistance, and obviously it takes a lot of courage.  Still, when the pain is most intense, you may be soothed simply by saying to yourself, “this is pain and it is transitory.  I abhore it, but it is not my whole life and it is not who I am.”  In this way, we may become detached while still remaining fully engaged with life.


In my own life, if I can find the courage to step into pain when it comes toward me like a freight train, and if I can smile at myself in the middle of experiencing a great pleasure and say to myself, “this is the part of samsara that I like,” then maybe I will begin following the path toward transcendence.  In her book, Pema Chodron writes about the importance of embracing life, grabbing it by the horns even as we fidget with our habitual resistance.  In Chapter 12, “Sending and Taking,” she speaks of the value of practicing and advanced meditation technique called “tonglen.”  In tonglen, the practitioner deliberately breathes in the pain and suffering of life and breathes out the pleasure and joy, as if effectively he or she chooses to take in the sufferings of others and give away his or her joy to them.  If you can manage it, this is a true expression of compassion, the highest value in the Hindu and especially the Buddhist view of life.


But why at the most fundamental level is it so important to step outside of samsara?  I keep coming back to that wonderful assertion, “I am in this world but not of it.”  This statement, which I believe is endorsed across the religious spectrum, hits the nail on the head.  If we are slaves to pleasure, then by our avoidance we are certainly also slaves to pain.  If pain and pleasure are all we experience, then our natures are hardly more than animal nature.  Naturally, we aspire to climb above our animal nature to embrace the divine principle in ourselves.  God (if you believe in Him, or otherwise Buddha nature) does not seek pleasure; He radiates joy.  God does not impose pain; He eases suffering. 


Most significantly, though, it is important to step outside of samsara because if we don’t, we hurt ourselves by remaining in ignorance.  Perhaps the truest definition of ignorance is a life in which we tie ourselves to the ground with psychic knots by embroiling ourselves in a constant, turbulent drama of emotions brought on by our attachment to raging and untamed desires, including the desire for self-protection.  How many lawsuits, divorces, suicides, illnesses, car crashes or house fires could be avoided if we simply found a way to step out of samsara without resisting life?  To transcend samsara, you have to step out of it by embracing it when you don’t like the way it looks and by laughing at it when you do.  You don’t step into a fire; you step through it.

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