I have experienced a few periods of my life that were pivotal to self-awareness, renewal, and divine life. Looking back these were times of special blessings and guidance where I came to think differently and thus change the course of my life. I briefly mentioned in Part 1 of this series about the effect of out of body and near-death experiences on my outlook. As a result, beyond what might have been expected from my history growing up, a spiritual necessity awakened with openness to explore different possibilities. This was a new energy which led me to begin my spiritual search culminating in the path of bhakti.
It was a natural endeavor, practically effortless, reminding me now of a verse in the 6th Chapter of Bhagavad Gita, about the future life of an unsuccessful transcendentalist: “By virtue of the divine consciousness of his previous life, he automatically becomes attracted to the yogic principles -- even without seeking them. Such an inquisitive transcendentalist stands always above the ritualistic principles of the scriptures.” [Bg 6.44] And very soon I became self-realized—well, not quite! We learn from Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakur about the zig-zag process of spiritual advancement, which isn’t a straight line, but is like going up and down the foothills before scaling the largest peak, the final goal.
As a child, regardless of the condition of our life, it just seems usual, ordinary. We have nothing to compare it with. It is often only as adults that we can have some perspective. Then we see our life narrative in relationship to what society considers normal and healthy, or dysfunctional and abnormal. For me, growing up in an “abusive alcoholic family” was just what my life was. I had no terminology in which to think about, label, or describe it, and thus didn’t have a judgment about it one way or another. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was life. Though I didn’t like my parents fighting or my dad’s fits of anger, I also didn’t have any conceptual tools in which to think about it. Our parents are instruments of our karma to teach us many things. (I hope you will think about this in your own life.)
Fortunately, it would seem that at a subconscious level (we could say Supersoul’s guidance) I did understand the possible negative effects of living in a tumultuous family environment. Thus, I was guided to use my particular karmic nature to defend myself. My strategy was to withdraw, or detach myself from potentially painful situations. Even though I have spent years learning to be more present, or “in my body,” I still can seem aloof occasionally. It has utility, but isn’t a good way to live in all times and places. Regardless, the aloofness I had in youth protected and helped me from possible emotional harm. Not being present, or having my heart withdrawn, seemed normal and real.
The point in bringing this up is that it is helpful for our peace of mind and happy relationships to deal with our past by understanding how certain conditioning impedes our harmonious interactions. Such endeavor can help us live in a way that is the most favorable for our spiritual life and being a balanced human being. Admittedly, negative habits or perspectives are difficult to overcome especially when they are intertwined with our spiritual foundation. However, by becoming aware through introspection and prayer we can gradually change, over a long time. I have found such work very useful on my journey to Krishna.
It wasn’t until my late teen years after high school that I was able to really examine my life. Out of body, and near-death experiences radically changed how I saw life, and what I thought was real.
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Will I survive or perish?
Fighting for each step
on the road of cleansing —
howling wind-spirits push me
flaming tongues burn my feet
the abyss beneath beckons
lusty beings offer temptations
demons create obstructions
relief is promised if I give up.
Grasping the sword of Truth
I move the demons backward
ignoring obstacles surrounding me
slowly progressing toward freedom
if only I can stay awake
[Gaurangi Priya Gopal photo credit above]
On New Year’s Day my wife and I drove two hours to the Hillsborough NC temple to attend a wedding reception for a new couple, Amala Harinam and Nadiya Mani Darling. Amala, who we have known for years, is the brother of a dear friend (Gaurangi Priya), and we are also close with their parents, so we really desired to go. The actual wedding took place a while back in England (since Nadiya is British), but they wanted to have something in the US for Amala’s friends who grew up with him, or have known him over the years. The previous day was a 12 hour kirtana. This was a fitting way to prepare for the reception since both husband and wife are accomplished kirtaneers. The reception turned out to be an event we were grateful to have attended. It consisted of a Temple arotik, a video condensing the 6 hour wedding into 45 minutes (yeah!), a short talk, blessings and marital advice from the assembled devotees, a play, and dance--which was a fitting crescendo to the reception activities. After that a delicious feast was served which many in the wedding family labored hard to prepare.
Thinking of how many of our second generation devotees (our children) are involved in a kirtan revival due to the popularity of kirtan in the Yoga world, I reflected that the Hare Krishna movement was birthed by profuse chanting of the holy name on streets throughout the world. Thus it would seem we are going full circle, though with a different flavor. The early days of Prabhupada’s movement were a time of low temple overheads, simplicity, natural humility, and a focus on chanting Hare Krishna in sankirtan (group chanting). I first encountered devotees when they were chanting in San Francisco at Market and Powell streets, which became known as the “Krishna corner.” Although I initially thought devotees were strange with their shaved heads and flowing robes, after my life transformed a few years later, I became attracted to the idea of becoming a monk in some tradition.
Part 2—The Interior Castle
We want the same things:
to be loved, understood, valued
it’s only a question of degree—
are we spiritually/psychologically healthy
satisfied in sadhana and who we are,
or needy from a dysfunctional past
meeting intense cravings unhealthily
unable to uncover the soul’s joy in service?
Desiring to share our inner life
to be accepted for our dreams, even darkness
but prevented by mutual walls and ramparts
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Every time I write about writing, I think of adding, "although I have already written too much about writing". Yet today, I have a different angle of vision. I'm thinking that it is natural to speak about what we are preoccupied with. Can we write too much about life, death, or spiritual practice? I think not, and still, I feel somewhat apologetic for writing so much about writing as if I have justify it to my readers. Whatever my writing is, good, bad, or mediocre, I write on topics that capture my interest and attention, that I feel inspiration for, and that I pray may be of some use to you on your life's journey of awakening. I have broken this off from a much longer poem, that is now in 3 parts, which perhaps is kinder to you, or at least is more focused.
The blank page beckons
inspiration’s door opens a crack
will it open wide or crash shut?
giving uncertainly whether to begin—
so I pray to the Source of all, learning:
endeavor & grace create possibilities
faithful effort always bears fruit
the poem reveals itself to openness.
Each person is a walking story—or many stories walking, or blending together. We could think of our combined story like a painting built of layers, upon layers of mixed colors, creating something totally new, and yet the result of what has gone before. Our current life’s narrative is informed and in response to past stories, both our foundational background of growing up, and how we have adapted that story to various stages of our development, leading up to our sense of “now.” Our current now becomes our forthcoming story and is the intersection between the past and future. This is important to consider from the spiritual perspective because our identification with our material story defines us, covering our soul, and keeps us building new stories, or looking for others more appealing.
Think of how you define yourself. Isn’t a big part “who you think you are” your personal story, or the past emotional drama that has created the lens you use to see, or sense, the world? Although our previous lives have scripted our current story (our parents and others are instruments of our karma), we have to deal with our current life’s manifestation of that past karma, and live in present. While it is true that we may have to look back to resolve certain life issues or relationships, our main focus should always be in the present, informed by our spiritual goal. This means that everyone is responsible for their present actions, regardless of karmic inherited tendencies. Otherwise we can always blame the past, cruel fate, or someone else, and be powerless to change, or move forward. Ultimately the problem and solution to all problems is within us. We can choose what story we allow to define us and what story we aspire to be part of spiritually, or everlastingly.
I began this blog with the first part of the title before I contacted an “industrial strength” flu, which then gave me illness eyes to emote through. Practically our entire community received this illness gift from a visiting sadhu, and many of us have been under the weather for 12 days or more. In any case, I have combined the two blog ideas since they are related. In other blogs (included in my book Give to Live) I have spoken about the positive and negative impetus for practicing bhakti. While today’s title emphasizes the negative, it is within the context of a positive, spiritual, worldview and an understanding of the blissful nature of the soul engaged in loving service to Krishna. Until we are self-realized devotees of Krishna, we have to continually be reminded about the shortcomings of the material world and the fallacy of trying to enjoy our senses. Why? Since we are all addicted to pleasuring our senses and material conceptions, we often have a difficult time breaking these bad habits. However, we can apply the adage, “Repetition is the mother of skill,” and gradually find our spiritual footing.
In this spirit, the statement, “and then you die,” can be added to any ordinary material activity or accomplishment in order to put life into a spiritual context. In other words, from the perspective of the eternality of the soul, how much value does a particular action or achievement have? Reading the obituary column is interesting from this perspective, since often the authors of the “accomplishments” of the so-called deceased, make quite a stretch in their praise, like looking for straws--at least it seems this way to me. If we were merely a temporary conglomeration of chemicals, then yeah, such narratives would be important, since that would be all there was to a person’s existence. One life and then you die—end of story! And even if, from a worldly or religious perspective, they are significant milestones, or extraordinary achievements, how much difference do they make spiritually? To me, that is the fundamental question to be asked in thinking of a person's, or our own, life. We all have things we feel compelled to do, and yet, as aspiring devotees, the art is to connect them to Krishna. As souls with a spiritual purpose to wake up from our conditioned dream, the only thing that truly matters is our real lasting enlightened self in a relationship of loving service to our Source, God, or Krishna.
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Superior soul energy lives within
animating matter’s lower vibration
being naturally unfulfilled in a body
driven to search for fulfillment
Oblivious to its real nature
looking without instead of within
trying to be somebody special
in a fool’s make-believe paradise
Covered by illusion’s dictates
trying to be pleasured
repeating the hackneyed routine
avoiding pain by numbing
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This year Govardhan puja and the secular (slightly religious) holiday of Thanksgiving (in the USA), are celebrated during the same month, and are only days apart due to the Vedic extra month coming in autumn. Although it must have occurred before, this is the first time I remember this happening. As a result of this unusual juxtaposition, I have naturally compared the spirit of both days. While there is some similarity with the idea of giving thanks for the bounty of the Earth in a very basic, down to earth way, Govardhan puja also has a deep philosophical meaning.
Conventional thinking about religion merely colors our human life with a Godly brush, rather than placing God in the center by endeavoring to love, serve, and please Him on His terms as the goal of life. Thus, the tendency of ordinary religionists is to see God as the order supplier and giving thanks when our desires are fulfilled, is a bit one-dimensional and problematic. When the good times roll, and we have an abundance of stuff, or things to consume, with ideal conditions in which to be peaceful, happy, and enjoy material prosperity, then God is good. However, such persons can be greatly challenged when it “rains on their parade,” or their home, job, possessions, family or nation, etc., are destroyed or damaged, or killed or injured. They may question why God is “doing this to them,” not having knowledge that the nature of the world, being an artificial plane for the soul, is problematic and unnaturally temporary for the eternal soul.
Others are able to tolerate reverses or problems—or these days, trying to be a martyr in response—with the promise of a future happy afterlife in heaven. This is still promoting the same materialistic perspective of seeing this world as meant for material enjoyment, just putting it off for a while.