A blog about nothing.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

THE GURU IS YOU

The other day my father sends me this quote: "No one can become a devotee of the Formless Supreme without having been a devotee of the form." 

These words are from Sathya Sai Baba, my father's guru since my mother and he first went to India in November of 1973, leaving his 9-month-old infant (me) at home, I never let him forget. I get behind the spiritual quest and all, but what of his duties as a parent? Water under the bridge. . . .

My reply: "It seems to me you've been a devotee of the form now for long enough. Time to go beyond or else it becomes a crutch. The divinity radiating in Sai Baba's heart is the same as the divine flame that emanates from you. All is one."

I added that worshipping a holy person, be it Christ or Allah or Buddha, or in my father's case Sai Baba (who growing up I also prayed to and sang to and was very devoted to even after I at the age of 22 discarded the medallion he made for me down the mountainside in a rather dramatic gesture and vowed instead to follow the dictates of the Sai Baba within), don't apply to everyone. There are exceptions. Take Ramana Maharshi. This sage did not profess to having a guru. He simply woke up one day realizing that the consciousness that animated his body was distinct from his body and eternal in nature, so from the age of 16 1/2 he left home, travelled to a holy site, and until he left his body at age 70 constantly abided in THAT. 

However Maharshi did recommend that most people regard as sacred some manifestation of divinity, whether as a photograph of a guru or holy person, or perhaps a statue, or in the case of those at Arunachala, the mountain at the foot of which Ramana lived, the mountain itself, which was believed to be a manifestation of Shiva, a Hindu deity.

Which reminds me of a story. The sage Seshadri, Maharshi's contemporary, was a known mind reader. When he looked into Maharshi's eyes, after long gazing he pointed at the holy man and remarked: "It is not clear what this person is thinking." He later said, "If one worships God Arunachala, He will grant salvation."

Maharshi replied: "Who is the person who worships and who the worshipped?"

Implying of course that all is one. Then Maharshi expounded for an hour on the realization of Unity, of everything including the personalized God, the world and individual souls and how all three become unreal once the Self, the impersonal Absolute, is experienced.


Seshadra replied: "All this is dark to me. I at any rate worship." And so saying he faced the mountain, prostrated himself and prayed.

As the author of the book on Maharshi's life writes: Seshadri-swami was evidently keen on maintaining a personality distinct from God as the very foundation of his worship.

And that is the problem, after a time, of worshipping the form. It maintains the separateness which the aspirant, if he is no longer to be an aspirant, must overcome. Which is easy, because separateness is illusory. The reality is unity.

Last year dad suffered an ankle injury, tearing the ligaments in his left foot. Crutches helped him amble about while healing and until the ankle was strong enough to support his weight. Similarly, his first visit to see Sai Baba came at a time of great crisis and questioning in his own life. In 1973 he was after all still an atheist. The guru's form was a crutch which helped my father negotiate the tricky terrain of the spirit without falling and injuring his developing sense of awareness.



And so I told him: "Now that you are healed of your spiritual sickness, as with your ankle, continuing to rely on crutches will only hamper your ability to get about, and weaken the very thing that you once tried to protect."

The same can be said for every person, whatever faith he or she practices. Adoring the Blessed Virgin or genuflecting at the church's altar or praying to Allah or Ahura Mazda or meditating on the Buddha - these are essential practices as they help you focus your mind and sink the lower self into the Sublime. In India the tradition often is for the aspirant to serve his guru for 12 years; my father has been devoted to Sai for over 40 and to this day whenever the conversation turns to matters of the spirit it invariably ends in a lengthy discourse on Baba's greatness and dad's early experiences with the sage. Once a proselytizer, always a proselytizer I guess. Dad sometimes forgets he's preaching to the choir. I already was a convert!
 

The point I always stress (though my father never seems to hear it) is that after too long, one's worship of the form can descend into mindless ritual, or perpetuate the separateness that you are trying to transcend. The Buddha or Christ or Krishna energy that you pray to, bow before and adore, is a perfect realization of the self-same Absolute Reality seated in the lotus of your heart. Perhaps one day I will remind my father of the words of his very own Sai, who has said it is not even necessary to read the Bhagavad Gita (which for the Hindus is like the Christian's Bible) because Krishna (Lord of the universe, and the guru of the Gita) lives inside you. All you have to do is listen. Then you will hear the sound of silence.

Ask yourself, where is this Christ, this God, when I go to sleep? Does He follow me to bed? No, because God is a concept, conjured by the mind, and subsiding into consciousness when the mind falls to sleep. But what remains the same in sleep and waking? The consciousness, the sense I AM. That is God.

So when you are done worshipping for that 45 minutes on Sunday or meditating 15 minutes a day or 1 or 2 hours, pat yourself on the back if you wish. But what to do with the remainder of the day? Be THAT. Living as the Self, not the self, and treating others the same, you realize there are no others. This is life's highest prayer and truest form worship.

Monday, June 29, 2015

CUTS BOTH WAYS


Time magazine recently ran a feature on plastic surgery. Written by Joel Stein and entitled "Nip. Tuck. Or else." it discusses the prevalence of procedures that were once the exclusive domain of the rich and famous. Now everyone is getting work done, and choosing instead to age gracefully could actually work against you. People may take it as a sign that you don't care about your appearance, or about your job enough to maintain your appearance, and how could you let yourself go like that? These times in which we live. . . .

Stein quotes Abigail Brooks, a director of women's studies who has done extensive research comparing women who undergo anti-aging interventions and those termed "natural agers." She worries that the increasing pressure imposed by one's image-conscious peers in a society in which these procedures are so common is "not only exhausting but also keeps women forever 21 emotionally." I am of this opinion. My grandmother stopped being my grandmother when she started going under the knife. I was probably 8. Since then she has been a nice lady with a really smooth face, a euphemism for Stein's tiger lady with bolt on breasts.

I shared the article with my mother. Actually since it is her subscription, she could be said to have shared it with me, although she hardly ever reads magazines, or anything except what I write and share with her. So if you're reading this mom, thanks for letting me read your magazines, and I love you, and if I write anything that gives you wavy lines, I'm sorry in advance.

The top five procedures are breast augmentation*, nose reshaping, liposuction, eyelid surgery and face-lift. My mother has had every one of them. Though the breast augmentation was to cosmetically fix the deformity induced by the mastectomy performed to remove a malignant tumor, which is why there's an asterisk there. I don't think my mother would care about my sharing this with you. She compares getting work done to repainting or otherwise repairing the fa├žade of your house, and since home-owners don't tend to conceal architectural renovations, then why should she be ashamed of what the various surgeons have done over decades to the temple that is her body?

I restated for my mother's benefit the concerns of Ms. Brooks, and said that with people trying to turn back the clock and look increasingly younger, the phrase "act your age" applies, yet not in the traditional sense of a child being urged to act more mature; rather, it is for adults who get stuck at the emotional level that matches their artificially-enhanced appearance. My mother's argument was that if getting work done makes a person happy, where is the harm, and live and let live. But if the fact of everyone else's going plastic makes you the object of concealed ridicule for electing otherwise (the case with "natural agers") then it's less live and let live and more live and judge others for not living the same way.

Recently mom came back from a nonsurgical cosmetic procedure - I think something was done to her skin, though not Botox, though she is no stranger to Botox either - saying the technician told her she looked 48. My mother just celebrated her 70th birthday. I laughed when she shared this with me, and was relieved that she recognized that the intention was to flatter her vanity in the hopes of getting her to come back for a touch-up real soon, rather than the technician's actual opinion. I brought up the compliment, modifying it by saying, "Mom, you don't look 48 - you look like a woman trying to look 48." Rather harsh? It's a sensitive subject, some may even say a sore one for me. I sometimes shy away from being seen with my mother in public, for fear others will think we're dating. I'm 42, and unlike my mother, I shun the surgeon's knife, so I look my age. But not entirely.

It was my mother's relentless influence that prompted me myself to undergo a surgical cosmetic procedure. I wondered only half-jokingly if she got a cut of the surgeon's hefty take, so assiduously did she endeavor to make me see the benefits of undergoing said surgery. What happened to live and let live, silly bitch? (I mean that endearingly.) I mean it's my body. On my own I'd never have sought out the procedure, much less submitted to it, and the results which I wear on my face for all to see are irreversible. It's not like shaving my chest, which I've done and which grows back. Or piercing my ears for earrings I no longer wear. I can dye my hair or grow I beard or do whatever though I'd never get a tattoo because it's semi-permanent. Yet even skin ink can be lasered away, unlike getting your face carved into. And whether the surgeon's work is an improvement is debatable, since who can compare with the hand of God, and Nature is after all the Divine's maker.

I knew a guy in high school who had rhinoplasty and I thought it vain and effeminate. He wasn't very handsome before or after, but a true heartthrob doesn't wear a fake face. Posers do. Okay, maybe Fitusi had a Jewish nose. Or Italian. It was aquiline. But what's wrong with aquiline anyway? I'm not the guy to have work done, and yet at my mother's behest I had work done. Granted it was over half a lifetime ago, but still. The irony is the harsh finger of judgment is now pointed by me at me. In weaker moments I condemn myself as living a lie. This face is not who I am! But who am I really? Ah, that's the question of all questions. To the extent I identify with this body, I will continue to be bothered by a procedure I underwent at my mother's urging when I wasn't even old enough to drink and hardly old enough to care. Accept what comes unsought, am I wrong?

I've made my peace, though sometimes the self-castigation (I should have been stronger! I should have resisted her influence!) or the self-doubt (maybe I do look better this way) still rears its ugly head. My mother has since admitted that part of her motivation was for me to look more like her, which may seem selfish. But she also wanted me to look more "sculpted," more "refined." It is what it is. And the upside is I used to look more like my father, and also to behave like him (how often appearance and actions go together), which meant as I teenager I had adopted his swinging moods and sweeping contradictions. Now that cord has been cut. Funny how academic papers on plastic surgery in the 1960s argued that nose jobs were an attempt to get rid of the father. As my dad would say, I am not the body. So the resemblance may be gone, but his impact remains.

I am more dispassionate about plastic surgery in the writing of this, but at the time of the conversation with my mother, I was much more vehement. The conversation descended into the realm of debate and from there to bickering and fault-finding in unrelated areas of life, like a certain someone's tendency to produce bodily functions at levels so discernible as to be disturbing, and throughout the house. The argument ended as it often does, with my mom's familiar pronouncement: "It's my house. If you don't like it, you can leave." Who can argue with that? Afterwards I reflected on our kitchen altercation. Part of me was sorry for being so frank. My intention was not to hurt my mother's feelings. But the truth can sometimes hurt. I don't think she was hurt. She has her own truth, and thick skin and is resilient and will do what pleases her regardless of what I or anyone else thinks. It's what I can't stand about her, and also what I admire most.

I thought about whether I should move out rather than remain in my childhood home in a sort of protracted adolescence. I began to berate myself for my wasted life. Maybe the fact that the fruit trees I once planted in the back yard all died is a sign that as long as I remain under her roof my literary labors will not bear fruit. Then I wondered about the futility of it all, and why not just off myself! I was pretty upset. I was lying on my bed having this inner dialogue when it happened. It was as if something just snapped. And I found myself laughing and laughing. I mean hysterically. Me, pure consciousness, associating myself with this personality and this face and a certain mother and taking it so seriously that I would actually consider ending my own life? Like infinite space identifying with the air in a wee jar, or thinking it's the wee jar itself! Hilarious!!! And as if the real I could ever die!

It was as though I pulled myself out of a nightmare and came back to who I was as consciousness. Pure. Perfect. Eternally free. And no matter what happens, where I go, what I do, and with whom, or how this body looks while doing it, the pure consciousness remains the same.

But maybe I should move out of the house. Nah, too much trouble. I've traveled the world already. And besides: "A man who can remain still for a number of years in one place, mastering the out-going impulses of nature, can become a true adept sage, for it is a Herculean feat, and brings the rewards of Nature's conquering." (Ramana Maharshi)

Ramana never had work done. He was above such things, and without such a persistently plastic mother who if she saw his picture would certainly argue that at the very least he could have used a tummy tuck.

Plastic surgery may be here to say, but exactly how it is applied may change. I'm waiting for the day that kids look at pictures of grandmothers of ages past, with their sweet smiles and careworn eyes, then up at their surgically-altered versions whose face is frozen in a permagrin or who cannot frown at all, and with cross-eyed confusion wonder what happened, prompting the many grannies and nanas of the world to once again assume the position and submit to the surgeon's scalpel, this time to put the wrinkles and bags back where they found them. Nature knows best.

But really, it's what is behind those eyes, be they in lids creased and hooded with age or nipped and tucked in place, it's what burns as the ever changing reality from the seat of the heart through the light of the gaze, that matters anyway. Time may be cruel, but what you truly are is way beyond and can't be touched, not even by the surgeon's scalpel, which I think we've shown can cut both ways.



Sunday, June 28, 2015

GO YOUR OWN WAY


In the Vedic society of India, whose roots extend back 4000 years, there were four social classes, or castes. The Brahmins were the priests, the Kshatriyas the kings and soldiers, the Vaishyas the merchants, artists and agriculturalists, and the Shudras were the laborers. These classes were distinctly demarcated, and to have for example a businessman rule the country would be as ludicrous as having an actor for president, and look at how that worked out for us! Triple the debt much???


The Hindu caste system is not to be confused with the Ashramas, or four age-based life stages described in ancient Indian texts such as the Upanishads and the epic poems, Mahabharata and Ramayana. It is these I wish to discuss because maybe we non-Hindus could learn a thing or two.

The four asramas are Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciation). This system is integrated with the four proper aims of life, which Hindu philosophy specifies are Dharma (piety, morality, duties), Artha (wealth, health, means of life), Kama (love, relationships, emotions) and Moksha (liberation, freedom, self-realization).

1. Traditionally in India one is a student, or Brahmacharya, until the age of 24. The student lives with a teacher or guru, acquiring knowledge and practicing celibacy. Dharma.

2. The householder (Grihastha) stage typically lasts until the age of 48, and its emphasis is on providing for the family. Artha.

3. In retirement, responsibilities are handed over to the next generation as the householder assumes a more advisory role and gradually withdraws from the world, enjoying the castle he helped build. Kama. The retirement stage represents a transition to the final stage, that of renunciation, which usually begins at the age of 72 and leads to Moksha or liberation.

4. Sannyasa is characterized by renouncing material desires and the pursuit of pleasure, as well as worldly attachments and concerns in favor of a simple life of contemplation. But though Sannyasa is traditionally practiced by men and women in the twilight of life, there have been younger individuals, often student-aged, who elect to skip the middle two stages, renounce worldly and materialistic pursuits and dedicate their lives to the spirit.

The sannyasi, or if female sannyasini - not to be confused with Samurai, the military nobility from Japan, although sannyasis have wielded weapons as warriors, when necessary - is typically an ascetic, owning few if any possessions, and living a peaceful, love-inspired, quiet life, the goal of which is liberation while in the body. One who attains such liberation is called a jivanmukti, or free soul. The sannyasi's way of life has influenced other religions, and is similar to the monk of Buddhism and the priest or nun of Christianity.

The Hindu epics describe the ideal sannyasin. In the Mahabharata, specifically in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that "the poets rightly teach that Sannyasa is the foregoing of all acts which spring out of desire; and . . . renouncing (the) fruit of acts . . . for, being in the body, none may stand wholly aloof from action; yet, who abstains from profit of his actions is abstinent." (chapter 18)

Famous sannyasins include Adi Shankara (8th century AD), Swami Vivekananda (b 1863), who along with Swami Prabhupada (b. 1896 and founder of the Hare Krishna Movement) was responsible for introducing Hinduism to the West, as well as Parahmahansa Yoganada and perhaps the most austere of them all, Ramana Maharshi. Mostly these men became renunciates at an early age and remained unmarried, although Prabhupada practiced Sannyasa after retiring from the life of a householder, when he was nearly 70.

Other variations exist. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whose marriage was arranged in early adulthood, elected to remain married and practice celibacy in a platonic cohabitation with his wife while he devoted his energies to the indwelling spirit, which he often externalized as Divine Mother. Some individuals skip the retirement stage only and in their late 40s go directly from being spouse and parent to living the life of the monk.

But this is India and prior to the 21st century. What of those who wish to live a simple and ascetic life, whatever their age and station, and without the traditional appearance of the Indian renunciate, who typically owns nothing but a loin cloth, a staff and a begging bowl?


The Bhagavad Gita describes karma yoga, specifically nishkama karma, or dispassionate action, in which one lives in the world but is not of the world, in which you go about your daily life, punching the clock and raising the kids, but though your hands may be in society, your head is in solitude. You remain detached, above the fray, having transcended the dualities of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, and abiding in peace.

Ramana Maharshi once said: "The sannyasin who calls himself a sannyasin is not a sannyasin. It is the householder that does not consider himself a householder who is the real sannyasin."


For to identify yourself with a particular role is to identify yourself with the individual that plays that role, which indicates rather resoundingly that you haven't transcended your ego-based personality. The only real renunciation is of the flesh, of identification with the particular body you happen to inhabit and abide as pure consciousness. Ask yourself, "Who was I before I was born?" Answer this question and act accordingly and you can wear what you want, and live how you choose. For as the poet said, we're all actors in life's play. It's what goes on behind the scenes that's the real deal. That last bit is all mine.

All the world's a stage so become a sannyasi today and get a built-in excuse for being single at any age. Not that you need one.

 All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the bard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
 
 
- from Shakespeare's "As You Like It"

Saturday, June 27, 2015

BEYOND THE BILLOWING CLOUDS

For me 1993 was a pretty mystical year. I read many of the books that have to this day 22 years later inspired and informed my spiritual practice. These include the dialogues with Nisargadatta Maharaj collected in the book I Am That as well as Conscious Immortality featuring talks with Ramana Maharshi (thanks Dad!) and Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi not to mention the Hindu epic and national treasure, The Ramayana, which details the exploits of one of India's Avatars, or divine incarnations, Sri Rama and his comely consort Sita. Since then Rama has been a hero of mine. Truth be told I always hoped to find a Sita of my own. Moving on.


The year 1993 also involved a trip to southern India to see the holy man Sai Baba (shortened from Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, in case you're wondering where the syllables went). Talk about an acid trip. Sitting for hours in the dusty heat, my attention transfixed by the form of this Afroed man in his flowing ochre robe. Priceless and irreplaceable, as far as experiences go. And speaking of drugs, 1993 also involved abundant substance use. I started with marijuana (don't we all) and by the spring did my first acid trip. A real downer. My room seemed filthy and after three showers I could not manage to scrub my skin clean. There is an upside. Around the same time I also had the good fortune to try mushrooms. Talk about a mystical experience.

A family friend, Anthony, was able to procure a fresh batch of 'shrooms. Not easy to come by. Most who are able to get their hands on some obtain the dried variety, a very inferior substitute to the fresh version, which is the real deal. And these were so plump and moist it was as if they had just been plucked straight from the ground (and from a pile of shit?).

Anthony and I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway into Malibu and up Tuna Canyon Road. We parked and hiked a ways and found a secluded wilderness spot amidst rocks and assorted vegetation and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. After doing some breathing exercises (Anthony is into that sort of thing) he gave me my portion and it was down the hatch. Despite having fasted overnight as instructed I found myself dry heaving not 15 minutes later, which I am told is not uncommon. And then came the trip. First I sat cross-legged staring up at the cloud-strewn sky. And I'll be damned if there weren't these faces smiling down on me. They were a fluorescent pink, bald and with big grins and wide eyes. Like Light Beings, or for you lovers of the tube, little Casper the Friendly Ghosts, peaking at me through the clouds.

Anthony kept trying to get me to talk about what I was experiencing, but all I could manage was to put my finger to my lips ever so slowly and ever so quietly say, "Shhhhh!" Trying to put my feelings and thoughts into words would diminish their intensity. I can't even remember my thoughts, only that I felt as though I was being reborn, there in the middle of nowhere, as though I were coming out of the womb a second time, and at 20 years young a full grown man. But I wasn't a helpless toddler. Hardly that. Rather, I had the innate ability to police my own thoughts. A child is instructed as to the dos and don'ts by his parents. Led away from dangerous things (no fingers in the stove!) and told to shush when he swears (or I'll wash your mouth out with soap!), etc. But my thoughts were kept pure and tame and dare I say sacred by an internal parenting of my own. I wouldn't allow myself to think a distressing thought. I'd just will myself back to center. I had been born again, as mommy and daddy to me! Trippy. But mainly I was content to just enjoy my own existence, feeling at one with everything - the dirt beneath me, the sky overhead, those smiley-faced beings staring down at me. I didn't know where my inner reality ended and where the outer world began. It was all one!

At some point I looked over at Anthony who had given up trying to get me to express myself and fallen back against the dirt, where he looked to be asleep. So I got up and decided to take a stroll in the surrounding hillside. Not easy, getting up. Since for however long I had been staring at the sky I had been out of my body. I could have wet myself and I wouldn't have known. Eventually the blood started circulating again. As I sauntered through the crevices and around the crags, running my fingers along the hard rock and watching my silhouette dance over the mountain, I had a very strange feeling. It was of this presence, this very ancient presence. I would say eternal but this would be inaccurate. Older than eternal because outside of time. Timeless. I at once understood the Hindus neti neti ("not this, not that") and the "negative theology" of the Neoplatonists and Moses Maimonides, who use a process of elimination to describe the Divine who is beyond all classification and qualities - although not back then; back then I knew nothing about these fancy concepts, and living in a simpler world was probably better off.

Yet when I tried to understand the who or what, I had a feeling of Buddha. Now back in college I didn't know much about Buddha. Maybe I had glanced at a text or two of the Enlightened One's aphorisms. My parents kept some books on the shelf. But my religious background lay more in the realm of Christianity and Hinduism. Perhaps my silhouette, just my shoulders and head against the smooth rock, and looking like one of those generic icons that comes up when a person doesn't post a picture on, say, Facebook, reminded me of a statue of Buddha that my mother kept in the back yard. We still have it. The Buddha, seated in a lotus posture (cross-legged), eyes closed in rapt meditation, looks Asian. (Although Buddha was Indian. Funny how we make our holy men in our own image, which would explain Christ's depiction as blond-haired and blue-eyed although as a Middle Easterner he most assuredly looked more like Bin Laden - and some even argue he was black. The Buddha in our backyard was likely made by the Japanese.)

But though the silhouette was external, outside of me, and other, I had a feeling that the timeless presence, this Buddha energy, was within me, was me. I am not so presumptuous as to say that I am Buddha. The man lived more than 2500 years ago, and halfway around the world. And I don't place much stock in the notion of reincarnation. Even if I did, the belief maintains that once you become enlightened there is no need to be reborn. Your reward for spiritual exercises is no more earth. You are done. And Buddha most assuredly was enlightened. That's what the name means, for heaven's sake.

Of course there is the belief in Bodhisattvas, those individuals who approach the door to awakening but do not enter, knowing they will never return to this realm once they reach the other side. So instead, having found the way out of this mess called mundane life, they come back over and again, through individual personalities spanning lifetimes, to shepherd others along the path. But this meaning of Bodhisattva is a modern invention, at least more modern than Buddha. Now had he lived around the time of Christ, and the term having already been invented, then maybe . . . What am I saying? There are no others. All is one, and the diversity we see, the diversity that makes you you and me me, is merely illusion - the Lord's Maya (sometimes translated as glamor) working its wonders.

It's like this. Go outside on a bright sunny day. Look around. There's nothing to break up the sun's rays. Light is everywhere. Next take a shade with perforations and place it between you and the sun. The partition breaks up the sunlight, giving the impression of individual rays culminating on the ground as distinct specks of light (separated by darkness, which is analogous to ignorance). With the shade (veil of Maya) there is separation and diversity. Agitate the shade, watch the forms dance and play. Take the shade away, or be above the shade (transcending Maya's illusions) and the Sun shines alone, as the Self.

Truly, that presence I felt there on the mountain is nothing but the inner Self, the true Self, the Absolute. And with my ego-based personality temporarily off-line, incapacitated by the substance I voluntarily ingested, I was able to experience the Self in the stillness and silence of my heart. A little bit of bliss, I call it. Because in elevating Buddha and Christ to the level of God men we forget that once upon a time they were seekers just like us, one called Siddhartha and the other just Jesus, and the true Buddha and Christ they became is nothing but Realization of the Self that dwells within, always, and ever the same, in each heart. They truly are Bodhisattvas because even though they may no longer be in body their inspiration lives on and serves as a signpost guiding our way.
The Vedanta says that it is not uncommon for a person to stumble into superconsciousness sporadically, without any previous preparation or necessary disciplines. Although I had meditated up until that day on the mountain, I was by no means an adept at the practice. But such haphazard experiences, the sages say, are not the real thing. The true test of purity is this: the wisdom gained must be good for life. When you come out of Samadhi (pure consciousness), you remain, in Swami Vivekananada's words, "enlightened, a sage, a prophet, a saint, (your) whole character changed, (your) life changed, illumined."

My Samadhi didn't last. A couple hours later the drug wore off and it was back on the Santa Monica Freeway heading to the gym in bumper to bumper traffic, then a session of heavy chest and back with a buddy from high school. I was back to being a bodybuilder, and the pump had taken the place of the inner peace. Later that same year I shaved my head and considered becoming a monk. That didn't last either. Oh well.

But I'll never forget my experience on that mountain, and I often go back to the same feeling, of communing with a timeless presence as perfect as it is pure. What's more, I return to this feeling of walking with Buddha each day, in the silence of meditation alone in my room. And I don't need the drugs anymore. They were fun and all, but their purpose was served.

Incidentally when I came back from my hike my friend said he was worried I had gotten lost without him. With Buddha as my guide, how could I?

"When you saw one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you."

Friday, June 26, 2015

ONE REALITY


A recent Pew report indicates that worldwide, more than eight in ten people identify with a religious group. These 5.8 billion religiously-affiliated individuals around the globe represent nearly 85% of the earth’s population of 7 billion people.

The global religious landscape is dominated by Christians (2.2 billion adherents is 32 percent of all humans), followed by Muslims (1.6 billion/23 percent), Hindus and Buddhists (1 billion and 500 million followers, respectively). Approximately 7 percent of the population follow folk or “other” religions, including Judaism and Taoism.

The question is how many of these 6 billion "religious" people consider themselves mystics? After all, the founders of all these  world religions were themselves mystics (Moses, Christ, Buddha, the Hindu Rishis and also Mohammad, to name a few). Shouldn’t a follower of an ethos pattern herself after its founder? Did the founders of Christianity and Buddhism themselves practice rites and rituals, recite lengthy prayers and worship idols? Precisely the opposite.

Through Moses the Lord condemned idol worship as a pagan ritual; Christ overturned the tables in the temple, and urged his disciples to reject the Pharisees' penchant for observing the law in name but not in form. Buddha, himself a Hindu, moved away from the Hindu rituals propounded in the Vedas for the revealed truths touched on in the more metaphysical Upanishads. And before there was the Koran, telling Muslims which way to pray and what to say, there was Muhammad communing directly with God in composing these scriptures.

As you can see, the founders of all major religions were themselves mystics, and as a follower of any of the above creeds, unless your religion be a big waste of time, you'd do best to consider yourself a mystic as well. And once you do, you are no longer a follower, because you accept personal experience as authority and listen to the deity dwelling within your own heart, heard in the silence and stillness of meditation.

For as William James discusses in his lectures on mysticism (see his Varieties, 299-366), all personal religious experience has its root and center in mystical states of consciousness.
 
And one's adeptness as a mystic is inversely proportional to the size of one’s literary output. James himself, who wrote voluminously on this and other subjects over a wide and diverse range of intellectual fields - from philosophy to psychology and spirituality - recognized that his own constitution shut him out of the mystical experience almost entirely, and thus he was relegated to the occasional drug use (James experimented with nitrous oxide to experience transcendental states) lest he speak of them “only at second hand,” externally and not with the authority obtained through immediate and personal experience.

What do you think of when you hear the word "mystic"? The term mysticism is often used in reproach, hurled at opinions we regard as "vague and vast and sentimental, and without a base in either facts or logic.” Mystics have been associated with such phenomena as thought-transference, mind reading and astral projection. 
 
In the interest of exactitude, James proposed four marks that justify calling an experience mystical. The first is ineffability. The mystical experience defies expression, and cannot be adequately reported merely by using words. The mystical must be experienced directly, not imparted to others. It is like experiencing a symphony or seeing sunlight. Someone can tell you about these sublime beauties, but if you haven’t had the experience yourself, if you are deaf or blind (or merely lazy), you will never know symphonies or sunlight, or in James' case mysticism, for to know the mystical is to feel it.
 
The second is their noetic quality. Mystical states are states of knowledge, unique in that they represent truth that cannot be plumbed by the intellect. Rather than learned, they are revealed. Mystical states are more convincing than any lecture or book because of this first-hand experience.
 
They are also transient, in that they cannot be sustained for long. Muhammad had to journey to the mountain several times to receive revealed truth. Also there is a certain passivity about mysticism. Where certain practices such as breathing exercises, mantras or fixing the attention within can induce the trance-like state, once it is in process the mystic feels “as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”
 
Mystical states always linger in the memory, and the subject is left permanently altered by their profound sense of importance, his inner life forever transformed. Using these criteria we can see how the founders of all religions were mystics. Christ was led into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. Buddha meditated for 49 days beneath the Bo tree until enlightenment was achieved. Muhammad’s inspirations on the mountain. Moses’ experiences with the burning bush, where he heard the voice of God and received the commandments.
 
These experiences may differ in their particulars, but all shared the same basic feature: they are instances of revealed truth gained by first-hand experience with a superior power which although appearing without (externally, in voices or visions, which the mystic attributes to God) are actually manifestations of the Divine whose source resides within.
 
Betwixt the sage and the scholar stands the often-insurmountable barrier of thought. The scholar deals in it, thought is the intellectual's hard and fast currency; the philosopher and person of letters consider concepts before setting them down in composition. In contrast, the sage, who is also the mystic, sits firmly and yet tranquilly in the silence itself. He goes beyond thought. Try it sometime. How to do so? The mystical writings of ancient India shed light on the time-honored practice.
 
It says in the Chandogya Upanishad: "All shall be ours if we but dive deep within, even to the lotus of the heart, where dwells the Lord."
 
And more precisely in the Swetasvatara Upanishad: "To realize God, first control the outgoing senses and harness the mind. Then meditate upon the light in the heart of the fire - meditate, that is, upon pure consciousness as distinct from the ordinary consciousness of the intellect. Thus the Self, the Inner Reality, may be seen behind physical appearance."

This new religion is universal and yet it is also individual, for the One Reality dwells equally within every heart.

Oh, and what of the 15% of humans worldwide who do not follow an organized religion? Are these freethinkers the truly evolved? Reluctance to follow a prescribed set of norms and worship a personalized God may indicate spiritual progress, rebellious as it may seem, and however surreptitiously. For who considers the atheist a holy person? Perhaps many of the nondenominational minority, who nevertheless number over 1 billion persons worldwide, are worshipping at the altar of the heart, where sits the Self, Lord of all. If so, they stand up there on the hill right beside Moses and Muhammad and other pioneers and prophets. Which isn't such a bad place to be.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

REST IN THE ETERNAL

We are about to embark on a quest for truth, the eternal wisdom, that treasure hidden in the center of the soul. Our goal is union with the divine. The question we shall answer: “What is that by which all else is known?”

Do you feel alienated in the modern world? Do you see through the nonsense which seems to so thoroughly preoccupy everyone else? It has been said that man is a meeting ground of various levels of reality, from the ridiculous to the sublime. At what level do you reside? Do you perceive transcendental reality? Have you established your identity with that?

The four stages of spiritual progress are purgation (of bodily desires); purification (of the will); illumination (of the mind); and unification (of one’s will or being with the divine).

Mysticism, to give it a name, and since what you are after all is precisely that, a mystic - is the core and basis of the oldest religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, and its influence has been felt in the more esoteric strands of Judaism (as Kabbalah), Christianity (as Christian mysticism) and Islam (as Sufism). As such mysticism predates all theisms, or belief in God. Mysticism has influenced every major sacred text, from the Vedas of Hinduism (dating from 2000 BC), to the Mahayana Sutras of Buddhism (which itself derives from Hinduism), and the Chinese Tao Te Ching, as well as the Holy Bible, from which Christianity and Judaism are derived, and the Bible’s offshoot, the Muslim’s Koran, which was written by the prophet Muhammad and finished in 632 AD. Indeed the founders of religion were mystics, as were the world’s most famous philosophers. Spinoza’s universal love of God reveals the sense of aloofness and impersonality reminiscent of the ancient Hindus’ Brahman.

For eons and the world over, mystics concern themselves with a return to the source of being, and in their writings have endeavored to express this adventure to end all adventures, however inadequately or incompletely, because the mystic experience is beyond concept and cannot be perfectly rendered into language. As with life and consciousness, which are both in a sense synonyms for Absolute Reality, mysticism can only be experienced.

Historically mystics have been a minority, distrusted or maltreated, branded as different and peculiar. Mystics have not easily fit into society, composed as it is of less sensitive seekers, those for whom religious routine suffices, a majority who couldn't care less about things unseen, as long as they have an abundance of creature comforts and all the latest possessions. Mysticism focuses exclusively on pure unitary consciousness, on union with God. It has been called a science. As science, it is autology, or science of self. It is the science of hidden life, but its practitioners, who have been referred to as “the people of the hidden” should no longer remain hidden. It is time to come out in the open, time for an era referred to by modern scholars as “open realization.” Mysticism is also an art, and each practitioner of “open realization” is therefore an artist.

In short, mysticism is the art and science of the holy, abidance in consciousness its ultimate goal and gift to the life of an evolving humanity.

In this expanding universe in which we are so miraculously situated, mysticism will burst the limits of narrow cults and religious rigidity and usher in the true age of enlightenment, one that is ecumenical in nature, drawing as it does on the expressions and experiences of all the creeds and contemplatives who have ever existed.

How to practice mysticism, to achieve that immediate feeling of unity of the ego-based individual personality (the self) with God (the Self)? In the words of 2nd century BC mystic Patanjali, it is by “the holding or stopping of mind stuff.” Or in the Christian tradition, the via negativa, or negative way: “the emptier your mind, the more susceptible are you to the working of the presence.”

One becomes what one contemplates, and in contemplation of the Divine you access the divinity that dwells within, in the lotus of your heart, Buddhism’s om mani padme hum or “the jewel in the lotus.”

In the Old Testament, God is referred to as Yahweh, which means “I am who I am.” God’s Name, this “I Am”, gives a sense of the enigmatic, transcendent and eternal nature of the One. Instructing Moses, God says, “This is what you must say to the people of Israel: 'I Am has sent me to you.'" Christ, as a representative of man establishing identity with God, says about Abraham who was born 2000 years prior: "Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58)

All can be said about ultimate reality also applies at the level of the individual, you: I AM.

Self-realization is the same in essence with the Greek injunction to “Know thyself,” and cosmic consciousness, which refers to the individual’s acknowledgement of oneness with Brahman, the One without second. It is the final stage in a progressive self-discovery, or more accurately Self-recovery, that has been going on since you were born.

But in modern times mysticism has become somewhat adulterated. Many mystics, in speaking of union with God, do not imply identity with the divine, which traditionally has been construed as heresy.  Elevating oneself, lowly as one is, to the level of the Supreme is unthinkable! So mystics speak or write of encounters with the “other.” And even though implying the Self that dwells within and seems to stand aloof and separate from the lower self, this emphasis on otherness considerably lowers the potency and accuracy of the mystical experience. For union with the Divine, Source of all - the Hindu mystics say “all life is yoga” and yoga means union – implies duality, because only what is separate in nature can be unified. But the Self, being omnipresent and alone, the Lonely Purity, is beyond such union. When you are all that is, union with what?

The Hindus posit three states or provinces of consciousness. These are the waking state, dream state, and sleep state, with which we all are familiar. But there is a fourth (Turiya), which underlying the three is nothing less than consciousness of one’s pure self-existence or being. These levels of consciousness can be seen as rungs of a ladder, in this case a ladder of being, by which the individual climbs back to the Source. Climbing implies strenuous activity. Thus the great contemplative is a man of action, and the Buddhist’s “sitting quietly, doing nothing” and with senses subdued, mind quieted and intellect focused intensely experiencing the profound perfection dwelling in the lotus of the heart, is the only kind of action worth its salt, and one that leaves no bitter aftertaste.

Moving through worship, ritual and devotion, and beyond all symbolism, mysticism propels us inexorably toward the ultimate goal: annihilation of the self (which, being ephemeral, does not exist in the Absolute sense) and realization of that which is: called mystical union in Western Christianity, moksha in Hinduism, Nirvana in Buddhism, and fana (the snuffing out of self) in Islam.

And so, dear friend, turn within and become a mystic yourself. Go from concept to reality, from knowledge to wisdom, from books to being. The paths are many, you see, but the goal is the same: Rest in the Eternal.

"Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10)

 


Saturday, June 20, 2015

LIFE AS THAT

What is the one constant in your life? The one thing that has been there with you from your earliest memories, with you both in dreams and in waking, and even dare I say, in dreamless sleep. That does not change, is not subject to moods, is unaffected by all that you do but rather is the witness of all that happens to you. The answer: Consciousness. It is this consciousness which proclaims: I exist.

What is the nature of this consciousness? Bliss. Or if you will, joy. Fix yourself in this delight of consciousness. In its light all else is experienced, and it alone abides, detached, unaffected by events, however frightful, pleasant or somewhere in between. Remember a random event from your past. Think of the memory in exquisite detail. Does it make you feel a certain way? Or do you just remember being there, witnessing it? Live today like you remember the past, as the witness, calm and serene, regardless of how events may have shaken or stirred you at the time of their occurrence.

You say, I don't remember this consciousness that I am before I was born, or even in the first years of my life. The answer: Do you remember every single day of your 10th year, or even of the first half of this year? Of course not. If you did you'd remember exactly what you were thinking this very moment one year ago today. Do you? No one does. But you do not deny that you existed on those days you cannot remember. It is the same with consciousness. The vehicle may change (mind and body), but the reality I am is always here, always now, for it transcends both time and space.

Don't identify with the body that changes, nor with the mind which has its moods and fancies, and not with the particular set of circumstances you call life. All this is subject to change, to growing old, and eventually, dare I say, will die. But the I am - known as THAT - the Is-ness, pure existence consciousness bliss, which you are, is forever the same. Perfect. Complete. Reality.


The wave is the world, the foam is the individual, but you are the ocean from which all emerges.

Live as though you know this - or should we say, THAT. Because THAT is what you are.

Friday, June 19, 2015

SHINE LIKE THE SUN


Nearly 250 million Americans, as part of a worldwide population segment that currently stands at over 2 billion people, I'm speaking of Christians, start each day (or at least one day, at some point in life) with "The Lord's Prayer," also known as "Our Father," in which the supplicant asks the Lord to "give us this day our daily bread."

What does this mean? Of course we ask for the food we eat, since without it we wouldn't be around for very long, and what use would God be to us then? But as more and more people are interpreting religious wisdom not just literally but also symbolically, making these sacred teachings deserving of the word wisdom rather than merely nonsense, the phrase can also refer to "that bread of grace and inspiration upon which depends the life of the spirit," to use the words of 20th century literary heavyweight Aldous Huxley.

Huxley wrote these words in a war-tormented world, where getting one's daily bread, the literal grain-based variety, was no small achievement, and certainly no given. There weren't many gluten-intolerant people walking the streets at the time of the Second World War, let me tell you. If someone hands a starving person a loaf of sourdough it's down the hatch, no questions asked, or complaints voiced, and bloat and gas be damned, if gluten does such a thing. I'm told it does.

Today we live in the land of plenty, but we still honor the farmers - and increasingly the food scientists - responsible for putting food on our table. But there are also those who permit themselves to be fed by the bread of grace that gives life to the spirit, and who teach others to do the same. These are the tillers not of the soil but of the soul. They are the writers and the teachers of the world. I don't recommend practicing these things for a living. Believe me I've tried both. There's no money in either. Not many are like me who can make do with very little (who live the life of renunciates, and who live in our childhood home - hey, it beats a cave); the average person is a householder, with many a bill to pay and a mouth to feed. This evening I'm due to see an old family friend whose wife just gave birth to their fourth child. Imagine. Four more than I'll ever have.

Huxley wrote the above comment as an introduction to Swami Prabhavananda's translation of the Upanishads, those ancient Hindu scriptures the essence of whose teaching is: "He who sees all beings in the Self, and the Self in all beings, hates none."

You too can bring this forgotten message out of the dim regions of the remote past and demonstrate for others how to see the Eternal in all things, to move behind the veil of Maya, which clothes Reality in coats of light and dark, knowledge and ignorance; how to take the inward step into Absolute Reality that ignites the heart and unites each one of us - that Reality so like the sun, which illuminates all things, gives life and nourishment and shines equally on the so-called naughty and the nice, the sinner and the saint, while remaining unaffected by the actions of either.


You don't have to write a book, or translate a book, or comment on a book, as have the Huxleys and the Swamis of the world, and the little old Mes. Your life is your message, stamped in your actions and imprinted in your thoughts. Your thoughts, words and deeds speak clearer and more resoundingly than any concept you could put on the page, because who you are is no mere concept. You are the changeless reality, the "That by which all else is known" of the Upanishads. Be That, and books can be damned.

The function of the teacher is really twofold. You can explain scriptures, so-called Truth, in spirit as well as in letter; but more important is to teach by living example - by your daily acts, casual words, sometimes even by silence. Because the purpose of teaching and studying is the same as the purpose of living - not so much to inform the intellect, but to purify and enrich the soul.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

THE GREATEST MYSTERY

One of the greatest mysteries in metaphysics, and therefore in the world, is that human life is a great boon to the individual, and yet it is unreal.

The Hindu philosopher (b. 788 AD) Adi Shankara, author of the Crest-Jewel of Wisdoma true jewel of a book, as it is an excellent manual of spirituality beyond which nothing need be read to prepare for Self-realization - writes:

"For beings a human birth is hard to win . . . hardest of all to win is wisdom . . . This triad that is won by the bright one's favor is hard to gain: humanity, aspiration, and rest in the great spirit."

Later in this same work, discoursing on the individual who is free in life, the author writes: "He whose thought is free from outward objects, through standing ever in the nature of the Eternal, who is as lightly concerned with the enjoyment of sensual things followed by others as a sleeping child, looking on this world as a land beheld in dream, when consciousness comes back . . . (For) this world is like a dream, crowded with loves and hates; in its own time it shines like a reality; but on awakening it becomes unreal."

So human birth is hard to win, and good to attain, yet the world in which we humans play our parts is nothing more than a dream. How can what is unreal be so good?

I do not propose to have the answer to this, the supreme paradox, which runs through all mystical and metaphysical thought. Indeed the belief in the "boon of human birth into a world that is itself unreal" can be traced all the way back to the Vedas, which were composed thousands of years before Christ (and which the same Shankara made copious commentaries upon). Think on it and see what you come up with. If you in all your life are able to devise one original answer to life's greatest mysteries, let it be to this question: How can the unreal have value?

Here is a hint: It could be that humans, with the capacity for reason and reflection, have the ability unique among creatures of the animal kingdom to discern the real from the unreal, and though living in a world dreamlike in its evanescence, it is we humans alone who are capable of identifying the unchanging reality which underlies this phenomenon of changing forms, the Eternal whose nature is existence, consciousness and bliss, and which resides in the heart.

To go from the unreal to the real one needs the mind, and when you experience the real in the silence of your own heart you realize that the mind itself, like the individual imagining himself separate and apart from "others," does not exist. Like a mirror's image, the mind, and with it the body and the individual personality, has no independent reality, being a reflection of the consciousness that alone shines from within.

Thus freedom is won. Think about it until you go beyond thought and see what remains. This is aspiration, and the prize, as our Adi says, is "rest in the great spirit." That is the true boon.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

MY LIFE AS A DOT


Ever thought that your life may be not dissimilar to a dot in a painting? A pointillist painting of the universe and just as variegated and vast. Or of you getting out of bed in the morning, since that's what you do everyday in this humdrum thing called life. If you haven't, I mean considered the meaning of existence and your purpose in the grand scheme, then you're too busy.

Put your phone down, stop watching the tube and massaging your genitals, and contrary to what Budweiser says, ask why. (Like why follow Bud anyway when their product tastes like watered down piss.) I'm not asking you to write about your astonishing revelations about the nature of Absolute Reality and its relation to this cosmic dream. For that, there's me. You're welcome.


But your individual life may be very much like a dot, or if you prefer a note in a symphony, the symphony of manifest existence. What's wrong with being a measly little note? On its own whole and melodious, each D and G and A and E, and as a part of a larger work, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, in which each chord has its place, your life, with its petty cares and worries, its triumphs and tragedies, is not only irreplaceable but an absolutely necessary part of the masterpiece that is the manifest world. 


Maybe it will help if we put your place in the cosmos in an even larger perspective by taking a cue from popular media, as I often do. In the movie Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a scientist who on his death-bed has his brain uploaded onto a computer so that he can live forever. This version of him, though disembodied (for most of the film) can partake of the computer's superhuman processing speed, thus he becomes a greatly enhanced version of his flesh and blood former self. He has his memories, but added to this individuality is the entire contents of the world wide web.


Each brain, as a bundle of neurons wired together, is unique. Like snowflakes, no two cerebra are exactly alike. You have neurons and neuronal connections for each memory, grand or base (I have one for that time a kid peed on my head at the park when I was six, and another for when I hit my first Little League home run in the sixth grade), and connections for every talent from tying a cherry stem with your tongue to juggling and playing Beethoven's Ninth and doing the splits while having sex, as well as hitting that home run I remember so fondly.

Your brain is an imprint of your entire existence. The house you build, synapse by synapse, and then live in, or which lives on you. And as the expression "to see one's life flash before one's eyes" seems to indicate, it is the accumulated images and experiences captured by our mind's eye, the brain, which we relive, at the moment of death, or during a psychedelic trip or what have you, in a process analogous to going through a photo album, or in today's world, swiping through your iPhone.

Now, when each person dies, that unique snowflake-like imprint, world view, set of experiences, talents, agonies and ecstasies, dies with them. At least so far as we know, and until Depp's fictional future becomes our present, for now. But does it?

Imagine a universal hall of records. Imagine if like Caster's brain, each person's particular neuronal imprint, was uploaded at death into a vast mainframe that included the contents of every other brain of every other individual ever existing on this planet. Talk about a supercomputer, a superhuman, a superbeing, just plain super. Dare I say God?

Such a being, equipped with the totality of experiences and talents ever occurring, comes close to serving as a workable definition for God. For God, in the manifest sense, is the sum total of every individual who has ever lived, lives, and will live. God is being built with each thought and experience, from the asinine to the sublime. 

I must point out however that in this analogy God may not be very good at math. Neuronal connections are strengthened as skills increase, and in the real world most people are stuck at simple arithmetic. Disagree? Do you know the difference between multiplying 4,000 by 1/4 and dividing 4,000 by 1/4? Then you are one of the few, because most people don't. (Hint: the difference between the two is 15,000.) 

What most people do know is Katy Perry, who with over 70 million Twitter followers is the world's most popular gal. So it is safe to bet that God as the sum total of individual proclivities would certainly know by heart the words to Teenage Dream, my favorite. He'd probably do a mighty karaoke rendition too, which I can't because I'm tone deaf. But she's so hot though! I don't go much for divorcees but for her I'd make an exception. Rare is the girl who can look this good just out of bed. Katy if you're listening, I'm available.

 
My point is, your individual life, like the symphonic note and the impressionist's dot, makes up an indispensable part of all that is. In living it, you are adding to God. Keep that in mind next time you hum along, whether to Ludwig or to Ludo, or like me, off-key to Katy Perry, my teenage dream who by the way is thirty. But who's counting. Baby I will wait for you. You can hum that one, too.


ONCE UPON AN ALTAR BOY

I was thinking of calling this post "Confessions of an Altar Boy" but that title was already taken several times over.

Now I know what you think this is going to be about. How as an altar boy from age 10 to 14 I was sodomized and my holes repeatedly violated by priests in the vestibule before and after Mass. The bloody rogues. No. They were all very decent men. We even had a couple of Christ’s stand-ins, as they’re called (by nobody but me) over for dinner. My mom made pasta. Father Oulle sure could put back that wine. He was French, so, excused. Ruddy cherubs, the lot of them. But I'm no mind reader. For all I know . . . I'll let your imagination take it from there.

But this is not about that. This is more about the Catholic Church. The Church has many problems these days, not the least of which is the tendency of certain men of the cloth to fondle young boys. It’s about the Church’s insistence on ritual, on remaining so stiffly traditional, with its stained glass and incense and gold and towering statues, and the need to genuflect and repeat archaic sayings long since out of fashion and whose meaning is incomprehensible to the modern audience member.

It’s about the Church not evolving with the times in an age when more people than ever consider themselves spiritual. And though still more people say they are “religious” in that they align themselves, however vaguely, with a particular denomination they may not practice – like certain of my relatives, who call themselves Catholic but haven’t seen the inside of a church since Baptism - ask them what they believe and they either mutter something vague about heaven or sound more like atheists because they don’t know what the hell they're talking about.

And atheism, like spirituality, is also on the rise. Atheism, with its belief in no personal God, bears a striking resemblance to Buddhism, which derives from Hinduism, the oldest of religions and more spiritual in its essence than any of them, so I suppose these people are on the right track.  

I started attending Catholic School as a 2nd grader. I asked my parents to baptize me not because I felt any particular affinity for the Church or even for Christ (at least how the Church portrayed him, hanging from the Cross all pricked and punctured). It was because everyone else in my grade was Catholic and got to receive the wafer at communion, also known as the body of Christ, if you go in for that sort of thing, while I waited glumly in the pew. Thenceforth came Holy Communion, also in the 2nd grade. Now I was one of the club! (And if you don’t know, the wafer is dry and tastes stale. Not really worth it.) Thereafter followed Holy Confession, where I learned the benefits of omission and repetition. It was always the same sins with me. I had manhandled my brothers and failed to take out the trash and blah blah, but never had I masturbated to girl mags, oh no! Much too embarrassing. Then came Holy Confirmation, at 14. Not much to speak about here other than a kick-ass party after the ceremony, which doubled as my grandfather’s get out of the hospital after open heart surgery party, only he was hit by a car on the way home and died by the time he got to the hospital. A bittersweet symphony that's life.

And never Matrimony or Holy Orders. I live somewhere between these two sacraments. Nor Last Rites, because Sisters Francis Mary and Leonella won’t be standing over me at death seeing I make peace with Christ, because I think they are already dead, at least the latter of the two, who would be over 100 by now, and who I'm sure has made her peace, and may she rest in peace. I still sometimes have nightmares about those grammar school days. Reign of terror.
 
Anyway who am I to care about fitting in as a good Catholic? These days it has fallen out of fashion, and if I did I’d be married, but never a priest. Major personas non gratas. Except for maybe the Argentian Pope Francis, whose approval rating (do they do that for priests?) is off the charts. The guy really is holier than thou. He recently told the press he hasn’t watched TV since 1990. Let me guess, World Cup? Because Argentina did make the finals that year.

Between all those sacraments I also spent some time on the church's sanctuary, where the priest delivers the Mass and administers those stale-tasting wafers. From the 5th through the 8th grades I was an altar boy. Also to fit in, and get special treatment. We’d get to leave school early on days we “served Mass,” walk to church on our own, and take a longer lunch. The little pleasures of youth! I learned a lot about wearing an ill-fitting garment, standing onstage pretending I was super interested in the goings-on, and ringing the bell at the appropriate time, all the while trying really hard not to nod off. I didn’t learn much about what the priest said during his sermons, because as I said I was concentrating really hard on not nodding off. Do you know how difficult it is to keep your hands folded at chest level for 45 minutes without pause? By the end you have no feeling in your fingers. Mine even turned blue. I developed a technique, which was to grasp my cassock with my thumbs - and try not to nod off.

But that’s my point. We as good Catholics, me and my fellow altar servers, and classmates, and congregation, learned what to say and when so that it came as a knee jerk and sounded really pleasing to the ear; we knew the letter of Christ’s words, but not the spirit in which he said them. And when it came to the priest’s sermon, I’d nod off. What did he know about real-life advice? He was a priest, and probably a virgin, dealings with young boys excluded. I kid I kid.

But aside from the days I served Mass, church really was a waste of time. It cut into play time. Sunday Mass was about seeing and being seen with me too young to care. Yes, a lot of eligibles meet their mates (rather than their Maker) at Sunday service. I’m still single. Maybe I should have kept on going. I stopped attending church regularly in high school. Don’t call me sacrilegious, but by then it felt like the whole point of our being there was to feed the coffers. And my family were faithful donators. Movies cost 10 bucks back then, and since Mass lasts half as long, we’d usually give 5. It is after all entertainment, and gotta keep that brass shiny and those statues polished after all.

But now Christianity has fallen on black days. With all the cases of child abuse. And the tendency towards spirituality. The world, connected via the Internet, is screaming to be connected by a common creed, screaming for a world religion. Christianity could be it, or be the first religion to embrace all creeds and be inclusionary rather than exclusionary.

A universal Christianity would not be new. The Christian mystics – Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Genoa, Francois Fenelon, Blaise Pascal, Jakob Bohme and Bertrand Russell among them - recognized the similarities that Christ’s words bore to the teachings of the East, especially Hinduism, and therefore to Buddhism, as Buddha was also a Hindu, it deserves reiterating.

Mysticism may best be summed up by the ancient aphorism attributed to a 4th century bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria: “God became human so that man might become God.” And as such Christian mysticism is similar if not identical to mysticism of other major world religions, including the Hebrew (Moses Maimonides) and Islamic (exhibited in the works of the Sufi poet Hafiz).

Nor is religious reform new. Adi Shankara (b. 788 AD) lived at a time when the Hindu religious elite, the Brahmins, were bogged down in ritual, and well, in being elite. Hinduism was becoming exclusionary, limited to the light-skinned few who by high birth exerted a divine right on God. In his brief sojourn on earth (he lived to be only 32) Shankara wrote voluminous commentaries on the Vedas (the Hindu sacred texts comprising the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras) to widen their appeal and emphasize metaphysics over dogma and ritual. Adi established the Advaita school, which is nondual, seeing God in All.

The same can be done for Christianity. Christ’s words have two meanings, the literal and the symbolic. The mystics the world over have always opted for the symbolic, which is the better choice, since it gives broader appeal and makes Christ sound less like a lunatic and more like the spiritually enlightened being that he was. We have already done this with the Bible’s Old Testament, shared by both Christians and Jews and serving as inspiration for the Koran. (All the same book, people. Can’t we just get along?) As science has traced the origin of the planet earth back billions of years, the thousands that a literal translation of the Creation myth seem to imply just doesn’t hold water any more. Some zealots and southern Republicans still insist on being literal – Eve was literally plucked from Adam’s rib - and are mocked for it.

But what are Christ’s teachings? We all know the Golden Rule. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Love your neighbor as yourself, and love God above all. Love your enemy. When maltreated, turn the other cheek. All good and straightforward so far. But what of his more esoteric teachings? I and the Father are one? This would seem to showcase the unity of all creation, rather than to elevate Christ alone to the level of the Divine Maker.

There are many additional esoteric sayings of Jesus. I leave it for you to read the Gospels, or a book like Richard Maurice Bucke’s, which interprets these sayings in the cosmic sense. An entire religion, one rooted in spirituality, one that is universal, and not dependent on mindless parroting of stock phrases, could develop around such glorious teachings. Sadly, modern Christianity is not this religion. But the future is being formed, fed by the cravings of the spiritually-minded many, whose numbers are growing. Granted, this world ethos would be more private for its universality. No need to convene en masse if there is nothing to recite. And how people love to assemble.  But there is always a good 12-step program for the quasi religious person who wants to share.

Shankara’s reforms brought Hinduism to the masses of the East, and contributed in large part to the dissemination of its beliefs on a global scale. His commentaries were translated first to Latin and read by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who staunchly maintained that they changed his life. It was Shankara who said, in his Crest-Jewel of Wisdom: “When the false self [the individual personality, subject to birth and death and endless change] ceases utterly, and the motions of the mind caused by it come to an end, then, by discerning the hidden Self, the real truth that ‘I am that’ is found.”

How reminiscent of the Old Testament, where the Lord says: “I am that I am.”

What would a world be like with Catholicism as spiritual rather than religious? Would it even be called Catholicsm or for that matter Christianity? I vote for Universality. As of this writing, Christianity still is a major force. One-third of the world’s population is Christian, and over two-thirds of Americans (243 million) identify as such. One-third seems like a lot. It is after all billions of people. But it leaves out so many billions more. Isn’t it time for a world religion, something all, whatever color or culture, can gather around and embrace? It wouldn’t involve ceremony, tradition, or donations. But it would lead to world peace, since peace is its foundation. Although history would seem to indicate the contrary, with its wars of religious persecution. But see for yourself how many fights you can provoke with the “turn your other cheek” attitude. We could call it Love.

This new spirituality of Love would embrace religion. And I’m not oversimplifying when I say that all our problems would be solved. What about priests violating boys? There’d be no more priests. Done. Want an antidote for falling asleep at church? There’d be no more church, so that takes care of that.
 
Let your private prayer be Love, and practice it publically wherever you go. See God in all, and treat others the same. No need for brass and statues, stained glass and pat phrases for that.

And if you insist on the religious view, remember: The Second Coming of Christ is You.