A blog about nothing.

Friday, October 30, 2015

THE WISDOM OF THE GITA

Yesterday my father told me he was considering writing something based on the Bhagavad Gita. If you don't know - and if you read these posts of mine you should, since I have brought up this ancient scripture at least a dozen times - the setting of the Gita is the field of battle during the Kurukshetra War which took place in India around 5000 B.C. The warrior Arjuna tells his charioteer, Krishna, who also happens to be a Hindu God, that he is reluctant to participate in the war. On one side he will encounter family, on the other side stand his friends. Krishna (standing outside of time, speaking as God through man) tells his warrior friend that the Lord already knows the outcome, which has been decided since the beginning of time. And all Arjuna must do is to act his part, which as member of the Hindu warrior class (Kshatriya, which incidentally was also the class of the Buddha who was born 4500 years later), is to fight, and to do so to the best of his ability. Krishna introduces the concept of nishkama karma, or dispassionate action. It means trying one's best at every moment, without concern for the fruits of one's deeds. Whatever it is you are supposed to do, do it to the utmost of your ability. Let excellence be your motivation, not self-aggrandizement and gratification. Let your successes serve others rather than pamper your ego.

My father found this advice very helpful in his own life when as an up-and-coming attorney he first read the book 45 years ago. He was also embarking on the spiritual path, and considering abandoning worldly pursuits, but the book spoke to him, and the message he got was to be in the world, not of it, to have his hands in society, and his head in the forest. He need not retreat to some secluded haunt to meditate and realize God. He could make of his mind a forest retreat while as an upstanding citizen contributing to society in the way he knew best, which was to fight (court battles) and practice law.

For the Gita can be read as a metaphor for life. We may not be warriors, but life, which is often a struggle met with antagonism on every side, can be characterized as a fight. And at each moment we are waging an inner battle, between our lower, ego-based individualized personalities, and our higher Self, which is ageless, timeless, deathless Fineness, which is Bliss. And yet many are there in today's age who are forced either by circumstance or impelled by a desire for glory to enter the fray, literally. To enlist in the army and be stationed in the Middle East or in one of the dozens of other countries that America's troops occupy. (For reasons unknown to me, tens of thousands of our troops currently reside in Germany. Huh?)

And so I suggested to my father that writing such a book, an interpretation of the Gita with an application to his own life and to the life of the modern warrior/soldier would be a timely and valuable contribution to literature which would also be of great service to his fellow men. He could pattern his book after the ancient text, with as many chapters, featuring summaries, personal anecdotes, and practical applications the reader may use in the battle of his own life. Or my dad could create a YouTube channel, and dressed in a coat and tie rather than a robe and beads, which would be a bit of a travesty, give short lectures on the sacred tale. The Great Courses offers another model. If dad wished, he could expand his book into a series of say, 24 30-minute lectures and make them available in either CD or DVD form to our nation's troops. My father, a bit overwhelmed by all this free advice, yawned and said he'd consider what I had said, though the practice of law still keeps him super busy, and how about them Patriots! Before we got off the phone, I reminded dad that to my knowledge such a book, or lecture, had never been done before. "It will be unique," I said. "You can call it The Wisdom of the Gita."

After we hung up I did an Amazon search using the title I had suggested and as I should have guessed there are a half a dozen books already written with Wisdom and Gita in the title. None of them have been very successful. Is there nothing new under the sun? Has everything already been done before? What's the use of doing anything if similar versions have already been released and ignored? Truly, there is very little in the world today that can be called original. Books have been written, books about books have been written, and books about books about books, etc. Even the lives of ancient masters bear striking resemblances to one another. I am reading Huston Smith's classic book The Religions of Man to discover that, though separated in time by 500 years and 3500 miles, the lives of Buddha and Jesus Christ were strikingly similar. Both began their ministry around the age of 30, both were born into one religion (Buddha was Hindu, Christ a Jew) only to reform it and evolve a new religion in its place (Buddhism and Christianity). And many other similarities besides, including their teachings and parables. If the lives of these highly original thinkers, these great God-men, weren't entirely unique, what about yours and mine?

It's true, the events that comprise your day will probably not make a Lifetime movie of the week any time soon. How many others start their day with coffee and a bm, hit traffic on the way to work, plaster themselves to a chair with their eyes glued to a screen for the bulk of the day and watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards or Sons of Anarchy before turning in, only to repeat it all the next day, and the next, and so forth? Lamentably, too many to count. And how many get their opinions from those TV shows, and form desires based on the advertisements that fall in between, and are pushed this way and that by obligations and public opinion only to wonder what the hell am I living for, is consumerism the be-all-end-all of existence, am I nothing more than a pod person?

But the insights, your personal insights, the revelations you draw from these daily experiences, however banal the experiences are in themselves, these are yours and yours alone. And even in today's supersaturated media-driven age, these unique insights on life's everyday experiences are relevant to the times and may even be inspiring, to businessmen, troops, homemakers, and everyone else, provided you write them down. They can be your legacy if you communicate them to others, and if nobody reads or watches what you write or say, your insights are still of benefit to you.

So I still say my father should write his book. If nobody else reads a single world, he will have benefitted by the experience. Just as I have by writing this. And so the world will have been made a better place. All that remains is to come up with a catchy title.

THE MOTHERSHIP WANTS YOU

There is this funny scene in the funny movie You, Me and Dupree, starring Matt Dillon and Owen Wilson. Wilson's character, Randall Dupree, is a slacker man-child approaching middle age, who though smart enough to be a member of Mensa, rides around on a rickety Schwinn bicycle mooching off his best friend and meandering through life without a pot to piss in or a plan to get one. That is, until he meets this girl he really likes. She's a grade school teacher, and he convinces his best friend's fiancee, played by the lovely Kate Hudson, who is also a teacher, to let him give a career day presentation to her kindergarten class. He hopes his performance will impress his girl. In the presentation, Dupree lets the kids in on "getting the call from the Mothership." For some kids, he says, the call will come in their early youth, and these students will become the prodigies. Others will get the call in college and go on to be masters of industry. But the third class, he says, languishes well into middle age. "You'll do a lot of languishing," he tells them. Just like Dupree. And me.

There's a lot about Dupree I can relate to. Though older than the 30-something guy he plays (I am 42) I live with my mother and get around on a bike. A member of Mensa, I have a medical degree I never really used other than to write a book on nutrition hardly anybody reads. And I'd do most anything to impress a girl I'm sweet on, though these days I don't have much of an opportunity for that. Because I am always home. So I have been content to languish through life. That is, until I got my call....

READ MORE HERE

Thursday, October 29, 2015

LIGHTS OUT


Technology is a two-edged sword. Sure, it makes life easier. But an over-reliance on our gadgets can make things complicated and leave us feeling lost and confused. For the more technically advanced a tool, the more can go wrong. Take bicycle riding, one of the simpler forms of transportation. And yet a tire can blow, a chain can break, and you are stranded on the side of the road. Which doesn't happen if you travel on foot. Without technology we wouldn't have methods of food preservation (which refrigerators provide), long-distance communication, and trans-Atlantic travel, not to mention many of the creature comforts we have grown to love and depend on, like lights, and air-conditioning, and TV.

The Internet and devices which allow us to access the Internet have become our constant companions. We are always connected. And in the age of the Internet of Things, when an increasing number of household appliances, even our cars, are online, one wonders if it is possible even to get along in a matrix-like world that is so wired without yourself being hooked in. I often think that if I entered medicine today I wouldn't be able to function without a smart phone. When I was a resident, I used to carry around books. Now all that information is on an iPhone. Luckily I'm not in medicine today, because I refuse to carry the gadget. The Blackberry I bought as a student, in 2006, is a dinosaur. I can't even receive photos, let alone take them!

But the more our technology does for us, the greater our dependence, the more can go wrong if suddenly it all shuts down. This is the subject of the new book Lights Out by former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, who warns against a massive cyberattack that could knock out electric grids and leave millions of people evacuating cities without power or connectivity. Interviewed by Time Magazine Koppel says that some experts believe such an attack has a 90% likelihood of happening. With water and power run by the Internet, if such an attack took place we'd be back in the pre-industrial era overnight, left alone and cut off to fend for ourselves in a dark age - and without our favorite sitcoms! 

Koppel hopes that his book will serve as a catalyst for government action, that the Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA (whoever they are) will coordinate efforts to immunize cities from Chinese and Russian cyberpunks. But until that time, each individual should self-monitor. Observe how deeply you rely on the devices around you, and as often as you can choose old-fashioned ways of getting around and communicating. Walk to your friend's house rather than drive, and have a face-to-face conversation with said somebody rather than texting him or her under the table. Because that way, if the time comes that you are forcibly logged off, what it's like to be untethered won't be such a dim memory. Freedom, even from electricity, and TV, may not be such a bad thing.

UNITY IS DIVINITY

Eastern and Western metaphysics are often believed to be disparate if not opposing. In today's West we have a Christian religion steeped in ritual, where if you attend Mass regularly, receive the "body of Christ," genuflect, confess your sins, and perhaps donate to the coffers, you are absolved of sin and after bodily death guaranteed a place in heaven for eternity. While the East is generally associated with a pantheon of Gods (Hinduism has its Avatars who include Krishna, Rama and Buddha), self-abnegation, and in more strenuous forms denial of a personal God altogether. Some Buddhists believe there is no such thing as the individual soul. For how can the indivisible whole that God is said to be have parts?

But if you really analyze things you find that these conflicting philosophies are really not all that dissimilar. The ancient Greeks typify Western thought, and what did Plato in his Dialogues have Socrates say? That humans seek happiness, defined as being loved, and not just for a limited amount of time, but for all eternity. This is very much the same to the Eastern notion of the divine essence, which is said to be satchitananda, or infinite existence (sat), infinite consciousness (chit), and infinite bliss (ananda).

And this makes sense. For anything which exists cannot be made of nothing, so that what exists now has always existed, and what is never born will never die. Therefore existence itself is eternal. And it is formless, since form is made of parts and subject to dissolution, and the only boundless entity must be spiritual in nature, since anything having a body, any discrete entity, is bound by a shell or skin or covering and therefore limited, or not infinite. And what is limitless spirit if not consciousness. We see it every night in our dreams, as on the blank canvass of our awareness appear myriad shapes and adventures which when the night is through dissolve back into our mind.

And now about bliss. Anything that is eternal and limitless and therefore One, cannot be anything but blissful, since all pain and suffering and sadness come from separation, or the illusion of separation. We fear and we suffer in response to something, we fight against an antagonist, we overcome obstacles. But if the eternal is everything, then there is nothing to suffer, no one against whom to fight - except maybe loneliness, which perhaps may explain why at the beginning of it all the One (God, Brahman, Allah, etc.) said, "I am One, let me become Many."

Because in life's dance you need a partner, to act your part you need other characters, and to love and be loved, as the ancient Greeks believed lay our ticket to bliss, you need someone or something as the object of your affection,  and the beloved is the vehicle by which each individual can express her eternal nature, which is bliss - and perhaps get some (bliss, love) in return.

So East and West are not so different as we are sometimes led to believe.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

QUIT BEIN' SO PRECIOUS


I was at Trader Joe's the other day when I noticed a big commotion going on at one of the registers. It seems a popular product had just been removed from the shelves after it had been found to contain "trace amount of peanuts." Because those with peanut allergies could become "deathly ill." The implication was that there are many such allergy sufferers.

Has it really come to this? Have we become a country of spoiled children, coddling our imagined sensitivities? It seems everyone has some sort of allergy or sensitivity to what for years have been staple foods. Ask your friends. Listen to people order at restaurants. I can't eat gluten. Tree nuts make me sick. Or eggs. Or soy. Or wheat. And yes, peanuts, which head the list of most common food allergies in children, based on self-reports of symptoms. Two percent of kids become ill when ingesting the popular lunch item, according to their parents. 

But as Scientific American recently reported, these ever-more-common allergies are often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed or even mistaken for other conditions. The skin-prick test, which clinicians use to diagnose food allergy, can produce signs of irritation in as many of 60 percent of people who are not actually allergic. Why such a large margin of error. Because scratching your skin with a needle just plain hurts!

What's more, parents often take their kids to the ER with skin rashes they believe are caused by formula or other foods, when in fact these symptoms occur in common childhood ailments and infections that have nothing to do with allergic reactions. Yes, some do become ill when eating high-risk foods. But we are talking a fraction of a percent of the population, hardly the number of shoppers who avoid these products on the shelves.

So stop being so sensitive, America. Eat moderately. Choose unpackaged, unprocessed foods and don't buy into the hype so as to save yourselves unnecessary trips to the doctor. We've been eating most commonly available foods for thousands of years, and will likely do so for many more. If nuclear war, global warming, or autonomous machines don't take us out first. (In other words, there are bigger fish to fry, kids.) And giving kids tiny amounts of a variety of foods when they're young can avoid real allergies as they get older. Just, no wheat. Because my experience is that allergy or no, bread does nobody any favors.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

WATCHFUL WAITING

Advice columnists are experiencing a heyday not seen since the era of Dear Abby and Ann Landers, sisters who used to dish out tips in competing columns back in the 50s. Nowadays "inquiring minds" can just ask Google or Siri or Cortana, but that doesn't keep many so-called experts from dispensing their know-how on everything from money to sex to technology, to issues of etiquette, and self-worth, even life's purpose. Maybe this blog o' mine comes off as advisory, or would if it were read.

Time magazine recently did a blurb on the issues that define our present age. It seems that most people are in favor of technology, despite the trouble that it causes one's romantic and personal lives. I'm a Luddite, or as actress Janeane Garofalo puts it, a Neo-Luddite. I think smartphones give illusions of interacting while killing intimacy. In a connected world we have become disconnected and unhinged. As one columnist opines: social media brings a sense of belonging, but it's a very "hollow arrangement." And with everyone sharing lives that seem so fabulous, it becomes ever more difficult for the average person (that means you and me, and even those whose virtual lives seem so fabulous) to just exist. The death of Jane and John Doe, as it were.

And my favorite: Andrew W.K. of the Village Voice tells Time that in our age of instant gratification, with answers and the Internet of things just a mouse-click away, when all our wildest dreams can come true, we really don't know what we want. "There is a sense of being completely lost in life." In other words, exit Jane and John Doe, and enter Sartre, the French philosopher who believed life is meaningless.

Sartre was born over a hundred years ago. It seems our "existential crisis" is not so modern after all. Humans crave certainty. We are hard-wired to demand clarity in confusion and definitive answers to dilemmas. We seek out sure things. And consequently, we are averse to ambiguity. But much of life lies in the gray area of doubt, and though our tendency is to knee-jerk a response to even the most complicated questions, often decisions are best deferred until such time as a solution presents itself. And yet society presses us to choose. Act. Do something! 

Doctors for instance, often encounter patients with unclear symptoms, indeed the majority of patients present with vague nonspecific complaints, and yet in nearly 80% of these cases physicians order a definitive test or treatment, despite the fact that such a course of action may be unnecessary or even harmful, as the new book Nonsense by Jamie Holmes points out. Doctors are taught first to do no harm, but Nike, speaking louder, shouts "Just do it!" And the medical profession is not the only one whose members can be rash. Average people, our Janes and Joes of the world, do this all the time, at the grocery store (impulse buys) or when getting a tattoo (tramp stamp really?), even while selecting a mate. Because if you really thought it through, would there be so much divorce?

When faced with a big decision, rather than jump to an option, take a deep breath, and wait. In that moment of hesitation, of second-guessing, of in medical jargon, "watchful waiting," you are truly free, because you are not slave to your impulses. It is as if you have separated yourself from the technology to which you are tethered. You are not your little mind! There is freedom, and humanity, in doing nothing. To be OK with not knowing the answer. Let the solutions to life's many problems come to you. Trust inspiration, help from strangers, let the problem resolve itself. If you believe in a higher power, put it to the test in the test of life. The divine hand is more adept than the most capable physician.

Because if you are cool with ambiguity, and simply watch and wait, you'll save yourself so many future spills.

Monday, October 26, 2015

DOOR NUMBER TWO



My brother is dying. He has a very aggressive cancer in the cartilage surrounding his hip. When he was diagnosed, doctors gave him a choice between two options. Option number one, they said, was to amputate the right leg up to the spine, including part of his intestines. This, plus chemotherapy and some radiation, would not guarantee a cure, but at least it would buy him/us some time. Or he could do none of this and and die in six months. Justin doesn't want to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair pooping into a bag. He is 22, and so he chose door number two.


That was 6 months ago. Well, five and three quarters to be exact. During this time I've watched the cancer grow and grow - it looks like someone shoved a melon under the skin where his butt used to be. While at the same time his body has shriveled to skeleton thin. He hardly eats, and when he does he has a tough time eliminating, since the tumor is pressing against his organs. And he is so pale! The other day the nurse placed a foley catheter in his urethra. This helped some. She is from hospice and real nice. She bathes him and talks to him in a soothing voice.

On Friday before going home for the weekend she gave my brother some medicine for his pain. Up til then he hadn't taken anything. His routine had been to spend each night kneeling at the foot of my parents' bed, kept awake by the pain. And he can't put any pressure on his hip, so no sitting or lying down. And who can sleep with death on the brain. My dad didn't want my brother to take the morphine until he was ready to go, because doctors said once he did his body would shut down and it'd only be a matter of days at most before he was gone. Or hours. He began taking morphine on Friday. Today is Sunday.

I sit by his bed. He shows me the morphine vial. It's in liquid form since he can't keep any pills down. The nurse said that 20 mg/1 ml is the highest potency you can get, which made Justin smile. He was a malt liquor over beer guy, and hash over weed. When he used to do that stuff. Since he's been sick he lost the taste for most everything.

"Drink it all and it will kill a horse," he tells me the nurse told him. "I bet if we share it, it'd take us both."

I look at him. He's a taunter, is my kid brother.

"Wanna go with me to the other side?"

I have just gotten used to the idea of my brother dying. That's what these six months have been about. Enabling me to cope. The thought of my own demise is a whole other world away. Hell, I'm not even 24. But the prospect of living without my brother also sucks. We've always been close, closer than the 16 months separating our birthdays. My brother is my best friend.

And to think that only two days ago I had persuaded him to vacate his post at the foot of my parents' bed and let them carry him in a hospital bed to what had been my bedroom, before I moved out of the house last year and into an apartment with some buddies. The only way Justin would agree to go in my bedroom (after he asked my permission, silly rabbit) was if I promised to spend the night there with him. Every night. Until he died. But what if you stick around? I asked. I'll be crashing on the floor for months. Justin looked at me. You and I both know it won't be months, Adam. So I promised. We hadn't talked about the arrangement since. A shot of liquid morphine had eased the pain enough for Justin to crawl into bed and actually get some sleep, and my mom found me a sleeping bag and together we made a rather comfortable bed beside Justin on the floor. Months wouldn't be such a bad thing. But we both know.

These nights I lie awake in jeans and my high school baseball jacket, listening to my brother breathe. Snore. If you can call it that. Stertorous rattlings of his lungs. Which my father calls the death rattle. And Justin flits in and out of consciousness. Looks around the room just long enough to see I'm there before closing his eyes again. He doesn't ask for food. Wants no water. Doesn't even ask after my parents, who are either in the room or within earshot, their bedroom just down the hall. And each time he opens those blue eyes of his I wonder if it's the last time. How many more visits will he make to the land of the living from the other side? This time he looks at me.

"Come into bed with me." As I rise: "Bring the morphine." I take it from the bookshelf and hold it out to him.

"I want to empty the bottle," he tells me. "I want you to help me. You drink half. The other half I'll take. It's been crap for both of us. This way we'll both be able to sleep."

His eyes roll back into his head, jaw goes slack. I wonder if he's dead or just sleeping. His chest rises. He's sleeping. Maybe he'll forget we had this conversation. Maybe I'm off the hook.

"You drink first," he says, shaking himself awake.

I want to make my brother happy. This could be his dying wish, that I get stoned with him one last time. But I don't want to knock myself out. Who will be here to worry about him? Nevertheless I place the bottle to my lips and pretend to drink. I hand it back to him. But there's no fooling my brother. "Drink!" he urges. So I place the bottle to my mouth a second time and spill some down my gullet, swallow. It tastes like water, only slightly bitter. Like a vodka with soda. How much did I just drink? I hold the vial up to the moonlight. It looks half full. Did I just drink the other half? But these past two days Justin has taken several sips. But how many, how much?

Justin seems satisfied. "Don't worry it will take the edge off. Now give me mine." I put the bottle to his lips. He drinks the remainder. "Now crawl into bed with me," he says. As I lie by his side: "Let's hold hands," he says, "the way we used to as kids." And so I take his hand in mine. I watch his eyes close as my own lids grow heavy.

I don't know what time it was when I awoke, or what time it is now. But it is still dark outside. Justin isn't in bed with me. Where have they taken him? Surely he hasn't gotten up and moved himself. The bathroom light is on. Through the closed door light bleeds into the room. I hear the toilet flush. The light goes off, the door opens, and a shadow appears in the door frame. Just a vague silhouette. It has Justin's height (which is also my father's, and mine). Can it be Justin? But he hasn't walked in weeks. It (the shadow) stands before me, surveying. And though I can't see anything distinctly, I know that it is smiling. I try to speak but cannot. I try to get up but cannot. Then, ever so slowly, gliding like, the form vanishes through the room.

I lie silent and still and stunned, in the place my brother used to be. I look on the floor where I had been just a few moments before and there is my brother's body lying next to me. He is on his side, his back to me. He has his arm tucked under his ear, the way I like to sleep. He's not so thin any more. Gone is his melon butt. His hair is longer than I remember it. And he's wearing my jeans and jacket.

If he's me, who am I? I look down on the bed at where my own body should be but can make out nothing in the darkness. I remember nothing about anything. Even the moon seems more dim. It's as if I am fading away. And I wonder if I am asleep and dreaming or awake and dying. Or are we already dead?



Sunday, October 25, 2015

MOVIES AND METAPHYSICS

Movies are transporting. They carry us away to faraway places, where we encounter fabulous realms and experience astounding adventures through the eyes of our most beloved characters. I've loved movies ever since, as a boy of 9, I was taken to the theater to see E.T. The Extraterrestrial. And my passion for films grew to such a fevered pitch that rare was the day I would not visit the cinema, or pop in my favorite DVD, or VHS, and enjoy at least a few scenes from some of my favorite films, like Amadeus, and The Big Lebowski, Fight Club, and Watchmen. Like such stars as Spielberg and Scorsese, Cruise and Pitt, Streep and Spacey and Sheen, I endeavored to make a career out of my cherished pastime. I wrote several screenplays. Unlike the aforementioned individuals, my efforts never met with success. Nary a script did I sell! At least I learned to take rejection in stride. Failure does your ego a favor, is my motto.

And so I moved on, first to medicine, then to the realm of metaphysics. And metaphysics, I have come to find, has much in common with movies. For metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that treats the nature of reality, and the relationship between mind and matter. The term itself was coined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote a treatise on this ancient subject, which he titled Metaphusika. I have never read it. But I have read other writings by Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers, and other individuals the world over who have found themselves, just like I was as a boy, transported by the power of their cherished pursuit, which carried their minds to other realms. Only these realms are not in a galaxy far, far away. These realms lie deep within.

And as far as I can tell, the entire discipline of metaphysics boils down to one simple phrase: All is One, whose essence is Love.

So metaphysics is all about love. Just like in film, where the best movies always feature this sublime feeling, this all-consuming power of love, as a motivating force in the lives of the characters. And in every movie, great and small, blockbuster and bomb, while being entertained we also find ourselves edified. We are constantly reminded of ancient truths, if thinly disguised.

Take the film Amadeus, which treats the life and work of the prodigious composer Mozart. Early in the film, Mozart is a young man, who having composed his first symphony at 8 years old, is already a celebrated talent. He gets the opportunity to play for the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in front of a huge audience; and yet his virtuoso piece fails to impress the amateur ears of the royal personage, who actually YAWNS during the performance. What a royal outrage! After the show, the emperor tells the irate Mozart that his symphony has too many notes. "Just cut a few, and it will be perfect." Mozart flies into a rage of course, replying, "There are neither more nor fewer than the piece requires. I cannot remove even one."



And I found myself thinking about the great symphony that is life, written and performed by the virtuoso of virtuosos, the Divine Itself. How easy it is to critique life's symphony! To fault-find and disparage. Who among us does not complain about global warming, overpopulation, rampant obesity, income inequality, all of which litter the pages of periodicals and are perennial topics in the political arena. And throughout our rants we neglect to remember that there is a higher intelligence at work in the world, much greater than any individual mind, greater than all minds put together. And that this power has the bird's eye view, can see everything, and knows that everything is in its place. Despite what you or I may think, everything is perfect just the way it is!

An analogy from my medical training. Take a person with a rash. If you examine the area, you will notice disarray, inflammation, cellular warfare. If you take that part of the body for the whole you can easily believe that the entire organism is out of whack, that "everything is going to hell in a handbasket," as armchair pundits are heard to say. But even those cells participating in the inflammatory response are a necessary part of the overall metabolic process, and perform a useful function which the individual viewing an isolated event can easily miss. Imagine if you were the bacteria, just trying to make a home, only to be attacked by an immune cell, totally unprovoked. What's unfortunate for the individual can be for the good of the whole.

Life is a grand symphony, composed by the celestial mind and performed by US. There may seem to be too many notes (too many people people), some of them discordant (Internet trolls, religious zealots), perhaps even a lot of disarray (wars, strife, natural disasters). But it all forms part of the great performance, and since we are not the Creator but only the players, and the audience, whose capabilities are sometimes amateurish at best, who are we to judge? And we're not even emperors!

But even the opinion of royalty isn't really worth all that much. Remember the story of the emperor's new clothes. He was really wearing nothing! The moral of this story is, it's best to pass naked through life, naked here being a metaphor for casting opinions aside and viewing life in the stark light of truth, and speaking and acting (and playing) from fact. 

As for facts, there is really only one that counts, thank you movies and metaphysics: All is One, whose essence is Love. Live it.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

NO EASY WAY OUT

Life is characterized by change. Time passes, clouds flit by, feelings come and go and we grow old and then are gone. It is as if nothing stays the same. I sound like a Buddhist. Of course death is the ultimate change, and it doesn't always involve bodily demise. The Grim Reaper assumes many forms. The end of a marriage, a move away from home, a career change are all so many types of death. (But what lies after death, if not new life?)

I have experienced death many times and am here to talk about it, because bodily death has not yet visited my person. But I have lost grandparents and my younger brother. And now my mother is ill, so ill that death once again becomes a hot topic - oddly, since it leaves the body so cold. But I have had other life-altering experiences that didn't involve rigor-mortis. Take medicine. My medical education lasted 5 years. The first two I really enjoyed. They were classroom-based, filled with lectures and textbooks. In anatomy and histology and microbiology labs, I got to explore the structure and function of the human body from the gross to the microscopic level. (And actually anatomy did involve rigor-mortis.) I was a diligent medical student who earned straight As and became class valedictorian.

Then came two years of clinical medicine. Long hauls at the hospital, lots of scampering from room to room, and often from building to building, treating diseases known by acronyms like CHF and COPD and DM and HTN and CAD. And prescription writing, and patient outcomes not nearly as impressive as all the paperwork was onerous. It was in the hospital that I learned the business of medicine, and medicine is nothing if not a business. Get patients in, fill them up (with drugs and IV fluids) and send them out with a referral to one or more specialists. And do this as quickly as possible. And try not to let them die!

What a change this was for me. In basic sciences I studied the human body in all its glory, fantastic dance of a trillion cells that it is, all these island organs functioning as one organism called you (and me). But there in the hospital all I encountered were organ systems in disarray. Sure, there was lots and lots for me to do between admit and discharge, so much running around and tracking Xrays down, and reams and reams of hospital records to read through, but little in the way of real treatment achieved. Hey, at least I earned my MD.

The fifth and final year of my medical journey was what is for most their first year of residency, a period in a doctor's education where you learn by experience, on the job, during 12- to 30-hour shifts for which you are paid minimally and ridden heavily. I chose family medicine, which is the most general speciality (excuse the oxymoron) and arguably one of the hardest areas of medicine to practice, since the family physician must know enough about each of the body's many organ systems to diagnose and treat everything from head and heart to neuromuscular, circulatory and skin disorders.

I didn't like my intern year. Too much of an emphasis on drugs. And the long hours at the hospital were wearing me down. So I had a sit-down with myself. "I have not enjoyed 3 of the 5 years of my medical experience," said I to me. That's a 40 percent success rate. The odds are better in Vegas! And this disenchantment looks to continue, since many, many long hours at the hospital with my blood-shot eyes affixed to a computer screen and my cramped fingers on my pager lie ahead. How do I get out?

In my morning workouts I began listening to the soundtracks from the Rocky films, to imbue me with the fighting spirit I guess. And in the 4th installment of the film franchise is the song "No Easy Way Out." This song became my anthem. Because there was no easy way out of medicine. How to exit without ruffling too many feathers? There were familial expectations, the pressure I felt from my superiors, my own ego - not to mention the great unknown, a future without an income or career. I would be like Al Gore after he left politics following his loss to George Bush in the 2000 presidential election. "I didn't really know what I was going to do with my life," Gore has said.


I had just signed a contract to begin my second year of residency. Should I honor this contract even though my heart isn't into medicine? If I convince myself to enjoy what I dislike, and ignore the inner voice telling me it is time to move on, will a day come that I'll no longer even hear this inner voice let alone heed it? If this inner voice is the intuition, the reason, the voice of God, will ignoring it make me dead inside?

The day came for me to exit residency. My window of opportunity, as I call it. I was midway through my month-long stint in the ICU. It was my team's day to admit patients. I was the third member of a team that included two other medical residents. The other teams in the ICU were made up of not three residents but two. So I was a third wheel because, as a family physician who spends most of his time in clinic, it was felt I didn't have the know-how to carry my own weight amidst such severe cases as are commonly seen in the intensive care unit. My team's superior had just been replaced by a new doctor, whom I hadn't even met. I remember sitting alone in the call room asking myself, Is now the time? I had the book Secret Garden in my hand. It is a children's book fittingly about the conflict between common sense and the accepted wisdom of the day. My inner voice (common sense) said: If you just slip away, you won't even be missed.

I knew that if I waited a couple hours I could get a new patient and would be obliged to remain on the team for the duration of the patient's care, which could be weeks. And then would come a new rotation, which I'd feel obliged to fulfill; or maybe the distaste I had for medicine would pass and I'd feel refreshed and rearing to go. Or would I? There had not been a day in the previous 3 years in the hospital that I had enjoyed playing doctor. If this is my window, then now is the time to jump. So I called my program's director and scheduled an emergency meeting. Then I called an ICU team member and said I was leaving medicine. And I walked out the front door of the hospital, never to return. I fulfilled the last two weeks of my rotation in clinic, diagnosing sinusitis and refilling blood pressure meds, and then my days as a practicing physician were over. And I've never looked back. The end of one life, the beginning of another.

My mother who has end-stage cancer is grappling with this very same phenomenon, death, and I with her. Of course her death experience is bodily, and the end of one life means passing on to another plane of existence. I have watched my mother grow progressively weaker and more compromised since her rediagnosis with metastatic cancer in 2010. When cancer spread to her colon and initial treatment proved ineffective, she was left lying in bed, bloated, backed up, and in racked with severe pain. But at least she was home and in her own bed, we both agreed. The question was: Do we take you back to the hospital for surgery, or has your time come? Fight, or throw in the towel? Accept death or resist?

I asked my mother what her wishes are for this final chapter of her life. Is it to live one or two or more years? To do what her family wishes her to do? To visit Sicily home of her ancestors as she had always wished? Her answer: I just don't want to be in pain. Her wish, my command. As we were about to put in a call to her physician to provide pain relief, the proverbial shit hit the fan. Not literally, since my mother was still very much backed up. But at that moment my grandmother and aunts came over, and then the doctor called, and together they urged my mother to undergo surgery.

Before the ambulance carried mom away I impressed upon her the following: Your desire is to be pain-free; abdominal surgery will be very painful, and the pain likely will go on for weeks if not months. That is, assuming you survive the procedure and recovery. (Blunt is what they teach us to be in school.) And even if you do survive, with cancer throughout your body, you will likely experience a recurrence of the tumor in some other organ, despite taking debilitating chemotherapy, and you will then have an even bigger battle to face, which will involve still more pain. If you will ultimately lose the war on cancer, it is up to you to pick your battles. You can go now, this is your window, or else you can go to the hospital and enter the next phase. I told her this because I have made my peace with mom's condition and with her eventual bodily departure. But others haven't. My grandmother burst into tears, saying "I cannot lose another daughter!" (I had an aunt who passed away years ago.) It is true what they say, that we hang around to give others time not to miss us so much when we're gone.

The very morning of my mother's hospital admission she told my father she didn't want to return to the hospital. Life is complicated. These choices are not easy. It is after all, life and death! But mom is a pleaser. Perhaps doing what others wish for her, even at the expense of her personal comfort (and who wants their belly sliced in half!) provides greater satisfaction and enables her to bear the pain. After all, she had me, and as any mother knows, pushing a nearly 9-lb baby body out is certainly no walk in the park.

And so my mom has chosen to do as her family and doctors wished, and to continue her fight, despite the suffering. Suffering which thankfully will be mitigated at least in the short term by morphine. But what if she dies in the hospital? As just a number. Around strangers. In a room without fresh air. Is this the way to go? But she is not in any pain.

The point is that like the Rocky song, there  really is no easy way out. Change is often rough. You never know if it is your time until you jump. And sometimes the promptings of the inner voice can be drowned out by the wishes of others.

What lies ahead for my mom, for me? I don't know. There is no obvious next step. But whatever happens, the time is always right. There exists a cosmic order, a divine intelligence, which, working unseen, perfectly orchestrates all of life's great dramas. There was no obvious next step for Al Gore when he exited the White House in 2001. But he had faith that it would all turn out okay. And 15 years later he is a hugely successful businessman, who during this time having also won an Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize, is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

So every cloud has its silver lining, although my mother prefers gold. And faith is a good thing.

Friday, October 23, 2015

ON SNOWFLAKES AND OTHER STUFF

Recently I had to accompany my mother to the emergency room at her oncologist's request. She hadn't had a normal bowel movement in months and was so backed up she began vomiting her meals. The specialists found an obstruction in her colon and, similar to what is done in a patient with a coronary blockage, they placed a stent. My mother was in the hospital for 8 days. After discharge, she was able to relieve herself for two days. Then she was constipated all over again, despite hourly enemas and laxatives!

And so it was another trip to the hospital. Her colon has ruptured, they said. It is a surgical emergency. And so the surgeons open up her belly and remove the stent. They don't touch the cancer that caused the obstruction since it's too risky given her weakened condition, and they create a diverting colostomy. In essence, my mother's feces now drains through a hole in her stomach. She will probably be in the hospital recovering for a week. She said after the procedure that she feels "a thousand times better." Thank God for morphine, I wanted to say, but why kill her buzz? A steady stream of loved ones extend their sympathy and kindness. My aunt wants to visit and asks about my mother's prognosis. How will she fare in the forthcoming days/weeks/months?

I told my aunt that it’s hard to predict based on her particular condition. A 60-year-old who is otherwise healthy and undergoes a similar procedure (diverting colostomy) for say polyps or diverticulitis can have decades. A 70-year-old woman with stage 4 cancer who has had cancer for 21 years and has been weakened by the last 5 years of chemotherapy, you just hope for her to survive the procedure (which she  did) and to get out of the hospital alive. Any more is icing on the cake. That may seem pessimistic.  

An optimist would hope for years of living a somewhat normal life - with a bag. Some surgeons say they may be able to go in later and reattach the colon – that is when they get around to removing the cancerous portion which is still in her. A realist would call all this optimistic and deem months of relatively pain-free living a comforting and hopefully comfortable closure to a long and fulfilling life.


The thing in this modern age is with new treatments we are extending the lives of people with cancer more than ever, bringing out new faces in the disease and entering uncharted territory. A woman with my mom’s particular cancer (of the breast) and location of metastases  (to lung, bone, now colon) under the same chemotherapy regimen who has had her procedures (chemo, radiation, lumpectomy, lymph node removal, several pleural fluid drainages, now abdominal surgery) is one in several billion. A population of one. In the poetic sense, she is a snowflake that way.

But the poet in me remembers that all snowflakes must return to the snow, and for me it is less about prolonging my mom's life (which also may prolong her pain) and more about easing her transition to the other side. The step we all must take, into the great beyond. It's easy to talk the talk, that All is One whose nature is Love. Living this truth, that we are beyond birth and death, and our essence is immortal, is where it gets interesting. But isn't that the point of life, to put your money where your mouth is, to walk the walk? It’s a hard-line stance but someone must do it! I just try to be gentle and tender as can be.




Tuesday, October 20, 2015

YOU ARE INVINCIBLE!

In the movie Indecent Proposal, a billionaire businessman played by Robert Redford propositions Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore's young couple, whom he meets at a casino. Let me have your wife, Diana, for the night, he tells Woody's David, and I will pay you a lot of money. David and Diana are confident in the strength of their love, which they believe nothing can tear asunder, certainly not the lustful power of this older man. Even if he is Robert Redford! So they agree. Diana allows herself to be wooed, David feels threatened, and the promising pair breaks up. Time passes, and the courtship between the young hottie and rich older man fades. Demi's Diana and her David try to make it work. David says, "Losing Diana is like losing a part of me. I thought nothing could change the way we felt about each other. I thought we were invincible."

Which leads to the movie's most memorable quote. "Someone once said," says Diana, "'If you want something very badly, set it free. If it comes back to you, it's yours forever. If it doesn't, it was never yours to begin with. '"

We find a version of Demi's line in Sting's hit song, "If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free." We find also that freedom has been a hot topic not only in relationships but in all the world's major religions. And there is a time in each of our lives when we ask the question of all question: Is the soul free? And funnily enough, Demi's logic, that you cannot achieve what is not already yours forever, applies.

The philosopher Vivekananda once gave a talk on the subject of the soul's freedom. This was in London, 1896. In his talk he discusses the world religions - Hebrew, Islamic, Christian and Buddhist - all of which maintain that the original nature of the human being is perfect. That at the time of the fall (thanks Adam!), this nature is lost though ignorance and sin, but that purity and perfection can be regained, whether in Buddha's Nirvana, or through Christ. The difference in each system is how the individual is to go about regaining what she has lost. So one person performs rituals, while another worships a personal god, and another prays or practices good works. But the oldest system, which is also the most universal, (and of which Vivekananda himself was a staunch proponent), says this: "We are pure already, we are already free. If you think you are free, you are free this very moment; if you believe you are bound, then bound you shall be."

Vivekananda makes a sound argument for why this is the case. "If freedom is not your nature," he says, "by no manner of means can you become free. Or if you were free and in some way you lost that freedom, then you were not free to begin with." In other words, if you believe that you can achieve freedom in life, and that means freedom from all outward constraints, even death, then it is inevitable that your nature is already free, since freedom is independence of anything outside, and so there is nothing outside you that could give you what you lack (because you lack nothing) or take from you what you have.

The truth of all truths is that you are not bound, weak, or helpless. You are perfectly free. It is only thinking otherwise that is dangerous, since by believing in your imperfection and mortality you "rivet one more chain upon yourself." It does not mean that your body will no longer feel hunger or thirst, or that you will not die; but rather, who you are is much greater than this body with its limitations. Who you are is beyond time and space, beyond birth and death. Realize this, and you access your true nature. You are invincible!

Vivekananda closes with these words: "The time will come when we shall look back, each one of us, and smile at every one of those superstitions which covered the pure and eternal Soul, and repeat with gladness, with truth, and with strength: 'I am free, and was free, and always will be free."

At the end of the movie Demi and Woody get married. Now go see about your happy ending.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

DYING IN YOUR DREAM


Have you ever committed suicide in your sleep? I did just last night. Well, sort of.

In my dream I had returned to the restaurant where I used to wait tables back in high school. Louise's Trattoria in Beverly Hills is now out of business. I think they made it a Gap. But back in the early 90s it was hopping. In the dream I was once again a food server, and my former coworkers were still serving up sides of spaghetti Bolognese. Paige was there. I always thought she was a beauty. I wonder whatever happened to her? We touched cheeks in a sort of kiss. She was always theatrical that way.

I got the job (in the dream) on a part-time basis as a chance to interact with people, occupy my mind, distract myself (from what, I am not sure - maybe from the business of dreaming!) but soon I began to wonder whether I hadn't bitten off more than I could chew. The place was jam-packed. And I couldn't remember my section. Repeatedly I needed to consult the table chart, forgetting which tables were mine almost before I had looked away. And there were the disgruntled clientele. Divas, the lot of 'em. After all it is Beverly Hills. I wanted tofurky, not ground beef, complained one lady, mistaking me for her busboy. Another table applauded me for having the patience to get all their orders right. I walked away without remembering to write anything down. Suddenly, I was "swamped" in server's parlance. My coworkers assumed some of my duties, and I theirs. I went to the computer to put in an order and forgot my server ID. Then I left a check at the counter, and a cook walks away with it.

I begin to feel really stressed out. I'm over this, I say to myself. And I wake up, just like that.

Now, did I arise from my slumber feeling guilty that I had escaped my problems? Of course not. It was only a dream. Make-believe. In a way I had just committed suicide, since I could have gone on slogging through problems in my dream job that had become a nightmare. So it is or may be with waking life. The mind places constraints on our actions, morality tells us that life is sacred, and not to take our own. What is sacred is the awareness in which life forms appear, and awareness can't be killed, for it is eternal. That's probably why I was able to walk away from medical doctoring without any guilt.

So here's to killing yourself, Kid. Slay the mind which doubts and feels guilt. But I would never take my life in my waking dream called life. Because I so want to learn how it all turns out!

Maybe I had the dream since California's Governor Brown just legalized assisted suicide in our state.  It's possible. Because there are no end to possibilities, until you stop thinking. Though for some, and sometimes for me, thinking is half the fun.

But really, dying in your dream is just another name for waking up.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

PERSONALITY TYPES AND OUTLOOK ON LIFE

There are three types of people. The first is outward directed. He is like an antenna gathering stimuli in the form of sights and sounds, which have little or no impressions. Because this person hardly thinks. He is your man of the world, exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The second type is preoccupied with his inner life, with thoughts and worries and hopes and fears and anxieties and dreams. He is bookish, introverted, can be squeamish. Woody Allen is a good example. These two personalities, being opposites, often attract each other. Arnold loves Woody's films.

The third type of individual is aware of things both outer and inner. He watches life unfold, is cognizant of the effects sensory perceptions have on his thoughts, and the feelings engendered by the thoughts. But he identifies with neither external events or internal impressions as being real. He merely watches events unfold, fixed as the witness, in the awareness that as the 18th century Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley might say, without a consciousness to experience things, those things don't exist.

This individual, typified by the many holy personages that have graced our planet since the birth of recorded history and including Buddha, Christ, and other mystical founders of religions, represents the culmination of the other two types, the highest octave of humanity, and the one we all at some point strive to be. For it is this individual that is not so caught up with the turmoil of his own inner life, or the phantasmagoria of sensations imposing on his mind so that he has occasion and interest to consider the nature of existence, and the purpose of the world.


There are three world views, three arguments for the purpose of life. The first is that the universe exists for enjoyment, as a sort of game or challenge or adventure, and God enters into the world as individual selves where as actors or players who may not know how things will turn out plays the game, and isn't this assumed ignorance part of the fun? Do you really want to know how a movie ends before buying your ticket?

The second world view is that the purpose of life is to realize the divinity dwelling within. Suffering has its purpose to turn the mind away from the world and into the indwelling consciousness, whose nature is bliss.

Finally, some say the universe as emanation of the Self exists because it is in the nature of the unmanifest Reality to manifest in a world of shapes and forms, just as it is in the nature of water to flow, air to blow, and the mind to dream.

Whatever view you adopt, there are only two ways of living this play of life, from the lower self (exemplified by the first two personality types) or from the higher. If you come from the human you sway back and fro, from pain and towards pleasure, and you engage in relationships seeking to meet certain needs and desires from others. But if you identify with the divine within you, you transcend the human condition, and, fixed in love that knows no object but flows as an outgrowth of your being, you achieve your birthright, which is bliss.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

THE QUIET MIND


The mind is an outgrowth of the infinite, an appendage of the Self. Its function is to know thy Self, which as pure awareness is without self-knowledge. For Beingness simply IS. How to know itself but by creating a mirror in which it is reflected?

Man is made in the image of God. The mind, unique to man, is this mirror, in which is reflected the divine consciousness. But the universe, the manifest world, is also an aspect of the Self. Too often, the mind's attention is turned and even confined to external events. To people, and places, and even thoughts which people and places give rise to, and the feelings the thoughts engender. And soon the mind spends its time dwelling on past events or anticipating the future. And this is fine. For a time. The mind is an organ of experience. And experience is part of the human condition.

But never lose sight of its true purpose, which is to turn inward and commune with, harmonize with, reflect and examine the Self in its pure, infinite, changeless perfection. And thereby the mind is perfected. Meditation achieves merging of the self (mind) with the Self (infinite spirit). By requiring that we set aside a few moments of quiet and stillness we achieve the habit of turning the attention inward and reflecting the stillness within by becoming still.

This is Self realization. This is life's ultimate goal.

Follow the Master (turn inwards and attend to the immanent Self)
Face the devil (of lusts and sensuality which forever bedevil the mind and occupy the attention)
Fight to the end (still the mind)
Finish the game. (be realized)

This is all you need to do.

Friday, October 2, 2015

YOU ARE NOT WHO YOU THINK YOU ARE


The other day my father called to ask if I could locate a certain book. So I searched among those filling the bookcase which used to be his when he was married to my mother. He had been a student of Sanskrit in the years surrounding my birth - I'm talking the early 70's - and during this time had read and reread the Bhagavad Gita, that central text of Hinduism, both in English and Sanskrit. He would become a collector of  various versions, having by the time of my younger brother's birth amassed some dozen or so copies.

The Gita's plot takes the form of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and the warrior Arjuna. Krishna, serving as Arjuna's charioteer, counsels the dismayed soldier, who is reluctant about entering the battle, since on one side he encounters his family, and on the other the men he considers his friends. Entering the fray on either side means slaying those he loves. Krishna preaches dispassionate action, and tells Arjuna to do his duty, which as a warrior is to fight, but to do so without mind to the fruits of his actions, i.e. the consequences. It doesn't matter who is victorious, says Krishna, because who you really are is deathless spirit, which survives the body's demise.

To paraphrase: "You are not born, nor do you die; nor having been, cease any more to be; unborn, perpetual, eternal and ancient, you are not slain when the body is slaughtered."

So Arjuna fights. This message was especially relevant to my father when he first read it, since at the time he was a successful attorney making a lot of money off of other people's problems. He then "became spiritual" and wished to renounce this profession and perhaps take up the hermit's ochre robe and retire to some desolate cave. But the Gita revealed to him that his duty was to ply his profession, and persist in the duties of householder. Luckily for his infant son, since otherwise I'd have been without a father. The message of the Gita is timeless. And indeed the battle around which the story centers, the Kurukshetra War, took place over 5000 years ago, almost before recorded history and therefore in a sense it is out of time.

"This dweller in the body of everyone is ever invulnerable," says Krishna. So, "taking as equal pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat, gird yourself for the battle (of life)."

But I do think the application of this timeless truth needs to be reworked a bit for the current age. And why not? Holy personages adopt roles to suit the time and place of their birth. Christ lived among Jews, was a Jew himself, and yet he extended the traditional doctrine and widened its appeal, evolving it to suit the times, and from his words sprang a whole new religious system.

We live in an era in which Lord Krishna would not need to urge the individual to fight. Wars are all over the place. Before every sporting event we are thanking the military. Soldiers are often the ones singing our national anthem. Patriotism has become mingled with a fighting spirit. Billions of dollars goes to the defense budget, and in the opinion of many we are on the precipice of nuclear war. Do we really need to be urging people to fight? Perhaps what this age calls for is a cease fire. Let us desist from fighting and practice nonviolence. Practice Gandhi's ahimsa. Gandhi lived this message, and then was shot to death at point-blank range. God must really be a joker. Speaking of God, Gandhi purportedly died with God's name (Ram) on his lips. Good for him, since as is stated in the Gita: "Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain." So he became God. Which he already was. Let's not overthink this.

Searching for the Annie Besant translation of the Gita as instructed, I came upon several other editions. And when I noted the names of the translators of these books I couldn't help but smile. There were two by Swami Prabhupada. One by Swami Chidbhavananda. Another by Swami Swarupananda. And another by Swami Chinmayananda. Let's not forget the version translated by Swami Prabhavananda. And the commentaries by Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, as well as numerous references by Yogananda. These are all assumed names. And I understand why the sages adopt new handles, which they do either at the insistence of their disciples or because it just feels right. Really it is to sever identity with the circumstances of one's birth, and the roles that follow one through life, of child, sibling - I would say parent, but more often than not these Godly-minded don't have kids.

Siddhartha became Buddha. Jesus became the Christ. Maruti Shivrampant Kambli became Nisargadatta Maharaj. Venkataraman Iyer became Ramana Maharshi. Steven Gray became Adyashanti. Richard Alpert became Ram Dass. And lest I be accused of chauvinism: Malti Shetty became Gurumayi.

For these individuals, and many many others, including thousands of monks, nuns and priests who are unknown to the public, and others who are (Mother Teresa was once AnjezĂ« Gonxhe Bojaxhiu - try pronouncing that!) the name change served to remind others, perhaps even themselves, of their renunciation of the past and of the circumstances of their birth; that they had transcended traditional roles and became rooted in "invulnerable" spirit. It was a symbol of a spiritual rebirth. And this is one we all should take. Catholics already do, being baptized. Jews too, with their Mitzvahs.

For as Shankaracharya (nee Adi Shankara) writes: "Who is your wife and who is your son? This World is exceedingly strange. Whose child are you? Who are you? And Whence? Bethink yourself of the Truth, the Reality of this, O deluded one."

Human birth rightly viewed is a springboard to the divine. But too often we remain stuck and wallow in our messy humanity. One spiritual teacher (Sai Baba, formerly Sathya Narayana Raju) said there are four levels of consciousness. The demonic, the animal, the human, and the divine. The demon engages in hurtful acts for the sake of pleasure. The animal exists to gratify the senses. The human loves conditionally, in a "now what can you do for me" kind of way. Whereas the divine consciousness is characterized by unconditional love which flows freely, as from one's true nature. The divine is your birthright! If it helps to love all by changing your name so that you recognize everyone as your mother, child and sibling, then you are a recent addition to a list both lengthy and distinguished. So call me Swami Adamananda. If only I could say it with a straight face. Hell, not everyone changes his name. Mahatma Gandhi was after all born Mohandas Gandhi. So I'll just stick with Adam.

I never found dad's Gita. But it sure was worth the search.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

BE DESIRELESS


My father, who is now 76, became a follower of the holy personage Sathya Sai Baba in his early 30s. As a young lad, dad used to have intensely philosophical discussions with a schoolmate of his, a man by the name of Michael. Michael is also my father's name. Sitting around in their back yards gazing up at the twinkling firmament, they pondered the nature of existence, discussed their readings of metaphysical texts, and finally agreed that the purpose of life was to find God. That is, if God existed; if not, at least undertake the search.

My father's friend resolved to make the God-quest his primary mission, and to get started immediately; my father was a bit more skeptical. God may not exist, he posited (you can see the budding atheist in him even as a boy of 13). But he knew that if he worked hard he could achieve worldly success. So he would devote himself to his career, and thenceforth become spiritual.

Cut to years later. My father, a successful attorney and night-club owner, has a client, a Greek woman by the name of Jenny, who tells him about Sai Baba. Impelled by irresistible curiosity coupled with some latent urge, he reads some books, and then visits the ashram in India where he meets the holy man face-to-face, and his life is changed. He becomes a vegetarian, gives up much of his high-powered practice, and preaches the sacred word, which can be patly summarized in the adages: "Love all, serve all." And, "Help ever, hurt never." Finally, my favorite: "You and I are God. The difference between you and me is that I know it."

By this time my father's friend of the same name was a disenchanted medical doctor who was self-prescribing pills. His spiritual search having proven futile, he resolved to attain nirvana via modern medicine. Specifically by injecting liquid morphine into his femoral vein. While he recovered in a hospital, my father visited him and gifted him a book about Sai Baba's life. Michael experienced an instant conversion, miraculously improved, gave up drugs, and went on to become Swami's right-hand man. In the four decades that followed leading up to Sai Baba's exit from his body, Michael probably visited the ashram 100 times. More than perhaps any other Westerner, his visits were filled with first-hand encounters with the guru. Even my father was not so fortunate. On dad's last trip, Sai Baba asked for him, but in the 10 days of his visit, never so much as addressed him by name. Maybe he was no longer the black sheep. Only the squeaky wheel needs grease. Always squeaky, Michael often had the privilege of asking Swami questions that other disciples never got close enough to pose, or if they did, only were able to in the form of written queries. Whether these letters ever received answers I do not know; though the answers may have come indirectly. As Swami said, "Universe is university."

On one occasion, Michael asked Sai Baba: "Swami, my wish is to see the world through your divine eyes."

Sai Baba's response. "If I did," he said. "You would not want your wife, you would not want your career, you would care about your reputation or social standing. You would want nothing."

What exactly did Sai Baba mean by these rather cryptic words? He did not give an interpretation, so it is up to us to speculate. Central to Hinduism is the notion of desirelessnes. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna extols the path of nishkama karma, or dispassionate action. Working without a mind to the results of your labors. Being selfless. Not seeking to gratify yourself through your daily endeavors but rather to improve the lot of others. This is what it means to be detached. For desirelessness, taught Krishna, is the root of all woe, anxiety, strife, sadness. All the things that make up the human condition. Be desireless, let your action be detached, and your work becomes worship, and you are liberated while in life.

Swami was telling Michael that he had no desire. He was speaking as Divinity, as a representative of God in man. Like Christ when Christ said, "I and the Father are one." This is the highest aim that a human can hope to attain.

Imagine a life that has no desire. What freedom! Because our urges and attachments come to rule us. What you own ends up owning you, as they say. Swami had no desires. Devotees would offer him huge sums of money. "I have no need for money," he would say. "But the village needs a hospital. Build one." And it got built. He went around barefoot in a robe. So what if he resided in a splenid edifice (which his disciples built) and was driven around in a Mercedes. He had to get along somehow. Style is no sin. And anyway, his destination was always the place of somebody in need.

This life of desirelessnes is likely why many saints and sages never had spouses or children, never owned homes or drove fancy cars. A worldly existence filled with riches seems to be at odds with the life of the spirit, for you must want fine things to strive to accumulate them. And this speaks to where your attention lies. Being desireless you become like Krishna's flute, an instrument of divinity free of obstruction, and the sweetest of melodies plays through you in the form of unconditional love. This is the highest service.

But even if you adopt the path of desirelessness later in life, once you are one of the "haves," it does not mean you must give it all away to charity, renounce your spouse and live as a hermit. Remember, the renunciate who considers himself a renunciate is not a renunciate. It is the householder who refuses to regard himself as a householder who is the true renunciate. For then you have renounced identification with roles, and free of desires you are not bound by your particular circumstances or station in life. And you can still drive around in your Mercedes.