If you are unfamiliar with the Avadhut Gita, you may peruse it here.
So last weekend I said I would try to get through the next few steps of my life without my spiritual practice.
This was kind of an odd thing to do, given that for the last year and a half, my spiritual practice has consistently provided me with a sense of peace, contentment and joy even through the drama of my everyday life. But suddenly, I wanted to see how life would look without being mindful. I’d begun to worry that my spirituality had become an existential crutch.
Perhaps at this point it would help to briefly explain what my spiritual “practice” looks like. Generally, I’m not big on practices. I don’t like rigid routines and rules. My approach to practice is in fact less about what I “do” and more about my on-going state of conscious awareness. Rather than meditating at particular times, I’ve aimed to live in meditation and cultivate stillness. I use techniques such as self-inquiry (Advaita Vedanta), conscious breathing and the intense experience of sense perception (e.g. focusing on the sensation of touch, the pre-conceptual experience of vision, the inner silence brought on by acute listening) to “remind” my “mind” of its own non-existence and align my attention with the All-There-Is. In addition to these practices, I would read spiritual texts and watch related videos on a semi constant basis.
Anyway, over the past week, I stopped watching videos and for the most part stopped reading spiritual texts. I dropped the intentional practice of self-inquiry. I dropped most of my techniques of mindfulness. And I generally went back to what I call conventional living. While I was aware of my emotions and my inner state, I did not take the second step of being aware of my awareness. It is this second step which allows for de-identification from the mind.
During this week-long experiment, I consciously allowed myself to identify with the mind – for the first time in over a year.
So what were the results? Well, it was basically a disaster. I found myself immediately plunged into the depths of despair. Not because my life was objectively worse, but because I began to take my mind’s egoic tormenting seriously. Mindfulness allows me to fully experience my emotions and thoughts, but also to know that I am not defined by them. During my mindless experiment, I felt the sting of my mind’s critical and fearful thoughts. And it stung like a m..fucker. I felt small. Mindfulness had allowed me to live beyond the confines of my egoic “self” and to identify with the expansiveness of the Universe. But living as a ‘person’ again meant defining myself as an individual entity, with individual fears, hopes and dreams. I felt small and anxious – like I had to defend my own turf. It sucked.
Now, in the interests of science, I should probably tell you that I was PMS’ing this week. Therefore, we are unable to know whether the depths of despair I’ve just described were brought on by my conscious mindlessness or by my spiked hormone levels. I’m inclined to think it was a little of both . . .
* * *
I have the great fortune of having a wonderful therapist I’ve been seeing for almost a year and a half. Did I mention that he’s Asian? Yes, I, Dr. Black Woman, have an Asian male therapist. Anyway, he’s awesome. And what’s particularly awesome about him is that he works with other academics and is deeply familiar with the demands of “the profession”. The best thing about him, though, is that he’s very supportive of my spirituality. And his therapeutic approach, which is grounded in mindfulness, has been very compatible with nonduality. He doesn’t seem to know much about Buddha or Mooji, or if he does, he skillfully feigns ignorance, but when I talk about their teachings, he is able to reframe them in a way that highlights the compatibility of ‘spiritual’ and therapeutic approaches to well-being and awareness.
I used to feel more self conscious about having a therapist, until I found out that almost everyone I know in academia also has a therapist . . . or is on antidepressants . . . or both. Just the other day, another colleague told me that a good therapist helped them manage the stress of the tenure process.
[Interlude. We’re now in my weekly therapy session. ]
Me: So I decided to give up my spiritual practice for a week. I stopped trying to be mindful, stopped reading books, watching videos, everything.
Therapist: And how did that go?
Me: Terrible. I’ve just been incredibly sad, which is unusual. I’ve been really good at managing my emotional life over the last year in large part due to my meditation practice. Mindfulness has really be instrumental in helping me dis-identify with my emotional states.
Therapist: But mindfulness is also about acceptance. You don’t want to negate how you feel. There’s a logic to your feelings.
Me: I know, and you’re right. But my way of being mindful is to fully accept and experience whatever comes up, but also to take that second step of awareness that involves knowing that I am not my emotions. I am not my thoughts. And just that step alone brings me such great peace. Maybe there’s some negation going on that I haven’t explored. I’ll have to give it more thought. I usually don’t try to analyze my feelings as I’m experiencing them. I might talk about them with a friend at some point, or sometimes on my blog or here with you, but otherwise, I try not to delve too deeply into the logic. My peace of mind comes from knowing that I’m not defined by the logic — that there’s an observer. Does that make sense? Do you kind of get it?
Therapist: Yes. I get it. You know, one year is not that long to practice mindfulness. You want it to become second nature.
Me: You’re right. I hadn’t thought about it that way. One year isn’t very long.
Therapist: It takes time, right?
Me: Yes. I guess it does. But I also feel like it was becoming my second nature — it’s the way I’ve been living on a regular basis and it’s brought me great peace. I just started to feel like I was, perhaps, overly dependent on my spirituality.
Therapist: So what are you going to do?
Me: I’m going to go back to my spiritual practice. I suppose I just wanted to see what would happen if I took a break and went back to how I used to live. I gave it a try and I don’t like it. At all.
* * *
What was so surreal about all of this is that I knew that I could end my suffering instantaneously. I knew that I could simply choose to “see” the truth at any moment – that I could take that second step of dis-identifying with mind. But I chose not to. Instead, I deliberately sat in the hell of my mind’s illusions. I chose self-immolation – but I didn’t let the fire actually burn the “self”. I let the small “I” – the personality – survive and even thrive in the flames. I kept it hooked up to an oxygen tube. I refused to take it off of life support. And even more bizarrely, I felt bad about wanting to put it out of its misery. I found myself worried that wanting to wake the mind up from its illusions was a form of escapism – as if the hell of living life egoically as a ‘person’ was the higher, more auspicious road. It made no logical sense, but of course it was the mind’s way of encouraging resistance to awakening – of urging me to allow the dream to carry on, while knowing that I could choose to wake up from the nightmare at any moment.
Anyway, all this to say: I’m going back to conscious mindfulness, spiritual practice and yes, even back to my beloved Mooji. The fact of the matter is that I do want to escape samsara and illusion and the unreal. I’ll keep my crutches until they fall away on their own. And today, those crutches include Midol. Lots of Midol.
..and Nisargadatta Maharaj and Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hanh and the Bhagavad Gita.
For the time being anyway.
After a year and a half of fairly intense seeking and transformation, I’m going on a spiritual diet. The realization of my oneness with the Absolute has been beautifully assisted by these teachings & teachers.. but enough is enough. At this point I am reading and hearing the same things over and over again. Now I simply want to live it. No guided meditations or videos or texts. No more crutches. Just this moment and the direct experience of the Divine.
Like my veganish, rawish, gluten-freeish eating experiment, I’m doing this without a set timetable or goal.
It’s become clear that all this spiritualizing is holding something up. What, I am not entirely sure. But I know I need to go these next few steps alone. As Presence.
“One has to work in the world; naturally, carry on your worldly affairs, but understand that which has come about by itself -that is, this body, mind and consciousness–has appeared in spite of the fact that nobody has asked for it. I did not ask for it; it has come upon me in my original state which is timeless, spaceless, and without attributes. So that whatever has happened is doing this business in the world. The life force and the mind are operating, but the mind will tempt you to believe that it is “you.” Therefore, understand always that you are the timeless, spaceless witness. And even if the mind tells you that you are the one who is acting, don’t believe the mind. Always keep your identity separate from that which is doing the working, thinking and talking.” –
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, “The Ultimate Medicine: Dialogues with a Realized Master”
* * *
This is the fourth in a 12 week series of essays on doing academic work from a nondual, spiritual perspective. The idea is to open up a new conversation about academia and the ego. Most Sundays, I’ll share my reflections on a variety of topics related to writing, researching, teaching and mentoring in the light of teachings from Hinduism, Buddhism and Christian mysticism as well as my own experiences.
My life is not quite turning out as I thought it would. Prioritizing my spirituality wasn’t really at the top of my agenda when I finished graduate school a year and a half ago. I had a conventional idea of success. After the Ph.D., I thought I would singlemindedly focus my energies on research, publications, gaining my colleagues’ respect, perhaps even starting a family. I wanted to leave my humble mark on the world, gain recognition, make my mother proud, be a “credit to the race”, give back to my communities, build some wealth, win some prizes, become a prominent sociologist and a public intellectual. Oh yeah, and a wife and maybe a mother and blah blah blah.
And to a certain extent, some things have gone according to plan. I landed a fab job in a supportive department. I’ve won some prizes – most recently the APSA’s Georges-Lavau award for the best dissertation on contemporary French politics. I have had a steady publication record. My research program has developed. I’m not a total disaster.
And yet, I never anticipated that I would have an encounter with God that would swallow me -and my ambitions- whole. I always wanted to be “somebody” — I did not know I would come to recognize my self as Timeless Being.. that I would come to know that I am literally no “body”.
Living as “Timeless Being” is quite at odds with most everyone’s idea of the tenure-track. Junior faculty are almost always future-oriented — preoccupied with establishing a professional reputation and securing semi-permanent employment. Increasingly, I have found myself struggling to reconcile these two very different ways of viewing life — one anchored in the present-moment, one tied to a professional future.
Along the way, I’ve felt at turns liberated and appalled by two paradoxical sentiments. On the one hand, I feel liberated as I’ve come to care more about my spiritual life than anything else. On the other hand, I’ve been appalled to see that my ego still worries and despairs over the fate of my professional life — not to mention my material existence. I worry over what the future holds if I really surrender to the full embrace of my spiritual path. What will happen to me if I really offer up everything — the fate of my work, my projects, my income — to the Supreme? My inner wisdom knows that I have nothing to fear. And yet, the old egoic grasping, the doubts arise. To my chagrin, my attachment to professional success continues to manifest in my experience. Are these lingering ambitions standing in the way of my full reliance on God?
This fundamental question — of how to live in the world as your worldly desires wane — is quite common for people on a whole variety of spiritual paths. Mooji has a great teaching on this topic that you can check out here. His basic insight – echoed in the quote by Nisargadatta above – is that, despite appearances to the contrary, we are not the “operators” of our own lives. The sense of doership is itself an illusion. (This is a tricky subject, given the emphasis I place on agency in my social theorizing – a topic for another day). In any case, the basic teaching of nonduality (that we are one with all there is) asserts that Consciousness/God – indeed, the entire Universe – acts through ‘us’. Fully realizing this truth requires giving up all of our concerns – including our need to know how the future will work out – to the Supreme. It means realizing that personal ambitions are the egoic projections of the mind — they do not define who we really are. From this perspective, what ultimately matters is surrendering to God’s divine will, allowing the flow of life to have its way with us, as Spirit sees fit.
It’s a terribly frightening predicament for the ego — the small ‘self’ — because it frets over how to provide for our material existence, how to strategize for success. But the ego-mind doesn’t exist (Mooji likes to say that “the ego is a ghost afraid of dying”) and since it doesn’t exist, it obviously is not in control of our lives. And if it isn’t in control, what is? Ah.. the Beingness. God Herself. So the process is one of allowing egoic ambitions, striving & anxieties to increasingly give way to faith & total reliance on the All-There-Is. And the vexing truth is that this is not something one can try to do — it simply happens naturally in the process of awakening.
So where does that leave me? I haven’t the faintest idea. But, I wanted to share these ruminations with you, as this is the primary concern I face at intersection of my professional life and my spiritual practice. These days, my intention is to simply allow Consciousness to guide me in whatever direction It sees fit. We’ll see how it goes.
Here’s Mooji explaining in a very subtle and lovely way what happens when we observe the ego:
I really love, in particular, how he points out that any observation of the ego that is interested (not indifferent) is still the ego.
Eckhart Tolle on the difference between the “real” I and the fake (egoic) “I”:
I didn’t hear about the movie theater attack in Aurora until two days after it happened. I had been traveling – and, thankfully – am almost totally unplugged from the Media Industrial Complex. I quit social media (Facebook) last December after having spent nearly 8 years living through the minutiae of everyday life as well as the mania spurred on by various “tragedies” with 600 of my best friends.
Of course my heart goes out to the families and loved ones of those who were hurt and killed in Aurora. My heart also goes out to the approximately 80 people killed each day in the United States from gun related violence. Beyond our borders, there are hundreds, if not thousands of others, who die from gun-inflicted wounds every single day in civilian and war-related killing. To their numbers, we must add everyone else who experiences suffering from other types of violence every minute of every day.
I mention these countless other cases of suffering and violence not for the purpose of minimizing what happened in Aurora, but rather for the purpose of drawing attention to the arbitrariness of the hysteria that surrounds certain events. When we take a step back, a familiar pattern emerges: (1) a certain case of violence somehow garners attention and 24/7 news coverage in the media (2) lots of everyday people, talking heads, politicians, intellectuals, religious leaders, etc. pontificate with great moral outrage about the ills of our society (3) touching memorials take place as people commemorate the victims (4) feelings of fear, dread, sadness, nihilism, anxiety and anger overcome the populace.
To the extent that such mass attention might raise consciousness about the costs of our current gun policies and the representations of violence and dehumanization that characterize so much of our popular culture, there is much good that can come from greater awareness of these issues. And yet, there are many disturbing things about the obsessive attention and collective angst wrought by events like Aurora:
(1) The attention is always short lived. It will reach its peak and then slowly dissipate. At some point in the near future, no news outlet will report anything related to Aurora on any given day. And, on the unknown future date, most people will not think about any of the victims. In other words, life will return to “normal”.
(2) Many people who express moral outrage rarely use these occasions as an opportunity to put their principles into action in their own lives. Instead, they have very detailed opinions about how other people should change without realizing that positive change concretely depends on how we all live our lives on an on-going basis. That means that if I want a society that values the dignity of all living beings, then I need to take stock of the choices I make in my life in addition to calling my congresswo(man).
(3) The mass hysteria produced by media-driven coverage of tragic events is inherently arbitrary. That is to say: the event(s) that come to occupy the collective conscious are always a mere subset of a much larger sample of horrific happenings.
So, what to make of Aurora? Or the Trayvon Martin case? Or the Giffords shooting? Or any other tragedy that captures the public’s imagination? I have a few ideas.
(1) No loss of life is more important than any other other simply because CNN says so. There is nothing wrong with focusing on a tragic event if it spurs personal and collective action for the greater good. But such attention must extend to the countless cases of suffering that never make it to the airwaves or the twittersphere. In other words, we need to care about suffering broadly – not just in specific cases that seem to horrify or concern us.
(2) External violence derives from and pales in comparison to the “war within”.
Yes, reasonable people agree that our gun policies obviously need to be reformed and we should all do what we can to make decisions (political and otherwise) that reflect our esteem for human life and dignity. That said, there is no amount of other-directed protest, pontificating or policing can solve the core issue at the heart of violence. External suffering has internal sources. We harm each other physically because of internal limitations on our capacity for love, compassion and peaceful co-existence. I have sometimes remarked that people who decry violence need to ask themselves how realistic it is to expect people to treat others with respect and compassion when most people do not even love themselves! If you pay attention to your inner world (your thoughts, feelings and perceptions) on a daily basis, you will quickly learn how difficult it can be to maintain an attitude of love and compassion not only toward other people, but also toward yourself. Difficult circumstances and situations frequently arouse feelings of anger and fear for all of us on a daily basis. Learning how to achieve inner peace and happiness is the only way we can individually become agents of compassion, cooperation and love in our interactions with others. The war within needs our urgent attention, even as we take steps to address the war in our streets.
(3) Social media and mass media interfere with our ability to maintain equanimity and inner peace. Being informed about local, national and global events is important. I am not advocating burying our heads in the sand. But being continuously plugged into the Media Industrial Complex with its assortment of arbitrary news coverage, commercialized interests and biased representations is a recipe for moral decline, passivity and cultural manipulation. I was so grateful that I did not get wrapped up in the hype about Aurora on Facebook (since I no longer have an account) or through cable news (since I rarely watch it). Yes, I found out a few days after the fact and did follow the story with some interest, but because I came to the story rather than having it come to me, I was able to examine it from a place of calm reflection rather than media-manipulated fear and loathing.
(4) The most important thing any of us can do in response to such tragedies is to ask: How am I living? Before I prioritized my spiritual life, I found myself attracted to execrable popular culture like reality TV, violent action films and generally mindless material. Since the dawn of my spiritual “awakening” (for lack of a better word), I naturally found myself mostly reading about theology and philosophy and watching related media (i.e. Eckhart Tolle’s talks or Mooji’s videos) in my free time. I didn’t consciously try to avoid violent material, but I simply lost interest in it. There are some exceptions — I still love the “Matrix” films and have a slight addiction to Breaking Bad, but I try to watch these things consciously, in a way that strengthens – rather than weakens – my concern for the dignity of all living beings. Perhaps more on that in another post. All of this to say, change is possible and it begins with you.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t watch movies like the “Dark Knight Rises” – I don’t think external responses of that nature are the “answer”. To go on a “violent movie” boycott or to only militate for greater gun control (though we do need it) would be naive and shortsighted. Tragic events like Aurora remind me to pay attention to what’s going on in my world – in my thoughts and emotions. It heightens awareness of emotional and mental violence. The moment I feel myself thinking negatively about someone, I am reminded that such enmity – no matter how minor – is the seed from which all mistreatment and violence grows. How can I expect others to be more compassionate if I myself do not prioritize compassion and kindness? When I feel “pissed off or upset about anything, I use awareness of those emotions to bring me back into conscious recognition of my Self as the Presence of God rather than my “self” as the ego with its tote bag of delusions, petty interests and conditioning. This is why meditation and other practices that focus our attention on the present moment – on stillness – are so important. It is only from a place a inner peace and tranquility that we can come to regard each other with the respect, love and dignity that make external violence inconceivable.
What do you think? Is it possible to consume violent culture while also affirming the dignity of human life? Is there any real good that will come from the intense attention to the Aurora shooting? What can each of us do, individually and collectively, to respond to this event?
Every day . . . every single day . . . something happens in my life that shines light on some area in need of greater “realization of Self”. One of the “gifts” of awareness of one’s inner world is greater sensitivity to any and all unpleasant sensations. It is
always sometimes very uncomfortable to deeply engage these moments of tension, pain or stress, but looking unpleasantness in the eye is really the gift that keeps on giving. Because life is so full of suffering, we are never at a loss for opportunities to learn, stretch and grow in the throes of unpleasant feelings and situations. Somehow, if we’re lucky, we come to experience grace in the midst of suffering as we allow Life to show us how to more fully and deeply rise in consciousness of who we really are.
One of the frustrating and frankly embarrassing side effects of this “path” as I’m experiencing it is the inconsistency of the realization. While I have been living with a much higher “baseline” of peace, tranquility, joy, love and compassion, there are not-infrequent-occasions on which I still react/think/feel out of ego and the small “self”. On a certain level, I understand that being too invested in maintaining an ongoing experience of inner peace is just another game the ego plays . . . and yet . . . I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the embarrassment I sometimes feel about the limitations of my own ability to remain consciously aware of Presence. Yes, another ego game, and yet a peculiar one.
It can be a little disconcerting to have your friends and family use your own “wisdom” against you, so to speak,in an effort to show the error of your ways. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone tell me something along the lines of “Weren’t you just talking about unconditional love? What did you say about the ego? Didn’t you have a realization about inner peace a few minutes ago? Remember when you said . . . “
How sad is it to feel the impulse of selfless compassion in one moment, only to cede to the lure of egoic self interest in the next? How often have my friends and loved ones marveled with a mix of lurid fascination and pity as I regale them with tales of my enthusiastic spiritual practice only to later reveal the latest emotional melodrama from my love life or the hair-pulling-stress of my work?
And yet . . . how can it be otherwise? How many of us are fully realized? Who experiences total tranquility and perfect equanimity? I know of no one who has become immune to the dance of the ego and its tote bag of suffering. If there is any immunity, perhaps it is as Mooji and Eckhart Tolle teach of it: simply cultivating awareness of the dance, without attachment to or interest in its footsteps . . . like watching clouds build and dissipate on the canvas of the skies.
All of this to say: today I fucked up, knew I fucked up while I was fucking up, felt the ego’s call to identify with the fucked-up-ness, felt like crap for being so imperfect, then glimpsed the extraordinary, unchanging and unchangeable perfection within which all else arises — including ordinary, flawed ‘me’ .
I was led to the following teaching, entitled “A Love Story”, as I ruminated on these unpleasant feelings.
In this video, Mooji carries on an exchange with a man in satsang who feels that he has trouble “connecting with” God. He laments that: “I sometimes have the feeling that I am not in the right place or I don’t do the right decision.”
Some of my favorite bits from Mooji’s response:
“I don’t feel that God wants you to make right decisions . . . but more just [wants you] to be yourself. And at least, to see, there’s a saying, no? To err is to be human, or something like, the very nature of human ways is to make error. But also to be somewhat humble in our self, to see that we’re not so great. There is something in that. And something relaxes and opens up and makes possible an opportunity to see beneath the surface of our conditioning. And what you will discover will not frighten you. it will always make you realize that you’re much more a love story than you think.”
“God is not playing with you. God is playing as you.”
“Whatever caused you to be here is also taking care of you.”
“I don’t see anything in you less than what I’ve found in my own Self. And it’s not an achievement . . . it cannot be achieved. It can only reveal Itself, which is what it’s doing. And if we don’t cling to our attachments and dreams and fears and all these projections, you’ll come much more quickly into that seeing, because nothing is being withheld from you, you see? So whatever it is your heart longs to connect with or to make known or to be refreshed in, my feeling is, let’s find out what can possibly be in the way of that.”
“Even if you say you lost contact with the I Am, that cannot be true! The very I is the I Am in whose presence the sense of losing contact is felt and maybe momentarily believed in. You are the I Am, the very fact of your existence, the very fact of your perceiving is evidence that everything is issuing out of that I Am. It is the very seed of perceiving – that pulsation, that vibration of I Am . . . Maybe what you are saying is momentarily there is some distraction to some other things. But you’re going to come to see that even the feeling of distraction can only occur in consciousness and that consciousness is the I Am and you are that consciousness.”