When we think about spirituality we tend to think in terms of something invisible or abstract, of something hidden within or residing beyond the physical forms of the material world. And when we think of spiritual practice, we often think in terms of something that takes us to that invisible realm beyond the material world.
A common aspect of spiritual practice is to bring the invisible spiritual realm to the visible material world by rendering a conception of spirituality in a physical medium like stone or metal. The result can be a kind of materialized spirituality wherein the spiritual is reduced to the representational: objects that symbolize something intangible.
When we step outside of the abstract concepts, representational artifacts, and ritualistic practices of spirituality we might be tempted to think that conceptions of a transcendental truth and the practices designed to facilitate their realization are merely human inventions.
Curiously, the spiritual traditions that humans have presumably invented do not present themselves as human inventions. They present themselves as having transcendental rather than mundane origins. One may ask, ‘is it reasonable to assume that rational people who achieved an authentic insight into the human condition would lie to themselves and their followers about their own invention?’
The notion that transcendental knowledge and spiritual practices are human inventions is a very modern development. And because we are modern, educated people who accept being consigned to the narrow parameters of a purely physical reality we rarely, if ever, consider the possibility that a better way to make the spiritual visible is by changing our eyes, by developing spiritual vision.
I don’t mean this in an abstract or intellectualized way: I mean it literally. Our physical eyeballs are designed to see matter. If we want to see spirit we need spiritual eyeballs.
Think of it like technology: a material operating system, namely, a human body, is designed to see, hear, feel, touch, and taste matter. If the direct experience of spirituality is beyond the capabilities of a material operating system and we want to gain access to spiritual experiences then we need to upgrade to a spiritual operating system.
You may think that the ability to develop spiritual senses sounds like a far-fetched idea. In that case, you may want to consider that we already have access to metaphysical experiences. In fact, we value metaphysical things – like equality, justice, and love – far more than we value physical objects. If the metaphysical is higher than the physical then we can follow the breadcrumbs up the ladder to the spiritual.
Which brings us to the next objection: the assumption that the purpose of vertical transcendence, of a spirituality that takes us up a ladder, is to take us away from our lives in the material world. For those who care about the state of the world, an inward-turning spiritual practice that leaves the world behind in favor of solitary meditation seems unacceptably irresponsible, even callously selfish.
Does an inward-turning practice designed to upgrade our senses to a spiritual operating system negate social engagement or personal relationships? I don’t see any reason why it should. In fact, I see every reason to think just the opposite: that the spiritualization of experience would result in deepening both our commitment to social action and our engagement in personal relationships.
Why? Because when we see the spiritual nature of the material world then we’ll treat the world as a sacred being rather than an exploitable object. And when we see people as spiritual beings then we’ll feel a natural kinship with one another that transcends physical differences.
Our equality as human beings is not physical; it’s metaphysical or, to be more specific, it’s spiritual. It’s our common spirituality rather than our isolated physicality that makes deeper intimacy possible. Thus, a deeper spirituality is both vertical and horizontal, leading us simultaneously to a transcendent truth and a deeper personal connection to the world.
By contrast, a deeper materialism that dismisses the idea of spiritual experience as an illusory human invention leaves us with nothing but desolate matter. And that leaves our hearts empty. If being materialistic means loving the material then materialism is a sure-fire formula for unrequited love because matter can’t love you back.
The difference between spiritual and material is the difference between love and desire. Being materialistic means being excessively concerned with possessing pleasure-inducing material objects. It means thinking that matter is all there is and that matter is therefore the ultimate cause of every aspect of our experience, including the experience of love. Hence the metaphysical experience of love is reduced to an epiphenomenal by-product of physical processes: the love of robots.
What we hunger for is a higher love. If the best we can hope for is a deeper and more intimate connection to our fleeting and flawed material existence then the higher love we hunger for will remain hidden in an invisible realm beyond our reach. What we need is a deeper spirituality that will move us toward that higher love and toward one another.
The human body contains about 100 trillion cells, but only about 1 trillion of them are human cells, which is to say our cells. The other 99 trillion cells belong to all the bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that live in and on our bodies. That’s right: you’ve got 99 trillion other people living with you… in your body.
So we live in this body along with 99 trillion other living beings with whom we have a symbiotic relationship: we give them a place to live, and they help keep us alive. They’re not just carpetbaggers along for the ride: Those 99 trillion other living entities are busy keeping your body healthy. They extract vitamins and nutrients from your food and process the useless stuff so you can discard it. They teach your immune system how to recognize dangerous invaders and produce defensive chemicals to fight off those unwelcome interlopers… the list of what they do to help us goes on and on.
These microbes are usually our friends. But if, due to unhealthy habits, we disrupt the delicate ecosystems that microbes create in different parts of our bodies, a normally benign microorganism can become a malignant one. The irony, of course, is that when a malignant organism looses its sanity and destroys the body it calls home it destroys it’s own means of survival. Not very smart.
Strange as it may sound our existence is, in a way, defined by the presence of 99 trillion microbes living in and on our bodies. Similarly, the Earth is, in a way, defined by her in habitants; she herself, according to yoga philosophy, is a living organism populated by innumerable living entities. And we have the same kind of symbiotic relationship with her as microbes have with us: she gives us a place to live and we help keep her alive.
At least that’s what we do when we’re sane. Unfortunately, humanity has developed a malignant streak. Rather than being the grateful recipients of Earth’s bounty, we’ve come to think that we can and should exploit the Earth’s resources for the sake of economic development and gratuitous enjoyment, mindlessly destroying her delicate ecosystems in the process. The irony, of course, is that when a malignant organism destroys the body it calls home it destroys it’s own means of survival. Not very smart.
The Sanskrit phrase for smart people who do stupid things is mayayapahrta jnana: those whose knowledge has been stolen by illusion. The objective of yoga is to awaken the yogi from the spell of illusion. But now that humanity’s reckless predilection for exploitation has brought the world to the brink of ecological disaster it’s reasonable to ask if supplementing our Facebook posts with yoga and meditation is actually going to make a difference. What does a spiritual practice have to do with saving the planet?
The purification of our external environment starts with the purification of our internal environment. And the purification of our external environment naturally inspires us to deepen our spiritual practice. The yogi aspires to create a mutually-reinforcing balance between a spiritualized heart and a spiritualized world.
The imbalance in nature we call ‘Climate Change’ is an external expression of an internal condition: the imbalance in our collective consciousness. Environmentalism therefore begins with taking care of the ecology of our consciousness because someone has to be sane enough to acknowledge reality. And that someone is us: yoga is a prescription for sanity.
Someone has to model a healthy relationship with the earth. And a yogi naturally models that healthy relationship because the yogi sees the earth as a person worthy of love and respect. Just as you’re a person playing host to 99 trillion microbes living in and on your body, so the earth herself is a person generously playing host to us and all the other living beings who reside here with us.
Yogis also see the earth as a manifestation of spiritual energy and see each feature of the earth as a reminder of the spiritual source of the material world. When your conception of the earth is that of a person with whom you have a relationship, of a sacred representative of the source of all creation, and as a generous host to innumerable other beings with whom you share a communal interest, then it’s impossible to take the Earth for granted or exploit her as an object for our enjoyment.
Exploitation is not in the nature of God, and therefore exploitation is not in the nature of saintly people. Respect for the environment and understanding that we are the custodians of the Earth rather than the proprietors of the Earth are essential parts of our spiritual culture. The spiritualization of our materialistic culture is the essential means by which humanity, and all the Earth’s creatures, can live in peace, friendship and prosperity.
Yoga is the science of purifying our hearts, elevating our consciousness, and experiencing the joy of our true spiritual nature. It provides a blueprint for living in harmony with nature, in harmony with one another, and in harmony with the source of all creation. So become a yogi and encourage others to become yogis. And together we can work towards a spiritualization of society that will save our planet.
My first opportunity to learn a second language came when I was in Junior High School, what we now call Middle School. Back then, Latin, Spanish, French, and German were the standard choices and perhaps they still are, assuming that languages other than English are still being taught at all. Anyway, by the will of providence, my school district offered the rare opportunity to take Russian. I have both a penchant for novelty and a tendency to make my life more difficult than it needs to be so taking Russian was the obvious choice.
In addition to Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and our 45th President, Russia has also given us Leo Tolstoy. In his later life, Tolstoy became both a spiritual ascetic and a political activist bent on putting an end to politics. Tolstoy considered the existence of government in any form as inimical to personal and social happiness based on the idea that the evil of violent force was the foundation of every nation’s existence.
Obviously, yoga is antithetical to violence since non-violence is its first ethical imperative. But yoga also shares something of Tolstoy’s anarchistic philosophy insofar as the idea of nationalism is concerned. Yoga rejects nationalism, regarding it as one component of our illusory misidentification of the body as the self.
Because I was born in America I may think that I’m an American. As such, I may further subscribe to the notion that America is an exceptional nation with a specific culture that’s connected to a particular ethnicity, which is my ethnicity and not somebody else’s, that America has a reason for being that’s connected to a particular conception of religion, etc.
Yoga thinks that this is all bunk. The technical term is ‘upadi’, temporary material designations that have nothing to do with the eternal identity of the individual consciousness that inhabits one body today and will inhabit another body tomorrow.
Just as we can’t step into the same river twice, we can’t breath into the same body twice. By the time we finish a cycle of breath our bodies have changed; cells that were here a minute ago are gone and new cells that weren’t here a minute ago have appeared. At every moment our bodies are changing, our minds are changing, our intelligence is fluctuating, and our personalities are developing. But we, who witness all of these changes, remain unchanged, constant as the Northern Star.
To experience ourselves as an immeasurable quanta of pure eternal consciousness rather than as a temporary complex of biological machinery is the ultimate goal of yoga. In his yoga-sutras, Patanjali tells us that one arrives at this perfection of yoga only when our practice is steady and sustained over a long period of time. Steadiness in practice requires determination and patience.
Impatience is the great curse of youth. In my experience, one of the great ironies of getting older has been that as the time I have left in this world decreases my level of patience increases. Perhaps I’ve simply grown accustomed to the fact that things take time. It’s an interesting mix: a sense of urgency about completing the mission of my human life on the one hand and equanimity about the state of the world on the other that somehow adds up to a kind of peaceful perseverance in both my spiritual practice and my social engagements.
Yogis are spiritual warriors by nature: on a spiritual level we fight the forces of illusion, on a material level we fight the forces of injustice. Our aim is to harmonize our eternal nature with our temporary situation so that our actions serve to elevate consciousness, our own and everyone else’s.
It’s helpful, of course, to have powerful allies in our fight against illusion and injustice. Which brings us back to Tolstoy, who said,
“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
Patience is the recognition that time is the all-consuming destroyer of all. And time will destroy our illusions if we see time as a relentless ally on whose currents we can flow toward our true and eternal selves.
March always feels to me like an extra long month so it’s a good month to meditate on the power of time and the virtue of patience. Like all months, March will eventually end and another month will take its place. Like all political upheavals, the current brouhaha about Drumpf and Russia will come to a head and then fade into the oblivion of history. The dark days will be followed by brighter days, only to be followed by darker days again. Such is the way of the world.
The way of the spiritual warrior is to understand time as a manifestation of divine energy, to practice patience, and to patiently practice. The key to having a patient practice is consciously cultivating our love for all beings, even those we think of as our enemies. Making a conscious effort to act from a position of love, even when we’re not feeling it, is part of the practice because a spiritual warrior knows that, ultimately, love conquers all, even unconquerable time. Or, as Tolstoy put it,
“Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.”
And there you have it: from Russia, with love. Dosvedanya.
I’ve been having a recurring fantasy that I’ve been trying to get rid of. Unfortunately, it’s very attractive to the part of my mind that feeds on anger. It goes like this:
I just happen to run into (fill in the blank – any one of many current evildoers). I just happen to see them somewhere and I just let them have it, whichever one of them it is, I just give them a piece of my mind like nobody’s business – tell them in no uncertain terms what I think of them. And if it’s that Nazi guy everyone’s punching in the face, well…
This kind of thinking is like an addictive drug: it’s hard to resist and indulging it gives very little satisfaction. I have to resist the temptation to dwell on this because if I fall into that loop I just end up in a really dark place.
Channeling anger is one of the trickiest moves in yoga judo. It’s so easy to identify with our anger and become an angry person. And anger leads to hatred. When anger and hatred leak out of our minds and into our bodies and into our relationships and our world becomes like a lake of poison. Hatred leads to suffering. If we hate our enemies then our enemies win simply by being hateful.
Anger is necessary because without it we can’t fight. And the fight is on. In the Bhagavad-gita, Arjuna didn’t want to fight but his adversaries gave him no choice. Similarly, we find ourselves in the same kind of situation: all diplomatic options have been exhausted, the institutions that preserve our freedoms – our freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceable assembly, freedom of religion – are all under attack by a hateful enemy that’s not interested in negotiation.
Inaction is unacceptable, silence is complicity, and each is an abdication of moral responsibility. Engagement, however difficult, is required.
One of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s six principles of non-violence is that non-violence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Following Dr. King’s principles means seeing evildoers as victims of evil rather than as being evil. Rather than hating evildoers, Dr. King insisted that love, even for enemies, is indispensable to solving the world’s problems.
The challenge in following this principle is in developing the ability to make a distinction between the hater and their hatred. This is hard because hatred comes from people: we want to hold people accountable for their hatred.
Yoga offers us some tools to help us reconcile these two valid principles of loving your enemy and demanding accountability.
Yoga philosophy describes our personalities as being composed of a combination of three metaphysical properties: goodness, passion, and ignorance. In Sanskrit, these are called tri–guna, the three qualities of material nature.
The quality of Goodness is characterized by the pursuit of knowledge, clarity of thought, and emotional equilibrium. Passion is characterized by intense endeavor, attachment to results, and the distortion of intelligence. The mode of Ignorance is characterized by apathy, bewilderment, foolishness, and violence.
Yoga proposes that all of us are influenced by these different qualities or modes of being in one way or another. Identifying with these qualities is considered a state of illusion that conditions us to act a certain way, like certain things, believe in particular ways. Our true identity is said to be beyond the influence of these qualities. The experience of our true identity is called moksha – liberation. Yoga is the bridge that takes us from a state of mis-identity to awareness of our true identity.
By seeing our selves as distinct from our mode of being, as the experiencer of that mode of being, we gain a healthy distance from our own psychology. This is the development of spiritual vision. Cultivating our spiritual vision leads to the development of compassionate detachment from our thoughts and feelings. It’s not denial or feigned indifference; it’s the experience of stepping back, taking a deep breath, and then proactively engaging with our feelings. From this position, we can work with our feelings rather than be controlled by them or try to hide from them.
The sense of emotional equilibrium that comes from just a little spiritual vision makes it a lot easier to see not just the difference between the hater and their hatred. It takes us one step further, to a place where we can see the difference between the spiritual person in a state of illusion and the qualities of material nature that create the illusion. The hater doing the hating is an illusory identity; a product of that person’s illusion; the person behind the mask of the hater is like a sleeping person covered by a dream.
Compassion for evildoers does not mean passivity in the face of evil. Evildoers must be stopped from doing evil, for their own good as well as everyone else’s. Anger is a form of energy that can be controlled and directed. The spiritual vision we acquire from our yoga practice helps us step back from our anger, make it righteous, and aim it at the right target while freeing us to love the spiritual person behind the mask of the loathsome enemy who must be defeated.
I’ve turned the page on 2016, to which I say ‘good riddance’, and now I’m feeling very psyched about fighting the good fight in 2017. Like many of you, I’m gearing up for a year of spiritual activism, a year of constructive opposition to America’s incoming administration and its anticipated assault on the values of yoga.
The values of yoga include kindness, truthfulness, generosity, humility, and equanimity. By the will of providence if not the majority of voters, we find ourselves saddled with a mean-spirited government that encourages people to believe falsehoods, to think only of themselves, and to fuel a false sense of pride with anger.
I’ve heard arguments to the affect that spiritual practices like yoga and meditation can’t provide the knowledge or skills needed to dismantle a system of oppression in much the same way that yoga doesn’t provide the knowledge or skills required for one to be a dentist or a lawyer. I find this argument to be patently false insofar as it takes spirituality completely out of context, betraying a poor fund of knowledge about both the practical elements of spiritual culture and the value of solving material problems from a position of spiritual consciousness.
In fact, without a firm spiritual foundation, political action merely pits one relative ideology against another, without elevating the consciousness or purifying the heart of any party concerned. In yoga, our state of mind and the purity of our intentions are the primary drivers that determine the quality of our actions. That’s why activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi doubled down on their spiritual practices when the intensity of their struggles increased.
Doubling down on our spiritual practices doesn’t mean we neglect applying ourselves to learning the practical skills of resistance; it means we arm ourselves with the weapon of transcendental knowledge as we acquire and apply those skills.
Our spiritual practice is essential to our activism not because it teaches the skills of political organization but because it provides an understanding of relationships, actions, and the ultimate goal of human life that form a spiritual frame of reference that gives political action real spiritual power.
America was founded on the idea of ‘self-evident truths’, truths that are so obviously true that only fools who are inimical to the truth would deny them. As we usher in the Post-truth era, our commitment to be of service to the truth is of the utmost importance.
One way to affirm our commitment to the truth is to meditate on the truth. One way to meditate on the truth is to chant a mantra that is both the sound incarnation of the truth and an affirmation of our commitment to the truth.
For example, the Hare Krishna mantra –Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare – is composed simply of alternating names of the feminine and masculine aspects of divinity. But the deeper meaning of this mantra is that it’s a request for the benediction of service to the highest truth and that our service to the truth be motivated by love.
It just so happens that the symmetry of the Hare Krishna mantra supplies a great marching cadence. So don’t just sit around and chant: go out into the streets and chant! And when you chant, remember that chanting sacred mantras is not an empty expression of magical thinking: magic is just a word we use to describe a technology we don’t understand.
Physics tells us that the whole world is vibrating. Do you want to change the world? Then let’s change the vibration of the world. Let’s invoke the magic of mantra throughout the whole process of learning how to engage in effective social action and how to push back against failed materialistic ideologies by implementing practical elements of spiritual culture.
Because chanting mantras while we live our spiritual values isn’t just magical thinking: it’s real magic.