Our mental business is carried on much in the same way as the business of the state: a great deal of hard work is done by agents who are not acknowledged. George Eliot, Adam Bede
While a visitor in a church other than my own, I had a strong negative reaction to one of the lay ministers—some confluence of mannerisms and appearance just grated on my nerves to the point where I couldn’t stop watching this person, in the same way that one will continually pester a cold sore.
It being apparently a good morning, I was able to self-transcend enough to notice not only the irritating object, but also my own irritation. Isn’t that interesting, I thought; now why should I respond so negatively to this person?
Trying to run my thought process to ground, I began to catalog all the things about the person that annoyed me, and ask myself why I was so annoyed at each one. This strategy backfired. In no time, I had gone from being conscious of an irritant within my field of awareness to being entirely subsumed by irritation: I had absolutely nothing on my mind but how much this person annoyed me, and a laundry list of self-justifying reasons for being annoyed.
Then I remembered something that Martin Laird pointed out in his book, Into the Silent Land: when Satan was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus didn’t debate with him; he didn’t allow himself to be hooked. Instead, he simply met each temptation with an appropriate quotation from scripture. “It is written…,” he said, then shut up, never giving the tempter the time of day.
(I’ll interrupt myself here to share the only thing I ever learned in my brief career as a vacuum cleaner salesman: “once you have stated your case, the next person to talk loses.” When you are arguing with someone—a sales clerk or petty official, say—make your point and then absolutely clam up. It’s difficult, but often works; the tension produced by the silence just becomes too much, and your adversary will begin to babble in order to break it. Then you win.)
So I tried Jesus’ stratagem; abandoning my bogus self-examination about why this person rubbed me the wrong way, I simply told myself what God told Samuel in 1 Kings: “You see not as God sees, but as mortals see; for you look at outward appearances, but God looks on the heart.” I had to repeat this a few times over the course of the service, but it worked: I set aside my involuntary response and put my attention where it was supposed to be.
(The fact that this person turned out, in later conversation, to actually be a jerk is immaterial. I suppose. It’s not as though obsessing about the offending mannerisms was doing any good. And anyway, maybe being a jerk is just one more layer of appearances between me and the heart that God looks on.)
Fifty years before Jung opened his practice, George Eliot put her finger on the problem: “unacknowledged agents” in our minds do stuff without our awareness or consent.
Now Jung attributed much of this stuff to what he called “the Shadow”—those aspects of our personalities which we reject and repress, and which undermine and sabotage us in a bid for self-expression. And Jung believed that, in banishing the unwanted aspects of ourselves into the unconscious, we cut ourselves off from our creativity and self-realization. Jungian psychologist and Episcopal priest John Sanford likened the Shadow to Jesus’ “treasure hidden in the field” (Matthew 13:44). Make friends with your Shadow, the pop-psyche mavens tell us--and why not? If some repressed aspect of my personality is forcing me to read political blogs all night instead of going to bed so I won’t be irascible toward my children the next day, I’m willing to take that as a sign that some fundamental change in my life is called for.
But sometimes the Shadow just needs to pipe down. The Desert Fathers externalized their troublesome inner promptings as demons, and oriented much of their lives and practice toward silencing them—and surely not every vicious or self-destructive drive is potentially redeeming. Sometimes evil thoughts are just evil.
Martha Graham counseled Agnes DeMille to keep open to the urges that motivate her. Well and good; the forest is dark, but full of diamonds. But how do we distinguish between motivating urges that are potentially liberating, and those that are just plain bad? Or at any rate unhelpful? (“All things are lawful to me,” said Paul, “but not all things are useful.”) How can we tell the gifts of the Shadow from the Trojan Horse of the ego?
One thing I have heard before, but have only recently realized in my own experience, is that turning the attention from the object of one’s feelings toward the feelings themselves is a great disclosing tablet. When our whole field of awareness is filled up with the object, there is no room for awareness of self—the very reason, I suspect, that most of us “nurse our wrath to keep it warm” toward at least one person or situation: we don’t want to become self-aware on that score.
One evening I was at a motel desk with a friend, trying to get in touch with a mutual friend who was staying there and whom we had arranged to meet. Her room phone wasn’t working, and we were trying to get the desk clerk to somehow get a message to her—which, being more afraid of his employers than he was sympathetic to us, he refused to do. As we pressed him—OK, as I became angry--he became rude and dismissive.
Back in the car, my friend asked me why I so furious at this subaltern. As one reiterating the self-evident, I said, “Because he was rude to me!” “So what?” my friend asked.
And I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Later, upon reflection, I realized that if someone is rude to me, it constitutes an implicit statement about my relative worth—and that at some level, I take that statement at face value. This person is, by being rude to me, implying that I deserve no better, which some part of me already believes, so in order to distract myself from that externally validated self-assessment, I become furious at the rude person.
Lesson 5 in A Course in Miracles says “I am never upset for the reason I think.” The ego does a bang-up job of directing the attention outward in order to avert the inward gaze. Maybe the key to discerning between the (potentially) liberating drives of the Shadow and the cramping, self-protective machinations of the ego lies somewhere in there. Maybe if we have the keenness to discern and the courage to follow our redemptive inner promptings, we will find ourselves happier and more self-aware--whereas getting caught up in ego chatter invariably makes us more miserable and more aware of other people, other things.
Maybe these internal agents need to start carrying ID.
This post originally appeared at Little Teaboys Everywhere.
God is the offering, the One Who offers, and the fire that consumes. ~Bhagavad Gita 4:24a
I was walking through Center City Philadelphia on my way to a panel discussion on Creating Sacred Music. As I was feeling neither particularly sacred nor particularly musical, I cast about for a way to get into the right frame of mind.
Looking at all the colorful sights of the city, I remembered how, when my children were babies, everything I saw, heard, smelled or tasted would remind me of them. “Clare would like those flowers,” I’d think; street buskers would make me wish Sophie were with me; foods brought one or the other kid to mind, depending on their taste.
What if I could broadcast my experience directly into their minds, I thought, so they could experience my walk vicariously? Then I realized that we are called upon, in the Bhagavad Gita, to do more or less exactly that—with God as the audience of our sensory input:
Some yogis perfectly worship the demigods by offering different sacrifices to them, and some of them offer sacrifices in the fire of the Supreme Brahman.
Some [the unadulterated brahmacaris] sacrifice the hearing process and the senses in the fire of mental control, and others [the regulated householders] sacrifice the objects of the senses in the fire of the senses.
Others, who are interested in achieving self-realization through control of the mind and senses, offer the functions of all the senses, and of the life breath, as oblations into the fire of the controlled mind. (Bhagavad Gita 4:24-27; emphasis added[i])
As I walked along, I mentally transmitted all the sights and sounds to Jesus, as though He were looking out through my eyes and hearing through my ears. As I walked along, exercising this “control of the mind and senses” by offering “the objects of the senses” into the fires of perception, I not only felt extremely close to the Lord, but I found my usual way of seeing people–a highly judgmental and evaluative way in which I am subject and everyone else is object–giving way to a compassionate mode of seeing as Christ sees.
Icon of St. Teresa of Avila by Robert Lentz, OFM
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila:
No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks
compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks about doing good.
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Shiva and Shakti
Tantra takes the relation of the senses to their objects even a step further, making the act of perceiving reflect the divine union of Shiva (the divine masculine and pure consciousness) and Shakti (the divine feminine and pure energy.)
A faculty and its object are like the primordial couple. The relationship of the eye to what is seen is the relationship of Shiva to his shakti. The ear and music, the eye and art, the tongue and flavour, all senses and their sensations are a participation in the eternal embrace.[ii]
I have written before about how the body–and in particular the senses–can be made the locus of divine service simply by an act of will by which we use them on God’s behalf. This act sanctifies both the senses and their objects, bringing us a greater awareness of the divine presence within and without, and preparing us to “be an instrument of [God’s] peace.” Going a step further, St. Teresa found such a dedicating of the senses to be a way toward divine union, in which Christ–the “bridegroom” of her Carmelite soul–entered into her and lived His risen life through her:
I was reflecting upon how arduous a life this is…I said to myself, “Lord, give me some means by which I may put up with this life.” He replied, “Think, daughter, of how after it is finished you will not be able to serve me in ways you can now. Eat for Me and sleep for Me, and let everything you do be for Me, as though you no longer lived but I; for this is what St. Paul was speaking of.”[iii] (1 Cor. 10:31) [i] Bhagavad Gita As It Is,
translated by Srila Pradhupada[ii]
Dupuche, John, Towards a Christian Tantra[iii] St. Teresa of Avila, Spiritual Testimonies. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1. Translated and edited by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez.
I have always had heart trouble–by which I mean that I have always lived primarily in my head. In meditation, it is always much more natural for me to put my awareness in the ajna chakra between the eyebrows that in my chest area. When I chant the bija mantra “Yam” into the anahata chakra, I become aware of the heart center through the tingling of the sound vibrations, but maintaining awareness of a spinning green light, or any other attempt to be “aware of the presence of God in my heart” has always felt artificial and contrived. No matter how many times I mentally repeat the Jesus Prayer while going through my day, I keep “hearing” it in my head, not in my heart.
But I discovered this passage in Abdul Baha’s Prayers and Meditations, concerning those people with discernment to see the divine majesty everywhere:
Surely the lamp of Thy love is burning in their hearts, and the light of Thy tenderness is lit within their breasts.
This passage leapt out at me, demanding my attention, so I treated it as a subject for lectio divina, or "holy reading" meditation, repeating it slowly and deliberately in silence as thought it were mantra or a Centering Prayer “prayer-word.” I found it very focusing. Certainly, the image of a burning lamp in my heart was much easier to hold in awareness than an abstract “heart center” (even one with a rotating wheel of green light in it) and a flame much more concrete than an abstraction like “love.”
Something else that has plagued me for years is my tendency to sublimate and somaticize difficult emotions. When my mom was dying, I had suffered from fainting spells; before leaving home and fiancée for graduate school halfway across the country, I endured shortness of breath. My tendency to live in my head has pushed my body into advocating for my heart, demanding attention for my emotional challenges. Through the practice of yoga and, perhaps, through meditating on this image from this passage, I hope to be finally be able to allow, as the Eastern Orthodox contemplatives put it, the “mind to descend into the heart.”
Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy temple;
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him for his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the blast of the ram’s horn;
Praise him with lyre and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
Praise him with strings and pipe.
Praise him with resounding cymbals;
Praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.
Let everything that has breath
Praise the Lord. Hallelujah!
(Psalm 150, Book of Common Prayer translation)
There is a classic formula for Christian prayer whose acronym in ACTS: Adoration, Confession,
Thanksgiving, Supplication. (Some versions include a separate category for Intercession, which
Is otherwise included as part of Supplication–or as I prefer to call it, Petition.)
I have never really understood the need for Adoration. “Why does God need our praise?” I
wondered. Surely such a thing is superfluous. Which, of course, only illustrates how easy it is
(for me) to know something without bringing (my) knowledge to bear.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised. (Ps. 145:3)
Earlier this week, while preparing for intercessory prayer with the Franciscan Crown Rosary (a
practice I wrote about in my last entry) I decided that my usual modes of address at the
beginning of a prayer were becoming more than a little pat. So I cast around for some other ways
to address the Eternal: All-Pervading Energy, Ground of Being, Source of the Universe, Fountain
of All Being…there were many more, but I can’t remember them now because I very quickly
entered an exalted state as my efforts to put God’s reality into words brought me a fresh, vivid
sense of the unfathomable vastness of that reality. Praising God–which any meaningful form of
address to the Divine will almost necessarily be–brought home to me the hitherto purely
intellectual knowledge that “in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
Here’s an example: I used to require students–non-music-majors–to attend a live musical
performance and describe what they heard. Most often, whet I got instead of descriptions were
labels: heavy metal, techno and the like. When I’d insist on actual descriptions of musical
parameters like volume, rhythm, melody and timbre, they’d object that, as non-music-majors,
they weren’t able to talk about music in that way. This, I maintained, is untrue; you needn’t have
access to specialized jargon–just use your own words.
Over Thanksgiving break, my wife’s godfather opened two bottle of red wine and removed the labels, offering each for sampling and our estimate of what they were. “That tastes like a Chianti,” I said of the first. My wife, who’d been listening to me bitch about my student’s papers all morning, shouted from the next room, “That’s not a description–that’s a label!” “I don’t speak wine!” I rejoined. “You tell your students they don’t need to speak music,” she answered.
She had me there, so I applied myself to describing what I tasted without recourse to jargon.
“Well…on top, it kind of tastes like flowers.”
Holy Moly, I thought: Distinct floral notes!
“But underneath, I can taste herbs.”
Hey—would that be “herbal undertones”?
Two remarkable things were happening as I tried to describe what I tasted: 1) I paid closer
attention to what I was drinking, and 2) the argot of professional wine critics began to make
sense for the first time. Phrases that had previously washed over me like some foreign language
suddenly yielded up their meaning as I verified their accuracy by experience.
That’s what praising God does: sharpens our attention to the Divine, and elucidates the
descriptions used by those who have gone before us. "The old words of grace are worn smooth
as poker chips,” wrote novelist Walker Percy, “and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a
poker chip after it has been cashed in." Groping for our own words restores the texture of the
I used to wonder why we should praise God, because I had forgotten a cardinal rule of prayer, as expressed by C.S. Lewis: “It doesn't change God- it changes me.” The more we dwell on God, the more surely we come to share in the Divine nature. “What we think,” said the Buddha, “we become.” And surely this is why Paul exhorted the Christians at Phillipi, saying:
…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. (Phillippians 4:8)
We don't know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. –Romans 8:26
Some people are good at intercessory prayer. They remember, not only those who have asked them for prayer, but also those whose situations simply seem to warrant it. They pray fluently, simply and without over-thinking things, and they make their needs known without seeming to micromanage God.
I am not one of those people.
In a group setting–in church, during the Daily Office with my fellow Franciscans, after Morning Meditation–it’s easy to simply ask for prayer for someone and briefly describe their situation and needs. But when alone, I feel the need to “pray something,” and find myself either talking too much, or feeling like I’m just going through the motions. I wonder whether to pray for a particular outcome, or simply “Your will be done.” Then I get caught in a “your Father knows what you need before you ask” loop, wondering if there’s even any point to intercession.
For those who may have similar difficulties, I will share a technique I have developed to deepen my intercessory prayer life using the Rosary.
Before beginning, I spend about five minutes in silent meditation, being aware of my intention to use the practice as a vehicle for intercession. Then, during each Hail Mary (or Jesus Prayer–I may use either) I allow the remembrance of some person or situation to come into my awareness. I then simply “hold them in the Light,” as the Quakers say, for the duration of the prayer, trusting that God will take it from there.
And that’s it.
The “allowing” is key; if I sit down with a pre-determined list of people to pray for, the whole practice takes on a mechanical, even frantic aspect–and once I’ve prayed through the list, my mind goes blank.
Over-thinking is deadly. It’s important to be like Pooh, and wait for things to come to us, rather than Rabbit, who takes it upon himself to go out and get them. This requires trust, but the trust is always rewarded; I have never done this practice without a steady stream of friends, enemies, relations, colleagues and situations coming to mind to be held up in prayer.
I do this practice with the Dominican Rosary, because each group of beads (or “decade,” because they are arranged in groups of ten) is associated with a particular “mystery” from the lives of Jesus and Mary. The mysteries are
THE JOYFUL MYSTERIES
The Annunciation of Mary
The Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth
The Birth of Jesus
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
The Finding of the Jesus among the Elders
THE SORROWFUL MYSTERIES
The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
The Scourging at the Pillar
The Crowning with Thorns
The Carrying of the Cross
THE GLORIOUS MYSTERIES
The Resurrection of Jesus
The Ascension of Jesus
The Sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
The Assumption of Mary
The Crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven
In the traditional practice, one thinks about these events while praying the ten Hail Mary’s in each decade. But I have never gotten used to such discursive meditation; I don’t like “thinking about” things during contemplative prayer time. So while I soldiered on with the Rosary off and on for years, brief seasons of great fruitfulness alternated with endless stretches of mechanical recitation, and I would often abandon the practice for long periods.
When I use the Rosary as an aid to intercession, however, the practice comes powerfully to life, because the mysteries themselves guide my intercessions. While praying the Annunciation, for instance, ten people or groups of people who are struggling with issues of vocation may come to mind; during the Birth of Jesus decade, I remember expectant mothers and new parents; as I pray the Carrying of the Cross, I remember people who have taken on extraordinary burdens. And while you wouldn’t think you know 150 people, groups or situations in need of your prayer, you would probably be surprised. Just relax and refrain from grasping (as the Buddhists say) and they will come to you. And don’t worry–you will not forget those people who have particularly solicited your intercession.
So this practice has not only grounded and freed my intercessory prayer, but it has also enlivened my use of the Rosary. For me, holding people in the light whose situations connect them to the mysteries is a much more meaningful meditation on those mysteries than forcing myself to think about the events in some more literal way, while remembering those for whom I pray in the light of Jesus’ and Mary’s lives and ministries enables me to pray for others without getting tangled up in what to say.
Finally, when I rise from my prayer bench after this practice, I have a vivid sense of the “great cloud of witnesses by whom we are all surrounded on our spiritual pilgrimage; I feel more connected to “all the faithful of every generation” in the Communion of Saints, and am powerfully reassured that I am not alone.
 Matthew 6:8
 I also use the seven-decade Franciscan Rosary, which also invokes different “mysteries” for the various decades.
 Pope John Paul II added a group of ten “Luminous Mysteries” that reference Jesus’ public ministry, but they are not in universal use.
 Because, as a non-Catholic, I do not believe in the Assumption–or taking up bodily into heaven–of Mary, I substitute the Orthodox “Dormition”, or “falling asleep” (death) of Mary for this mystery.
 Hebrews 12:1
 Book of Common Prayer
You cannot see the seer of the sight. You cannot hear the hearer of the sound. You cannot think the thinker of the thought. You cannot know the knower of the known. Your own Self lives in the hearts of all. Nothing else matters.–Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, W.B. Yeats version
Most of my encounters with God are like this:
LUKE: I'm looking for someone.
YODA: Looking? Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm?
The little creature laughs.
LUKE: (Trying to keep from smiling) Right.
YODA: Help you I can. Yes, mmmm.
LUKE: I don't think so. I'm looking for a great warrior.
YODA: Ahhh! A great warrior. (laughs and shakes his head)Moses may tell us that “the Lord is a mighty warrior,” but if we look for God expecting to find that, we are generally disappointed. Like Yoda, God often appears in small, even slightly embarrassing forms–a wise but unprepossessing a person, for instance, or someone in need, or a baby in a feed trough.
The God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) simply doesn’t behave the way we expect. For one thing, how seldom it occurs to us that the God whom we seek is all the while seeking us:
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:46) I think this parable is often misunderstood. We hear references to “the pearl of great price,” but they often sound like the person making them thinks the term applies to the kingdom—but the kingdom is the merchant, not the pearl. We are the pearl. It is us that God seeks, and gives everything to acquire.
Moreover, “looking for someone” is predicated on the assumption that someone is elsewhere than we are. Luckily, the Psalmist knew what nonsense that is:
Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. (Ps. 139, 6-9)
“Wheresoever you look,” says the Qu’ran, “there is the face of God. (6:103) Like yeast in a loaf of bread, there is no place where God is not.
(Jesus) also asked, "What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:20-21)[i]
Both our expectations of what God is like, and the fact that, as the Ground of All Being, God is utterly inescapable, make our little daily theophanies terribly easy to miss. Like someone looking through glasses in search of those very glasses, we do not see that the consciousness by which we seek, the faculty of awareness itself, is God-in-us, allowing light into our souls as the eye allows light into the body.
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. (Matthew 6:23-23)
So if there is any spiritual light in me, any awareness, any here-and-now-ness, that is of God. Which must be the reason that the more in the moment I am, the more fully present and aware of myself, the more I feel that I am not alone. Whether at a party or family gathering, or while washing the dishes, I am most aware of the Presence when I am most recollected and present to myself. And once I have touched the “Self that lives in the hearts of all,” I am able to see that Self in others–to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”[ii]
Found someone I have, hmmm?
[i] I am indebted to Swami Jnaneshwara Bharati at the Center for Non-Dualism for this interpretation of the parable.
[ii] Baptismal vows, Book of Common Prayer
Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. –Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 1.1.
Life rarely presents us with laboratory conditions for meditation. Unless we want to spend a lot of our practice time gritting our teeth and willing distractions away, we need to adapt to circumstances. Which is not my strong suit.
I have always been drawn to dhyana meditation, or “one-pointed concentration.” Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali saint, likened the mind in dhyana to a continuous stream of oil being poured from one vessel to another. The field of awareness is narrowed to one object–whether the breath, a mantra, or “the lotus feet of the Lord”–and all else is excluded from it as the meditator “gathers the scattered energies of the mind into one place.”[i]
This way of meditating has always appealed to me more than mindfulness meditation, in which the meditator observes whatever comes up, internally or externally, remaining open to what the moment brings. I don’t like remaining open. Jodie Foster once said that she didn’t like live theater because the audience can look wherever they want; as a filmmaker, Foster prefers to control the view. I, likewise, prefer, when possible, to choose the object of my awareness in meditation.
Plymouth Weekly Meeting
But sometimes–or often, depending on one’s circumstances–that just isn’t possible. For instance, my children attend a Friends (Quaker) school, and most Thursday mornings I accompany my older daughter to Meeting for Worship in the austerely beautiful 18th century meeting house. In traditional Quaker worship, anyone may speak if they feel moved to do so, but the speech proceeds out of, and falls back into, silence; often, the entire period goes by in silence.
But “silence” is relative. When you’ve got a big room full of kids ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade, fidgeting on the creaky benches, coming in late on the creaky floorboards, asking to go to the bathroom or for someone to pass them the tissues–even if they aren’t speaking aloud, it would be a stretch to call it “silence.”
So I used to struggle valiantly to exclude all the hubbub from my awareness and practice Centering Prayer–a Christian form that resembles both mantra japa and vipassana in that a single word or short phrase (the “prayer word”) is repeated internally, often synchronized with the breath, as a way of keeping the mind from wandering. But the effect, under those conditions, was more like covering my ears and shouting, “La, la, la, I’m not listening!” The prayer word, rather than keeping me from being hijacked by my thoughts, became a thought itself–something to think rather than being available to the moment.
When I finally grew tired of doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, I decided the time had come to give mindfulness a try. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.” In theory, that sounds like it should include concentrative dhyana meditation–one does, after all, pay attention to the object one is contemplating–but in practice people generally make a distinction between focusing the mind on an object and observing the mind itself, or the experiences of the moment.
Yoga Sutra 1.1
I have written before about how internally repeating the Prayer of the Heart, or “Jesus Prayer,” while doing everyday chores quiets my mind and makes my experience of what I’m doing more vivid and immediate. As I become more available to the moment, my awareness–both of myself, and of the ever-present Spirit–becomes sharper. What I am doing, then, is using a prayer word, not in a concentrative way, but as a tool for mindfulness. The prayer is a gate that allows my experience in while excluding my otherwise incessant mind-chatter.
So a prayer word or mantra can, it seems, function both as a tool for dhyana, helping maintain the attention on the chosen object while excluding outside experiences, and a tool for mindfulness, helping us attend to our experiences while suppressing the inner monologue. It is a gate that opens both ways. Which is where the above-referenced two-thousand-year-old Sanskrit scripture comes in. Here it is again:
Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.
As is often the case with ancient texts, there are divergent opinions about the precise meaning of this sentence. One of the more widespread translations is:
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. In other words, when the mind is as unruffled as a pouring stream of oil, entirely concentrated upon one object without distraction, that is yoga.
But there are other translations; for example:
Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field. That is, when distractions occur, and we acknowledge and accept them without judgment or commentary, that is yoga.
So which is the better translation? Is it about quieting the mind, or about making it do what we want? Is yoga both dhyana and mindfulness?
I’m prepared to say that it is. One of the differences between scripture and “content,” it seems to me, is that while the latter may mean one thing or less, scripture can almost always mean one thing or more. For instance, consider Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God:
ουδε ερουσιν ιδου ωδε η ιδου εκει ιδου γαρ η βασιλεια του θεου εντος υμων εστιν. (Luke 17:21)
You won’t be able to say of the Kingdom, “Here it is,” or “There it is”–all the many translations agree on that much. But about the next part, translators are about evenly divided. Did Jesus say,
…for the Kingdom of God is within you,
…for the Kingdom of God is among you?
The controversy hinges on the meaning of the word endos, which in many contexts means “within.” (Eg., “endoscopy” = “looking within.”) But the word can also mean “among,” or “in the midst of.”
While scholars cite linguistic evidence and/or theological arguments–none of which are, in my opinion, either conclusive or interesting–in support of their favored interpretations, the meaning seems perfectly clear if we view the text in the light of experience rather than doctrine. If we invite God to reign in our hearts, then the Kingdom is within us. And if we are as connected to each other as the branches of a single vine (Jn. 15:5), and if we are to care for each other as for Christ Himself (Mt. 25:31-46), and if Jesus is present whenever two or more are gathered together in His name (Mt. 18:20), then the Kingdom is manifestly among us as well. Anyone who has ever felt the movement of the Spirit in his or her own soul as well as among the gathered community knows this to be true. It means both.
So when a scripture seems to have two equally defensible meanings, we can assume that both are valid. In interpreting Yoga Sutra 1.1, if circumstances dictate that I must meditate in different ways at different times–if I see myself as both a yogi, struggling to achieve liberation through spiritual practice, and a bhakti, dependent on divine grace and longing for true devotion–and if experience tells me that the same meditative tool can be used in ways that point to both translations–why argue any further about meaning? Why posit a dilemma where none exists?
One final thought: purist practitioners of mindfulness meditation may object to the use of a mantra or prayer word. And from a purist standpoint, they may have a point. But being as much a bhakti as a yogi–a devotee as well as a practitioner–I need to bring a note of devotion with me into my meditation. Pure mindfulness, for me, is too lacking in content; I need to smuggle in a little devotional meaning, even if only in the background. Which is why I continue to use a prayer word in both dhyana and mindfulness practice: for me, it works both ways.
i. Swami Tyagananda, Boston Vedanta Center
You shall have no other gods before Me. –Exodus 20:3
There are different ways of understanding the panoply of Hindu gods and goddesses. Millions believe that each divinity has an independent, objective existence, that their physical appearance is as depicted in Indian devotional art, and that everything the Puranas say about the gods is literally true.
Swami Vivekananda, in his book Jnana Yoga, maintains that the gods have a real existence, but that they are roles rather than persons–positions filled by a succession of human souls who are not yet ready for full liberation and who exercise divine functions until they burn through their good karma and are reborn to give it one more shot.
Shankara, the father figure of Advaita (Non-Dualist) Vedanta, said that the gods have a “provisional” existence, to be left behind when the devotee attains to knowledge of the Absolute, which is beyond all concepts and attributes.
Ramanuja and the other Bhakti-Vedanta teachers, on the other hand, insisted that the personal God was not a stop-gap and was never to be dispensed with.[i] “For them the Supreme Being is Person with attributes and there is no Absolute beyond Him.”[ii]
One modern approach is to regard the various deities as projections; I heard Bhagavan Das say that “all the gods and goddesses of India are externalizations of the internal process”–an approach similar to the one Jung took toward the Greek pantheon. My own position lies somewhere between that and the classic monotheistic understanding that God, while a unity, is beyond human conceptualization, and that the myriad deities all represent different aspects of the Universal Absolute.
The “false gods” of the Hebrew Bible were local and tribal divinities, whose devotees were caught up in an ongoing game of “My deity can kick your deity’s ass.” At the time that the Torah was written, no other near-eastern people but the Jews could even conceive of a single, universal god. So the way I see it, the “gods of the nations” were false because of their limitedness and particularity, not because they spoke other languages than Hebrew and went by other names than “I AM.”
The Hindu deities, on the other hand, have long been understood by philosophers to represent various manifestations of the one God who is beyond all human conceptions. In the temple complex at Dakshineswar, Sri Ramakrishna used to tell people that “in this temple, God is worshipped as Kali; in that temple, God is worshipped as Shiva; in that temple, as Radhakanta.” When you stand at the south pole, every direction is north.
(If you want to see the real “idols” of American life, look no further than reality TV, a showcase of the hunger for fame, greed for money and wanton sexual indulgence–“the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life”[i], in Biblical terms–that stand between human beings and God more effectively than any golden calf ever could.)
Moreover, the various names of the deities have literal meanings that can serve as descriptors as well as proper names. For instance, I found a listing of “108 Names of the Lord Jesus Christ in Sanskrit,” and was startled to see that one of them was “Mahavishnu”–“Great Vishnu,” one of the so-called “Hindu trinity” of Shiva, Bramha and Vishnu. When I learned that “Vishnu” literally means “all-seeing,” it made sense.
Similarly, I love to chant Om namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya because, in addition to being one of the names of Krishna, “Vasudeva” also means “shining one who dwells in all beings”–which reminds me of the Prayerbook baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”
It is for these reasons that I am able to chant mantras addressed to Shiva and Kali without feeling that I am betraying the Judeo-Christian conception of God with which I was reared. But the question that plagued me was: what does it mean to invoke a deity with no independent personal existence?
For a long time, my Christian scruples prompted me to compose music only for chant texts addressed to nirguna Brahman–the impersonal, non-specific Ground of Being: literally, “God without personal attributes.” Sachidananda, or “Being-Knowledge-Bliss,” is one such nirguna designation. Only when I began to see the various deities as different aspects of God, as “father,” “husband,” “teacher,” “writer” and “musician” are different aspects of myself, did I feel freed to chant to Krishna, Durga and Ganesha–that is, to saguna Brahman, or “God with personal attributes.” After all, you cannot even see all of a human being at once, let alone all of God.
And however much we may parse and analyze them, we cannot denude these divine images of their power to speak to our souls. When I began to really hunger for the female image of God to which my upbringing did only lip-service, I made the mistake of “going to get one,” as Rabbit might have, rather than waiting, Pooh-like, for one to “come to me.”
Knowing myself to be an artist-scholar, I assumed that Saraswati–the goddess of learning, music and the arts–would speak to me. But contemplating this symbol of my old life left me unmoved.
In fact, as I discovered once I stopped trying to impose an idea on my inner landscape and began to attend to my real responses, it is Kali, with her necklace of severed heads and her skirt of lopped-off arms, who really speaks to me. Devourer of the ego, destroyer of pretension, Kali is the one who calls bullshit on my habitual patterns of thought and action. In Jungian terms, she is the Dark One, the bearer of the “shadow” wherein creativity and power lie ready to be tapped into. Finally, in Kali is an image of a God to be meaningfully feared.
“It is a terrible thing to fall into the hand of the living God,”(Hebrews 10:31) because it is God who tears out the heart of stone and gives the heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Or as C.S. Lewis put it, “What do people mean when they say, 'I am not afraid of God because I know He is good'? Have they never even been to a dentist?”[iv]
Jesus and Krishna
Christian theology geeks may discern parallels between the Shankara/Ramanuja dispute and the Paul Tillich/Karl Barth dispute.[ii]
Swami Tapasyananda, Bhakti Schools of Vedanta[iii]
1 John 2:16[iv]
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed