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.”
Everyone who’s ever been to a yoga class knows that we’re not supposed to compare ourselves to others. We also know how difficult it is not to try to match those who are stronger or more supple than we are, or to take comfort in seeing others struggle with things we find manageable. The urge to one-up others is very strong.
I’ve also heard teachers urge students not to try to “make it look like the pictures in the books,” as doing so could lead to forcing and injury.
In a physical practice like yoga asana, it’s easy to catch ourselves evaluating others, both in person and in print. In contemplation, it’s not so obvious in person; we may have a strong sense that someone else is further along the path than we are, but unless they tell us themselves about their experiences, we can only guess at how prayer is “going” for them.
In print, however, we are offered vivid accounts of the experiences of the great contemplatives of history, from Teresa of Avila to Vivekananda, and from Julian of Norwich to Ramana Maharshi. This is good insofar as it in instructive and inspirational, but I fear that reading about the great mystics can be daunting, too–especially if we have practiced for years without ever being “caught up into the third heaven”[i] or having visionary experiences. Each person’s experience in prayer is unique, and it is useless to compare ourselves to others. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century English text on contemplative prayer, emphasized this point:
It is important to realize that in the interior life, we must never take our own experiences, or the lack of them, as the norm for everyone else. He who labors long in coming to contemplation, and then rarely enjoys the perfection of this work, may easily be deceived if he thinks, speaks or judges other people on the basis of his own experience. In the same way, he who frequently experiences the delight of contemplation–almost, it seems, whenever he likes–will be just as mistaken if he measures others by himself. Do not waste your time with these comparisons. For it may be that, in God’s wisdom, those who have, at the beginning, struggled long and hard at prayer and only tasted its fruits occasionally may, later on, experience them as often as they like, and in great abundance.[ii] In fact, if you are experiencing emptiness in prayer, it may well be a good sign. You are, at any rate, in very good company: everyone from St. John of the Cross to Mother Theresa has gone through “dark nights of the soul.”
Screwtape, the senior demon who coaches his nephew through his first temptation assignment in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, warned his protégé about God’s motives in going into hiding:
He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs–to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish….Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best… He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
So if you feel like “nothing’s happening” in prayer, don’t despair. The signs of spiritual growth are subtle; often, other people may notice the changes in you before you do, as you gradually grow, spiritually, through practice. Or it may be that God is only withholding His hand so that you may learn to stand up on your own legs.
[i] 2 Corinthians 12:2
[ii]Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 72. Ed. William Johnston, SJ.
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
There is a yoga discipline called pratyahara, which means “control of the senses” or "withdrawal of the mind from sense objects." During practice, the mind is supposed to be so focused that no distractions are able to enter our awareness. And that withdrawal is a good thing—I want to experience my experiences fully. But I like to think of pratyahara more broadly than that. When I am on a hike or picnic or retreat, for instance, I don’t want radio, television, recorded music or the internet intruding; I want to withdraw my senses from the overstimulating media that usually occupy them, so that my mind may be more available to the subtler experiences around me.
But even then, my “monkey mind,” as the Buddhists call it, continues to interpose itself between my awareness and the world. Everything I see and hear reminds me of something I need to do, someone who is trying my patience, another time and place in which I saw or heard something similar, something I know, or wish I knew, about the thing seen or heard. Nothing just is what it is on its own terms—everything becomes an object of my judgment and analysis, a springboard for my daydreams.
So I find it useful to regularly withdraw my attention, not from external stimuli, but from my internal commentary on them, which allows things to be more what they are. Be a stranger—be “not from around here,” the better to experience things as for the first time. It helps if the field of stimuli is relatively narrow—any activity I do more or less mechanically can clear a space for contemplative practice—and on a good day, when I am mowing the lawn or cleaning up the kitchen or folding laundry, I will remember to take advantage of the opportunity. Here’s what I do:
I begin by becoming aware of my breathing, which “takes attention away from thinking.”[i] The moment I begin this is one of the most satisfying moments of the day; there is a sense of release and restfulness, but not a somnolent restfulness—rather, a heightened awareness charged with energy even as it calms me, that gives me a pale glimpse of what it means to be “he who in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude finds the intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity, the silence and solitude of the desert.”[ii]
I then begin to pray the so-called Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. This prayer, adapted from the words of the blind man who called out to Jesus from the roadside, has been used in contemplative practice since the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and is still widely practiced in the Eastern churches. It is prayed over and over, like a mantra.
(A word of explanation: the Greek word eleos, which is translated “mercy,” actually has a broader meaning than we ordinarily ascribe to it, including not only forgiveness but healing. The word has the same root as elia, meaning “olive,” because prayer for healing was—as it often still is—accompanied by anointing with [olive] oil. The point being that a repeated prayer for mercy is not necessarily the grimly penitential exercise it might sound like.)
Now here’s the counter-intuitive part: you’d think that repeating something over and over in your head would just add to the chaos, but in fact it does just the opposite. When the monkey mind is occupied with the mantra, I am actually freed from the distraction of memory, anticipation, plans, regrets, fantasies and all the other busywork that occupies me most of the time. So I am able to see, hear, feel everything much more vividly, without a layer of commentary between my deeper self and my experience. What a potato feels like as I rub the dirt off its surface under the tap, how the ocean sounds on the far side of a stand of trees through which the wind is blowing, the licorice smell of a pile of pulled weeds—everything is novel and intensified, unfiltered by commentary and classification. Experience bypasses the monkey mind and registers more directly.
The Indian sage Patanjali wrote, “The Seer is intelligence only, and though pure, sees through the coloring of the intellect.”[iii] When the intellect is otherwise occupied, the view is less colored. The monkey mind leaves you alone.
"Pray without ceasing." –1 Thessalonians 5:17 This entry was originally part of a larger post at Little Teaboys Everywhere.