In the ancient Hindu epic The Ramayana, there's a passage where Rama, a young prince who is actually God born as a human being, is supposed to be made King the next day, and his people are the happiest people in the world because they love him so much. There's a classic line in this part of the story that I have remembered so many times in my life - "Many things can go wrong in the dark night before a King is made." How true!
And sure enough, that very night an evil influence overtakes Rama's stepmother, and instead of being crowned King, Rama is unjustly exiled by his father and ordered to spend fourteen years in the forest as a wandering beggar, enduring hardships and dangers. The kingdom is plunged into incredible grief. Now the people are the unhappiest people in the world. They cannot believe it, they don't know how they will survive this loss. They don't know how they will ever be happy again, how they will be able to laugh or have any pleasure while they know that Prince Rama is sleeping on the ground somewhere in the pathless forest, eating roots and leaves, enduring insect bites and having to keep watch for snakes, lions, wolves, jackals.
This is the worst thing that has ever happened in their country, the worst times they have ever known. Everyone in the kingdom is totally freaked out except for two people: Prince Rama himself, and his family's old wise man, Vashishta.
When the king's charioteer says to Vashistha, "Priest, the world has gone to hell!," Vashistha calmly replies, "I see the world much the same as ever." When someone says to Rama, "Disobey your father! Don't go! We'll imprison him and make you our king!," Rama calmly says "Give up your anger. The palace or the forest are the same to me."
This is an important paradox to understand for our spiritual journeys - The palace or the forest are the same to me. The same in what way?? Certainly not the same in comfort or safety or wealth or social interactions. Yet there are prisoners reading this newsletter who do know how it is the same, in a sense, to be in the palace or the forest, to be on the streets or in prison, the way life is actually always the same, just an endless procession of events that make us happy or sad, up or down. The worldly person in us sees good times and bad times, big days and little days, while the old wise man deep inside us sees every day as equal, just one more opportunity to make choices about whether to be kind or unkind, selfish or unselfish, helpful or harmful, wherever we may be.
Both the warrior (the charioteer) and the wise man are right: This is a horrible time for their nation, and the world is much the same as ever - good times and bad times going round and round the wheel of time and destiny.
Being able to hold this paradox is an important key to our peace of mind. People who hold only to the dramas will never find peace, because the events of their lives will keep them dancing like puppets on a string, happy one day and miserable the next. But people who hold only to the "always the same" view can become passive, lazy, or detached, like many of us hippies did in the sixties - "nothing is real, nothing to get hung about, strawberry fields forever." One popular spiritual teacher today claims she is in a state of "uninterrupted bliss" and promises you can be too. Yikes! Who wants to be in a state of uninterrupted bliss when children are starving?
The warrior and the wise man - the passionately engaged part of us and the calm, unruffled observer - both have their place. The way Jesus put it is "Be in the world but not of the world." The warrior in us is in the world while the wise man in us is not of the world. Our warrior-self must keep the action moving, must do what is right, take a stand, get involved on the side of what is good, while our deeper self stays still and reminds us that right and wrong will always be rolling along in tension with each other, and we will never have complete control over our destiny. The warrior acts responsibly, while the sage remembers life is a great mystery, a great adventure story, not just an endless burdensome battle between right and wrong.
Prince Rama knows his life will bring ups and downs wherever he lives, and so he can accept these fourteen years of hardship as part of the package of being alive. He knows his life will be a spiritual adventure whether he lives in the palace or in the forest. Do you?
We presently live in a world of horrors, hardships, injustice, and unfairness for the vast majority of creatures on this planet. Some of the very readers of this newsletter are sitting in prison for crimes they did not commit. Our own nation is subjugating countries all over the globe to support our addiction to consumer crap that has made our children the unhappiest kids on the planet, yet always wanting more. Anti-depressants are the most prescribed drugs in America, and murder is one of the leading causes of death among teenagers. Our politicians talk and talk without ever addressing our deep unhappiness and dysfunction. Total denial, no time for truth. Gotta just keep shopping, keep the economy rolling. These are sad and difficult times for our nation and the world.
Our spiritual challenge is to embrace the paradox of Rama's exile - can we honestly acknowledge this period of adversity so that we can act with great courage and compassion to make things better, yet at the same time understand this as part of the cycle of human events, part of the cycle of world history? Can we "act great" as the Islamic poet Hafiz tells us, while also being the Beatles' "fool on the hill," watching life do whatever it must? Can we take full responsibility for doing our part to make our prison, our home, our community, our world, a safer and kinder place, while never doubting that Life is unfolding with a level of perfection we never fully comprehend? Can we have faith in the line from one of my songs that says "Life is good even when it's not great, so don't you give up on yourself."
There's another great quote in the old movie "Starman:" "You human beings are fascinating creatures; you seem to be at your best when things are at their worst." My own Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, once said "I love to suffer. It brings me so close to God." Okay, maybe I can't honestly say I love to suffer, and maybe you can't either, but we can certainly admit we think of God more when we do!
I've run into many people who seem scared stiff of suffering, scared stiff of acknowledging that suffering may be a big part of the spiritual journey, or that life is hard work. It's the "Happy Happy Joy Joy" crowd you find in many "New Thought" churches. Just "don't put any energy into the negative, and it will not exist."
But fear and denial do not lead to peace. We begin to feel peace when we let it all in - the good, the bad and the ugly. When we humbly accept our portions of the cross while at the same time never giving up our faith that life is worth it - even sitting in an isolation cell somewhere, life is worth it. There is something real and beautiful and wonderful behind it all, and we catch glimpses of that constantly if our eyes, hearts and minds are open to them. That's a good reason to do spiritual practice and take reasonable care of mind, body and spirit. But it doesn't exempt us from our share of human suffering.
No one has an easy life for long, and no one gets out of this unscathed. We get sliced, diced, french-fried, freeze-dried, and crucified by the time it's all over. We may barely recognize ourselves. Sita and I are in our sixties. I'm losing my hearing, Sita gets tired in the afternoons, the natural changes of life take hold of all of us no matter what fancy supplements we may take, or what magazines we can read about staying youthful. Staying youthful is not the goal. Do you hear that, America? Staying youthful is not the goal!
The goal is to touch the deep stuff while we're here - beauty, love, talent, skill, sacrifice, transformation, gratitude, generosity of spirit, real friendship, and of course the "peace that surpasses understanding." And that is what is always the same, whether we are "in the palace or the forest." We are always somewhere and there are always things going on around us and always things to watch out for, always difficult people or situations to deal with. And we always have the opportunity to be among the many people who stay calm and choose faith, who choose love, who choose goodwill, who choose to see and touch the beautiful in life, not just be thrown by the ugly. We don't succeed at this by denying the ugly, but by including it. And by focusing our precious energy on the choices we have of how to respond to life, not wasting our energy on what life is doing to us at any given time. This is what we've got. Now, how do we wish to respond to it?
All my Love, Bo
Living In Peace
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