A friend wrote recently that she was in a deep funk and feeling low. I was about to reply with an encouragement for her to realize that these are hard times for most of us on Planet Earth, and it is understandable that she will feel her own share of these hard times, and for her to try not to take those feelings as a personal crisis, but rather as her "portion of the cross" that we are all bearing. I was going to point out that instead of making her feel tight or further separating her from others, her blues can actually soften her heart and expand her compassion and sense of unity.
But just as I was about to reply, I received another note from her saying never mind, she heard a talk on Satellite radio by a popular "nondual" spiritual teacher, and she realized it was all just her ego-mind, so she's fine now.
Wow! That was easy! Maybe too easy. Is feeling blue always just a mistake of the ego? A lot of books and teachers use terms like non-attachment, non-dualism, and letting go of ego mind, but seem to mainly offer clever mental gymnastics to produce a state where we don't allow anything to bother us. One of those "masters" was asked how his mind dealt with children starving on the other side of the world. His response: "Don't know, don't care!" Yikes! Let's be cautious about the difference between non-attachment and selfish non-engagement.
Another popular teacher claims to be in a state of "uninterrupted bliss". Well, I want my bliss interrupted when 80,000 Chinese die in an earthquake, or 100,000Burmese in a cyclone, or when my neighbor's dog gets hit by a jeep. That doesn't mean I am overwhelmed or incapacitated by these things. But affected? You bet! The great saint Neem Karoli Baba once said "A saint's heart is even softer than butter. Butter only melts when it gets near the fire, but a saint's heart melts when anyone's heart gets near the fire." Compare that to the teacher above who says "don't know, don't care" about starving children. Which attitude sounds more like a saint to you?
The Heart of the Matter
This, to me, is the heart of the matter: What is our most basic view of the spiritual path? Is it about a personal self-centered escape from suffering, or an enormous upliftment for every living creature whenever one of us breaks through? Is the goal just to feel good as an individual, safe & sound in our separateness from others, or to connect to the underlying One Great Mystery behind it all?
Whether we call it enlightenment, realization, salvation or liberation, this goal at the core of all religions promises us something magnificent and wonderful - harmony, oneness with others, oneness with all creation, and even oneness with God. The enlightened ones are no longer small or afraid, no longer self-protective nor proud. They are humble as dust, yet Power and Grace seem to flow through them like a river, and miracles may abound around them.
This enlightened state is not psychological, it is not about "taking charge of our lives" or "creating our own reality" or any other buzzwords. The enlightened me is not just a slightly new me that has retained the parts of my ego I like, but gotten rid of the parts that used to bother me. It is a radical spiritual shift that changes us down to our atoms, changes our entire way of being in the world. "See, I shall make all things new!" And the "new" part always has something to do with extraordinary compassion for others.
On the other hand, the primary message in a consumer culture is to appeal to the individual, and separate us from others by feeling better, looking better, having higher status, faster electronics than the next guy. That's just the way it works: "Buy this product and you'll feel better."Does it matter whether the product is a toothbrush or car or spiritual book, or a clever mind-control method to let go of our sorrows? It is a product all the same, and its goal is to feel better by consuming it. There's nothing wrong with that at all, except to call it profoundly spiritual.
Consumerism has two primary lures that are at odds with the spiritual journey: 1) Feel better now, and 2) Our product will make it easy for you. Ending personal suffering without much effort has become a major consumer product. "Ask yourself four questions, and you will see your suffering disappear." "Let go of your story and you'll discover the unconditioned awareness that eradicates your suffering." These are very enticing ideas. These teachers make a good living selling their products. And they are mostly good products, people's lives do change for the better. But they are still consumer products appealing to the small self to feel better now, and to do it easily, without much effort or sacrifice. That's how you get customers to choose your product over others.
In a public appearance in L.A. a few years ago, his Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked, "What's the easiest way to enlightenment?" The Dalai Lama put his head in his hands for a solid minute or two, totally silent. When he looked up, there were tears running down his face, and he said, "There is no easy way." That's the real deal.
The goal of spiritual life has always been about giving up the small self, connecting with others, helping others. "Love thy neighbor as thyself." "Man hath no greater Love than to give his life to his fellow man." Giving our lives away. The personal self dying into a mysterious and incomprehensibly deep, compassionate Divine Self.
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to meet true spiritual masters, to look into the eyes of men and women who have taken that enormous step of surrender to God that has incinerated their small selves, know that their state of freedom is not merely sidestepping the struggles and misery of human life, nor dismissing those miseries as trivial. No, the true state of spiritual freedom is one that includes all pain and suffering, a state that bears all pain and suffering, that even willingly takes it on for others.
There are many photographs of saints and masters, and they often have huge smiles. Anandamayee Ma, Ramana Maharshi, Ammachi, Neem Karoli Baba, the various Sufi masters of Islam, the Dalai Lama, the "Laughing Jesus" poster found in many churches. Yes, there is something joyful and exciting about that state of spiritual freedom, it isn't just sorrowful suffering. But aren't those smiles very different from the self-satisfied smirks we see on the book covers of these popular "non-dual" or "new age" teachers? A smirk is not an enlightened smile.
A real spiritual master hasn't escaped suffering, he has devoured and digested it. Elie Wiesel, an Israeli elder who survived the Holocaust, said "Anything you say to me about God, you'd better be able to say while standing over a pit full of burning babies." Is that pit of burning babies just the ego-mind? Is it being "caught in your story?" Will asking yourself four questions make the grief go away if one of those babies is your own?
And yet the saints do have those smiles - not smirks, but deep and compassionate smiles that include the pits full of burning babies, the Chinese schoolchildren crushed under their school after the earthquake, as well as the beauty of nature and the joys, wonders and mysteries of being alive.
Their smiles know the pain we are in and they willingly bear that pain along with us because of their love for us. They know that God is good, life is good, even while creation seems to be creaking and groaning in misery. They smile because they know all of this is a mystery, not a tragedy, and it is the training ground for our liberation. They smile a smile of total engagement, not of personal escape from negativity. They have not turned away from the rest of us, they have given themselves fully to us. And they cry as freely as they smile.
When Sita and I returned from our first meeting with the Dalai Lama in India, I said to my dear elder, Father Murray Rogers, that even though the Dalai Lama is heartbroken over the Tibetan situation and fully involved with the suffering of his people, he was by far the happiest person I had ever met. Father Murray said, "Yes, Bo, and can you imagine how much pain that man has been willing to endure in order to become this happy?"
Endure, not avoid. Let his heart break further and further, not ask his mind four questions. Most of us know the old saying, "The only way out is through." It's still true.
Trusting Our Lives
My son, Josh, holds a black belt in Aikido. He once wrote an article titled "Hard on the Outside, Soft on the Inside" for an Aikido magazine. His point was that the true martial artist, like the true spiritual seeker, must be hard enough, tough enough, on the outside to move through this difficult world without falling apart or caving in every time something bad happens, or when someone is cruel; yet his heart must always be soft on the inside, sympathetic and compassionate, not bitter or cynical or numb to his own pain or the suffering of others.
We can move through prison life, corporate life, family life, community life, tough as nails to deal with reality but with hearts of butter underneath that toughness. We can move through happy days and blue days with soft hearts and a feeling of connection to the ups and downs of others across the world. On our happiest days we can humbly remember that not everyone is happy, and on our most depressed days we can softly remind ourselves that not everyone is blue. We don't need gimmicks to cheerlead ourselves into a positive state. We don't need to be afraid of our low times. The Psalms say "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens."
Do we believe it? Do we believe that happy times and sad times all have their purpose, their season? Can we snap ourselves out of the consumer mentality that leads us to believe the highest goal in life is to look and feel great right now, and to be better off than our neighbor?
There are countless fad diets, but the safest way to lose weight is: Eat less, exercise more, and do it forever. Same thing with living deeply. If we want to discover the Heaven that Jesus tells us is within us, we have to be unselfish and compassionate, and do it forever. No gimmicks, no excuses. Just be a little less selfish and a little more loving every day, working with every reality Life brings us, including hard times and blues. St. Paul tells us, For The believer, all things work toward the good . . .
Maybe It's Okay to Feel Blue
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