I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high wall that I was imprisoned; no, it was God who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell but it was not the tree, I knew it was God. It was God whom I saw standing there and holding over me His shade. Or I lay on the coarse blankets that were given me for a bed and felt the arms of God around me, the arms of my Friend and Lover...It was not the magistrate whom I saw, it was God, it was God who was sitting there on the bench. I looked at the Prosecuting Counsel and it was not the Counsel for Prosecution that I saw; it was God.
- Sri Aurobindo, 1908
Many years ago, before he died, my father-in-law said there was one thing I had told him in the 1960's which made him look at his life differently. I asked him what it was and he replied, "You told me not to take my life so personally. That was the strangest thing anyone had ever said to me. But it affected me deeply."
The above description by Sri Aurobindo (imprisoned for revolutionary activities against British rule in India), is the ultimate direct experience of not taking things personally. His description is not daydreaming or poetry or philosophy; it's as real and clear as seeing your own hand in front of your face. It's not something merely to believe in; we must understand that one day we will see with those same eyes.
Those of us who have had the good fortune to spend time in the presence of a holy man or holy woman, a true spiritual master of some sort, have had at least a glimmer of the experience of impersonal love. On the one hand, the love of such people is immense and intense and incomparable; that's what draws people to them. Yet on the other hand, it is not in the least bit personal. You know that they love the person next to you just as intensely and totally as they love you, and the next one after that and the next one after that...
The love we feel from a master is not because we are pretty or rich or smart or clever or good; it's not a love based on anything personal. Rather, it's an oceanic and impersonal love based on the Big Truth of the Universe: God alone exists. And God is Love. That's what they see in every direction: It's all Love, and it's not personal.
We are caught in our small identity, while they are seeing our Large Identity. We are concerned with getting what we want, avoiding what we fear, protecting our lives at all cost; while they simply love us whether we are dead or alive, happy or unhappy, addicted or not addicted, in prison or in the White House - these are all meaningless trivial details to that sort of Love.
The Holy Ones love because Love Alone Is. And they teach us that such Impersonal, Unconditional Love is the only kind of love which does not lead to endless suffering.
When Aurobindo, in the above story, saw the jail and the prosecutor and judge as God, he was freed from the personal drama entirely. He was then acting in a play written, produced and directed by God, and starring God as all the characters. That doesn't mean he passively accepted injustice or evil; quite the contrary. I'm sure he turned in a brilliant performance for his own defense.
But like Jesus, it no longer mattered to Aurobindo whether he personally was found guilty or not guilty. His defense was not to save his own skin, but rather it was to defend right versus wrong, oppression versus democracy. He didn't care whether he spent his life in prison or in a palace; he was already free, he would be much the same in either environment. So without personal fear of any consequences, he could be the very best champion of his cause. He was fighting for something larger than himself.
Total truth is necessary. You must live by what you say. Men will hate you for telling the truth. They will call you names. They may even kill you, but you must tell the truth. If you live in truth, God will always stand with you.
- Neem Karoli Baba
If you have ever watched a true martial arts master (not the movie guys, but rather the ones who would never glorify violence by doing such a movie) in action, then you must have noticed how impersonal their behavior was. They are calm like scientists, focused like meditation masters, and free from the clutches of anger or fear.
The bulk of training in martial arts is to move beyond personal anger and fear in order to heighten one's powers of attentiveness and gracefulness. It is never another person whom you are attacking or defending against, but rather you are taking a stand against aggression and hostility. That's why every genuine martial art stresses peacemaking first and physical conflict as a very last resort. No martial artist is anxious to harm or humiliate another human being if it can possibly be avoided. Violence is never used in service of a personal grudge, but only to defend the weak or uphold order and justice.
A noble Samurai warrior pledged to track down and kill the man who had murdered his master. He spent every waking moment for three years hunting his prey. To avenge his master's death was the most sacred duty to a Samurai. His life would be a failure if he did not do so. Finally, after tracking him through cities and towns and far-flung ports, he cornered the killer in an alley. It was definitely the right man, there was no doubt about it. The Samurai drew his sword and prepared to fulfill his duty, when suddenly the murderer spat in his face.
The Samurai hesitated for a moment, then sheathed his sword and began to walk away, his head hung down in shame. The man was so shocked that he ran after the Samurai and said, "But wait; I am indeed the man you sought. Why did you not kill me?" The Samurai replied, "Because I got angry when you spat in my face."
The moment it became personal, the Samurai was no longer upholding honor or justice. The moment it became personal, he was no longer a Samurai, but just an angry man with a sword. He knew, from his own training and the spiritual teachings of the sages and saints, that his action and its consequences changed completely in that one moment.
It's Not About "US"
What a hard teaching to explain - that life is not really about "us," it's not about people and events, as we think it is; it's actually about Divine Principles being played out on the stage of people and events. As people and events, we are essentially meaningless - "Life's a bitch and then you die." But as agents of the Divine, as characters in the never-ending "Play of God," we are heroes and heroines grappling with good and evil, loss and gain, pleasure and pain, hope and despair, compassion and apathy, generosity and greed, perseverance and laziness, courage and cowardice, love and hatred - the classic, universal forces which naturally oppose each other in each of us and in the universe as a whole.
All we know of historical figures, biblical figures, ancient martyrs and tyrants, is what they stood for. We don't especially know how tall they were or what their voices sounded like or their favorite color or whether they had bad breath, because our interest in them is not personal. All that's relevant for us are the principles they lived and died for; the inspiration or lessons they left behind. The story of Daniel in the lions' den is not meant to teach us about a man named Daniel, but rather about the power of faith. When our parents tell us about the boy who cried wolf, it's to emphasize the consequences of lying, not to tell us about a tragedy involving some boy and a wolf. The characters are not personally important, just the principles. The same thing applies to the events. If it had been Daniel in the wolves' den and the boy who cried lion, would it make any difference?
If Only We Could See That About Our Own Lives!
We have a very short life-span, really we do. As Shakespeare put it, "We strut and fret our hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more." Yet we put all our attention on personal concerns, and on an endless chain of specific events which are no more important in themselves than whether the boy cried wolf or lion or locomotive. Our lives are about sacred principles, just like the lives of the characters in those stories.
We are given moment-by-moment opportunities to choose well or poorly. Choosing well, according to the saints and sages of all religions, is to choose the unselfish, the compassionate, the merciful and generous. Choosing poorly is to choose the selfish, the fearful, the short-term gain, the vested interest. It doesn't matter what our excuses are or what others have done to us. If you choose well, you represent the best of the sacred principles; if you choose poorly, you represent the worst of them.
All suffering comes from cherishing ourselves.
All happiness comes from cherishing others.
- old Tibetan saying
We are put here to love, respect and help each other. If we love, respect and help each other, we experience the connectedness between us and we touch the deeper meaning of life. If we don't love, respect and help each other, but instead get lost in fending for ourselves, protecting ourselves, acquiring riches for ourselves, etc., then we miss the point of being born, we miss the meaning and purpose of life by a mile. It's not personal. It's just the way we are designed.
This is the teaching of India:
A God not only impersonal, but personal also -
personal more perfectly, because Impersonal first.
- Swami Kriyananda
A friend once asked, "You and Sita and Josh have such a strong bond. What's the secret?" My response was, "The secret is that we all love the Dharma (Spiritual truth, the Way) more than we love each other." Even as it came out of my mouth, I could hear how awful that sounded in our contemporary culture. Wasn't I supposed to say, "We love each other more than anything else?" But the truth is, first the impersonal, then the personal. Loving God, truth, Dharma, the path, first, is what gives a proper context to the love we have for each other. Without a context, personal love can be the road to hell. "Baby, I love you more than anything. I would do anything for you. I'd lie, cheat, steal or kill for you."
That sort of love never ends well. It always ends, but not well. It is emotion without intelligence. Emotion can be wonderful when guided and controlled by wisdom, but without it, it's as dangerous as a sportscar careening all over the highway with no driver.
Our lives must be about something bigger than the emotional self. Jesus said, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven, and everything else will be provided." In other words, recognize the biggest, loftiest, eternal principles first, then play your part with gusto.
Be as quick to defend the rights of a stranger as you would a member of your family. It's the rights you're defending, not the person. Be generous to the poor, whether you know them or not. It's mercy you're expressing, not personal affection. Forgive those who have wronged you, not because they deserve it, but because forgiveness is on the side of the saints, while grudges and vengeance bring the world one step closer to destruction. Take sides constantly with what is highest, noblest and good. Then see what happens.
And this is always the central purpose of spiritual practice: To be clear-minded and courageous enough to uphold what is right and good. It's often hard to tell the difference between right and wrong. If our minds are fogged by drugs or alcohol or lust or anger, then it's virtually impossible. We stumble around in confusion, and even when we try to do good, most often we're like a bull in a china shop, blundering about wrecking things.
To choose well, we must live well. We must respect our minds, bodies, and spirit. Self-discipline is essential. True tolerance and goodwill are essential. These qualities don't come about by reading a book. We must devote ourselves to practice and study and good works. We must take care of ourselves, not for selfish reasons, but simply because if we're not in good shape we won't be very helpful to others either.
It's not personal. It's much bigger than that. Each of us is the full repository of good and evil, each of us is the hero of God's divine drama being enacted on Earth, each of us is creating the future of the world with each decision we make.