Saturday, April 1, 2017

Skillful Means

The Buddhists have a concept called upaya – “skillful means.” It grew out of the simple observation that one shoe does not fit all feet, and that we often have to change our approach as the situation around us changes. Principles and rules are fine, but without the freedom to adapt to the realities before us, we fail.
            It began in early Buddhism as the acknowledgment that different people employ different techniques to attain enlightenment. Some meditated in solitude, others committed acts of compassionate service, while others devoted their lives to philosophical discourse and intellectual rigor. If enlightenment is available to all, a fundamental Buddhist precept, whether a learned king or an illiterate pauper, then surely the paths to wisdom are many and varied. What matters is the outcome, not obedience to someone else’s path. Upaya simply means: do whatever works.
            The Lotus Sutra tells the famous story of the man who saved his children’s lives by luring them out of a burning house by lying to them. They were too young to understand what fire was, and were too engrossed in their play, so yelling “Run!” wouldn’t have worked. Instead, he told them that outside the gate of the house were all of their favorite toys, the toys they had been begging their father for. Out the gate they ran, only to discover there were no toys waiting for them. Instead of toys, their gift was escaping a horribly painful death. While in principle it may be wrong to lie, clearly, in this case, it was the right thing to do. The crux of the matter is this – one can waste a lot of time arguing in the abstract about whether or not it is ever morally acceptable to deceive another. Or one can leave such idle musings to the scholars and philosophers and simply forge ahead into the messiness of real life, doing one’s best moment by moment to cooperate with the unfolding chaos of the world and work toward the best possible outcome, knowing that paradox, absurdity, and contradiction dog our every step. Upaya reminds us that sometimes the real question is not What is right and what is wrong? but How can we make things better than they are right now? Progress, not perfection.       
            The concept of upaya is particularly useful in the realm of spiritual practice. When I teach meditation, I guide participants through a set of suggestions about how to sit, how to breathe, and how to move through the process of deepening into a state of relaxed stillness. But I make it clear that all of my suggestions are just that, suggestions. In any guided process, whether it’s meditation, yoga, or contemplative prayer, one must adapt the process to one’s unique individuality. Only you know the peculiarities of your body, your mind, and your current energy state. This is not to say that we ignore all suggestion and guidance – there’s a reason we go to teachers and give them our trust. They are discipline-experts who lovingly pass down the best practices of all of those who went before us. But blind obedience to past practices is counter-productive to the ultimate goal. Our teachers and all of their valuable suggestions are like the notation on a sheet of music – it isn’t music until we translate those notes with our living, breathing fingers, hands, hearts, minds, and voices into the vibrations of sound. In the end, we are the instruments through which wisdom manifests itself. And no two renditions of a song are ever alike.
            Nowhere is upaya more evident than on the fringes of religion and philosophy. In the first book of Carlos Castaneda’s remarkable series, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Castaneda recounts his apprenticeship with the Yaqui shaman Don Juan. In the initial stages of the process, Don Juan used jimson weed and peyote to shatter his apprentice’s habitual, conditioned mode of consciousness. As soon as this was accomplished, he promptly dropped the use of all psychotropic substances. They were simply a skillful means to an end, not an end in themselves. It was never about the drugs. It was about the transformation they afforded. So too, as generations of seekers, under the influence of Castaneda’s widely-read books, sought their own mystical visions in the deserts of the southwest in the fog of intoxication, many confused the journey with the destination, descending into drug-soaked oblivion. For some of us, the judicious use of psychotropic compounds under the loving guidance of a trusted friend might be an excellent beginning to a deep and meaningful philosophical and spiritual transformation, as it was for Carlos Castaneda. For others it might prove disastrous.
            Another example of upaya in the fertile fringe of religion and philosophy is the area known as Tantra. Tantric practices had an enormous impact on both Hinduism and Buddhism. Perhaps as a reaction against the overly controlling rules of some yogic and Buddhist monastic practices, Tantra brought the messy worldliness of folk religion, mythology, and shamanism into the ethereal and otherworldly sensibilities of formal religion. If all is One, as Hinduism and Buddhism teach, then why divide the whole of reality into two disparate realms, the sacred and the profane, celebrating one while eschewing the other? Instead, Tantra suggests that we use all of the dimensions of our mind-body experience to heighten spiritual insight, including sexuality and inebriation. Naturally, these activities are especially prone to abuse and misunderstanding, so they must be practiced under the guidance of discipline experts. But at their best, for some people, Tantric practices can be a powerful path of awakening, even if they embrace behaviors that seem on the surface to contradict the core principles of the religions they claim to embrace. Buddha taught against the use of intoxicants. In the disciplined path of Ashtanga Yoga, the mother-path of all yogas, we are to reduce our enmeshment with the material, sensory world, pulling back into an interior awareness of our inherent, abiding, Universal Self. Yet in Tantra, the very opposite seems to be happening. How does this make sense? It doesn’t. Not everything in this big, messy world fits into neat boxes. Sometimes you just have to find your way through the thicket of competing truth claims and trust your own inner-knowing. Sometimes you just have to do what works, and rules be damned.
            While rigid adherence to principle may seem on the surface admirable, in the actual give and take of life, it can lead to outcomes nobody wants. We have to find a way to on one hand adhere to principles when the winds of expediency blow, while on the other hand be willing to bend principles to the realities before us. A guiding notion might be this – as long as love is our intention, not naked self-interest, we can’t go wrong. Principles, at their best, help us guard against self-centeredness and harming others. But when principles fail, we always have upaya to lead us through the terrain where there is no path.   

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Divine Feminine

     Everyone ever born emerged from the body of a woman. All over the world primal cultures understood the sacred source as feminine – the earth as a woman, the sky as a woman, the ripening of the grain as a woman. Then, somewhere along the way, God became a man. Yet the divine feminine sleeps just beneath the surface, waiting to awaken.

      In the 1970s the nascent environmental movement resurrected the Greek goddess Gaia to personify our growing understanding of earth’s ecosystem as a single, living organism. Conceiving of nature not as a series of disjointed mechanical processes, but as a living, breathing, conscious, and interdependent entity restores our intimacy with our mother. We cannot help but care for her better, knowing that as we care for her, we care for ourselves.

      Personification is at the heart of all religion and mythology. We have always attributed human qualities to the forces of nature and the energies within us: thunder a god, rain a goddess, malice a demon, and compassion an angel. Joseph Campbell called these personifications the “masks of eternity.” For Campbell mythic images are externalizations of internal psychological realities – all of the gods, demons, heavens and hells are within us. By projecting them into the outer world of forms we more easily face them, and hopefully, understand them.

      And nowhere is the feminine divine more richly expressed than in Classical mythology – the myths of ancient Greece and Rome. Here we find an extensive pantheon of goddesses exhibiting the diverse energies of our inner experience. Their powers are our powers, no matter our gender. See how many of the following qualities and characteristics you recognize in yourself.

      The Greek goddess Aphrodite, (Venus in later Roman nomenclature), personifies love, sensuality, and beauty. She represents our softer side, our longing for pleasure and luxury, and the transformational power of love. When we lose ourselves in indulgent ecstasy, we are Aphrodite.

      Artemis (Diana) personifies fierce independence, wildlife, and the love of the hunt. Unlike Aphrodite, she never goes to the mall, and doesn’t mind getting dirty. She’s most comfortable beyond all boundaries, alone in the wilderness. When we feel the thrill of the hunt, the surge of ambition, and the joy of freedom we are embodying Artemis.

      Athena (Minerva) personifies wisdom, discernment, and leadership. Here we celebrate the power of the intellect to master mystery, see connections, and chart a path forward for ourselves and others. When we trust ourselves, feel confident, and calmly solve problems with clarity and insight, we are manifesting Athena.

      Demeter (Ceres) personifies abundance, nurturing, the harvest, and fertility. She is the Great Mother, the source of life, and the heart of compassion and care-giving. Everything that grows bursts forth with her energy. She hears and answers the needs of all. When we nurture, cultivate, care for, and honor the life coursing through all things, we are honoring Demeter.

      Hera (Juno) personifies marriage and partnership. She has endless energy, strong confidence, and zero selfishness. Her identity is defined by her ability to strengthen others. She favors mediation over domination. She avoids the spotlight, preferring to apply her many skills in the service of the team. When we sacrifice our private wants for the betterment of our partnerships and draw satisfaction from those we help, we are celebrating Hera.

      Hestia (Vesta) personifies hearth and home. She is the sweet fire that burns within each of us, our center, our comfort, and our refuge. The English words “vest” and “investment” come from her Latin name Vesta, and in both cases, we see the way we are wrapped in self-care when we honor this essential goddess. When we nest and attend to our homes, we are revering Hestia. 

     No matter your gender identification, the qualities of the Classical goddesses are powerful expressions of our own innate powers. The goal is not to identify which of the goddesses we most closely resemble, but to honor and integrate all of them. The goddess is us. So it is that each of us is a manifestation of the Divine Feminine. 

[This article first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the March/April 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Storms Don't Last

When hard times come there’s one thing you can always count on. They don’t last. The world has a way of righting itself. But not before a lot of damage gets done and a lot of people get hurt. Still, it is life’s resiliency that most surprises us. Just when you think the darkness will never end, here comes the sun.
            This is not only true about the affairs of the world – it is also true about our inner life. There are days of sadness that drag you down and days of joy that buoy you over the waves of adversity. There are days when you can’t stop talking, and days when you have nothing to say. These are the natural ebb and flood tides of the cosmos, a field of interconnected energy of which we are an inextricable part. One day stormy, the next placid – why would we be any different?
            4th century B.C.E. wisdom teacher Lao Tzu left us a wealth of insight in the immortal classic Tao Te Ching. This brief collection of cryptic poems speaks to us from deep within the hidden folds of our own wisdom. In chapter 23 of the Gia-fu Feng and Jane English translation Lao Tzu writes:

To talk little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning.
Heavy rain does not last all day.
Why is this? Heaven and earth!
If heaven and earth cannot make things eternal,
How is it possible for man?

Or in the Stephen Mitchell translation:

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

            In Chinese metaphysics, Tao is ultimate reality. Not personified as a deity, Tao pours forth all that is without conscious intention. Unlike the western God who is transcendent, that is, outside of space and time, Tao is imminent or found within the processes of the world, guiding all things, all events, and all processes, including us, from within. Like logos for the Greeks or dharma for the Hindus, Tao is the cosmic pattern of which everything is a part. Heaven and Earth stand for yang and yin, the primordial, complementary modes of energy through which the Tao unfolds. Heaven, or yang, is the assertive, forceful structure that shapes reality, while Earth, or yin, is the receptive stillness within which both cosmic and human affairs unfold. These two polarities are not opposites – they are understood as complementary aspects of a singularity. You can’t have one without the other.
            At the heart of Taoist philosophy is a fluid sense of purposeful change. Things come and go, tides rise and fall, storms rage and dissipate, all with an implacable sense of inevitability and majesty. The wise person, then, learns how to wait. If conditions are not to your liking, they will be soon.
            In light of this portrait, Taoism counsels us to engage in the world with a light touch. Avoid imposing your preconceived plan onto the unfolding Tao. Instead, learn how to harmonize your energy with the energy already flowing around you. In this way, by doing less, you accomplish more.
            When things are chaotic, frightening, and destructive – when the storm is raging – it’s probably best just to hunker down. Soon the tempest will pass and then we can get to work cleaning up the mess and turning the broken pieces of the past into new forms and new solutions. Destruction and chaos are opportunities, even on the personal level. It is from hardship that our wit and wisdom emerge. As Epictetus wrote, “The trials we endure introduce us to our strengths.”
            When Lao Tzu suggests that we “be like the forces of nature,” he is advising us to allow the strengths that well up in us to have their say. It’s o.k. to be angry – just don’t be angry all the time. It’s o.k. to be sad – just don’t let sadness define you. It’s o.k. to celebrate joyfully the beauty of life – just don’t turn frivolity into denial and escapism. As the Hebrew book of wisdom Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” (Eccles 3:1-8)
            Wisdom literature like this reminds us to accept the fluidity of life with all of its sometimes frightening extremes. And to stop evaluating everything from the perspective of how does this affect me? See the bigger picture. It isn’t about you. There are larger forces, larger stakes, larger processes in play. Sometimes you lose, and your loss creates space for the victory of another, or for your own unforeseen bounty, heading inexorably toward you from its hiding place just over the horizon.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Soul Force

Bad vegetarian food at the boarding house sent Mohandas out into the streets of London in search of something better. The young law student found a vegetarian restaurant nearby, and it soon became a regular haunt. There he met a group of Theosophists, Yanks and Brits passionate about the world’s wisdom traditions. They invited him to join their study of the Bhagavad Gita. Even though he was born and raised in India, he had never really paid much attention the Gita. Mohandas K. Gandhi had to journey all the way to London to discover his own spiritual roots.

The Bhagavad Gita would become Gandhi’s most beloved book. He carried chapter two in his pocket and read it every morning, along with the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. The words of Krishna and Jesus formed Gandhi’s blueprint for how to bridge the gulf between the inner and outer life. Should spirituality be a refuge from the field of action, or a stance to take in it?

For Gandhi, a life-long commitment to social justice was born on the metaphorical battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita. In this 2,000 year old text, our hero Arjuna leads an army poised on the edge of battle. Across the field he sees the other army arrayed. He unburdens his heart to his friend and chariot driver Krishna. "Killing is a sin," he says. "I can’t do it." Arjuna collapses in moral paralysis.

Krishna spends the rest of the book encouraging Arjuna to take action, in the process revealing that he is no mere mortal, but an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Krishna speaks with divine authority, and Arjuna has to listen.

On a literal level it seems that Krishna is authorizing violence. But Gandhi interprets the Bhagavad Gita metaphorically – the real battle is waged within each of us. Arjuna’s battlefield symbolizes the field of action in which all of us make the difficult decisions of our lives. If you take action, one set of consequences unfold. If you do not take action, another set of consequences unfold. There is no escape from action. The only freedom we have is the freedom to shape our actions consciously, compassionately, and without self-centeredness. It is not our enemies we must kill; it is our ignorance, ego-attachment, and delusion. We must slash our attachments to self-obsession with the willingness of a warrior.

As Krishna reminds Arjuna, we are at core imperishable spiritual beings, identical with the ground of being itself. Outer forms come and go, but our essence is timeless – it simply is. Therefore, why worry? As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not be anxious.” Is God in charge, or not?

Our role in this messy life is simply to show up and do the work that is ours to do, without attachment to outcomes or ego-expectations. When we perform our duty, Krishna says, Brahman works through us – we become instruments of the divine. When we renounce attachment and act in the consciousness of service, we are free. This, for Gandhi, is how we are to tackle the social justice work of our times: without rancor, without attachment to specific outcomes, and relaxed in the conviction that even a little spiritual progress is enough. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King reminded us, “but it bends toward justice.” And as Gandhi taught, if our means are pure, the ends will take care of themselves. It is not body force or violence that accomplishes our goals, but soul force. When we show up as the consciousness of loving-kindness and cultivate the courage to speak truth to power, while harming no one but ourselves, we have the best shot at co-creating a world that works for everyone. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “There is no way to peace – peace is the way.” Loving our enemies and turning the other cheek are not just inspiring ideals – Gandhi showed us that they are the foundation of pragmatic political action. Soul force knows no limitations, no barriers, and no bounds.

[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the January/February 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]