The Yoga of Arjuna's Crisis
No Life without Struggle
Dhritarāshtra asked: Sanjaya, what did my sons and the sons of Pāndu do, when they were gathered for the sake of fighting on the field of dharma, in the field of the Kurus?
Forces in the Battle of Life
Sanjaya said: Having seen the armies of the Pāndavas, Duryodhana approached his Teacher [Drona] and said, Behold, O Teacher, this vast army of the Pāndavas, arrayed by Drupada’s son, your gifted pupil.
Here are heroes, great archers, the equals of Bhīma and Arjuna in battle; Yuyudhāna, Virāta, and the great warrior Drupada; Dhrishtaketu, Chekitāna, and the valiant king of Kāshi; Purujit, and Kuntibhoja, and that bull among men, the king of the Shibis; the valorous Yudhāmanyu, the heroic Uttamaujas, the son of Subhadrā, and the sons of Draupadi, all mighty warriors.
Know also, O best among the twice-born, those who are distinguished amongst us. I shall name the leaders of my army for you: yourself, My Lord, and Bhīshma; Karna and Kripa, the winner of many battles; Ashvatthāmā, Vikarna, and the son of Somdatta. Many other heroes, with various weapons and arms, and skilled in battle are also there, ready to give up their lives for my sake. Guarded by Bhīshma, the strength of our army is without limit. But the strength of their army, under the protection of Bhīma, is limited. And so in all movements, stationed according to strategy, you and your men should all guard Bhīshma above all.
Then Bhīshma, the mighty and splendid grandsire, the eldest of the Kurus, thundered forth his lion’s roar and blew his conch, gladdening the heart of Duryodhana.
The Inner and Outer Battlefield
Conches and kettledrums, tabors, horns, cymbals and trumpets blared forth together making a tumultuous sound. Then in a great chariot yoked to white stallions,Mādhava [Krishna] and the son of Pāndu [Arjuna] blew their divine [divya] conches. Hrishikesha [Krishna] sounded Pānchajanya and Dhananjaya [Arjuna] sounded his Devadatta. Bhīma, wolf-belly, the man of terrible deeds, blew his great conch Paundra; the king Yu-dhishthira, the son of Kunti, blew Anantavijaya, Nakula and Sahadeva sounded Sughosha and Manipushpaka.
The king of Kāshi, the superb archer; and Shikhandi on his great chariot; Dhrishtadyumna; Vira-ta, the unconquered; Satyaki; Draupada and sons of Draupadi; and Subhadrā’s son, the mighty-armed, blew their conches on all sides, O Lord of earth. That tumultuous uproar re-echoing through the earth and the sky tore the hearts of Dhritarāshtra’s sons.
Then, as the clash of arms had begun, seeing the sons of Dhritarāshtra, the monkey-bannered Arjuna lifted up his bow and spoke to Krishna: O Unshaken One [achyuta], stay my chariot between the two armies so that I may see these people who long for battle and whom I have to meet in this game of war. I wish to see those who are gathered here ready to fight desiring to please the evil-minded [durbuddhi] son of Dhritarāshtra. Thus addressed by Arjuna, O Bhārata [Dhritarāshtra], Krishna brought the best of the chariots between the two armies in front of Bhīshma, Drona, and all the princes of the earth and said, Behold, O Son of Prithā [Arjuna], these assembled Kurus.
Then Arjuna saw uncles and grandfathers, teachers, cousins, sons and grandsons, comrades, fathers-in-law, and benefactors in the opposing armies. Seeing all those kinsmen, Arjuna was filled by great pity and spoke with sadness: Seeing my own people, set for battle, O Krishna, my limbs sink down, and my mouth becomes parched, my body shudders, and my hair stands on end. My bow falls from my hand, and my skin is burning. I cannot be still and my mind wanders. I perceive inauspicious omens, Krishna, and I foresee no good arising from the killing of kinsmen in battle. I do not desire victory, O Krishna, or sovereignty or pleasures. Of what use is kingdom to us, of what use enjoyment or even life? Those for whose sake we desire to win kingdom, possessions, and pleasures are gathered here for battle, ready to give up life and wealth: teachers, fathers, sons, as also grandfathers, uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and other kinsmen as well.
Even though they may kill us, I do not wish to kill them, O slayer of Madhu, not even for the sovereignty of the three worlds, much less for that of this earth. What joy will be ours, O Krishna, by slaying these sons of Dhritarāshtra? Evil alone would light upon us if we slay these aggressors. Therefore we should not kill these sons of Dhritarāshtra, our kinsmen. How can we be happy, O Krishna, by killing our own people? Although they, with their minds overcome by greed, see no evil in destroying the family or the crime in hostility to friends, why should we, O Krishna, who see the evil resulting from destruction of the family, not turn away from this sin?
Even though they may kill us, I do not wish to kill them.
With the destruction of the family, the eternal dharma of the family is destroyed; with the collapse of the dharma, disorder overwhelms the whole family. When disorder predominates, O Krishna, the women of the family go astray. When the women are corrupted, O Krishna, a mixture of castes results. This confusion leads the destroyers of the family and the family itself to hell; their ancestors fall, for they are deprived of offerings and oblations. When the destroyers of the family lead to the confusion of castes, the eternal dharma of the caste and that of the family are destroyed. Those whose family traditions are destroyed, O Krishna, are doomed to live perpetually in hell—thus have we heard.
Alas! in preparing to kill our kin out of greed for the pleasures of kingship we have set out to do a great evil. It would be better for me if the armed sons of Dhritarāshtra slay me unarmed and unresisting in the battle.
Having thus spoken on the battlefield, abandoning his bow and arrows, Arjuna sat down in the back of the chariot, his mind agitated by grief.
The Yoga of Awareness
An Inward Turn
Sanjaya said: Krishna, the Slayer of Madhu, spoke to Arjuna who was besieged by pity [kripā], whose eyes were full of tears, and whose heart was full of sorrow, O Arjuna, whence does this weakness come? It brings no glory, it is unbecoming to the noble and it does not lead to heaven. Yield not to unmanliness, son of Pritha; it is unworthy of you. Shake off this petty faint-heartedness, and arise, O Terror of the Enemies [Parantapa]!
Arjuna said, How, O Slayer of Madhu, O Slayer of Enemies, shall I fight in battle with arrows against Bhīshma and Drona who are worthy of respect? It is better to live in this world on alms than to slay these teachers of great nobility. If I slay these teachers all the pleasures I shall taste will be blood-stained. We do not know which is the better course for us—whether we should conquer them or they should conquer us. If we slay the sons of Dhritarāshtra who stand before us, we would not care to live.
My very being [svabhāva] is afflicted with the flaw of pity [kārpanyadosha] and weakness of spirit. My mind is confused about dharma. I ask you: tell me decisively which is better. I am your pupil for I have taken refuge in you; teach me. I do not see what would drive away this sorrow which parches my senses. Even winning a prosperous and unrivaled kingdom on earth, or even lordship over the gods, will not ease this sorrow.
Sanjaya spoke: Gudākesha [Arjuna], the Terror of his Enemies, having spoken thus to Govinda [Krishna], Lord of the Senses, added “I will not fight,” and then fell silent.
A Vaster Vision
O Dhritarāshtra! Krishna smiled and spoke to the desperate warrior there between the two armies. He said, You speak wise-seeming words, but you grieve for those you should not grieve for. The wise do not grieve for the dead or for the living.
There never was a time when I or you or these princes did not exist; nor will there ever be a time when we shall cease to be. As the incarnated being [dehī] in this body passes through childhood, youth and old age, so it passes on to another body. A sage is not bewildered by this. O Arjuna, the physical sensations, which cause cold and heat, pleasure and pain, come and go. They are transient; learn to endure them, O Bhārata [Arjuna]. O Best of Men, the wise to whom happiness and unhappiness are alike are not shaken by these; they are fit for eternal life [amritattva].
What is real cannot cease to be, and the unreal cannot come into being. The truth about both is seen by the seers. Know that which pervades all this is indestructible. No one can destroy the imperishable. Bodies of the incarnated Eternal can be destroyed, but the Eternal Itself is indestructible and immeasurable. Therefore fight, O Bhārata [Arjuna].”
Whoever thinks the Eternal One slays, or thinks of it as slain, lacks understanding. It neither slays nor is it slain. It is not born, nor does it die; having been, it will never cease to be. Unborn, eternal, everlasting this primal one is not slain when the body is slain. One who knows it to be indestructible, eternal, unborn, and imperishable, how can that person slay, O Pārtha [Arjuna], or cause anyone to be slain?
Just as a person discards worn-out clothes and puts on new ones, so the dweller in the body discards worn-out bodies and takes on new ones. Weapons do not cut it, fire cannot burn it, water does not make it wet, nor does the wind dry it. It cannot be cut, it cannot be burned, it cannot be made wet or dry. It is eternal, all-pervading, permanent, immovable, and primordial. It is unmanifest, unthinkable, and immutable. Knowing this, you should not grieve.
What is real cannot cease to be, and the unreal cannot come into being.
Even if you think that it is born and dies repeatedly, even then, O mighty-armed, you should not grieve. Death is certain for one who is born, and rebirth is certain for one who dies. You should not grieve for what is inevitable. The beginnings of all beings are unmanifest, and they are unmanifest again in their end, O Arjuna; only their middle states are manifest. What is there to lament about this?
Rarely someone sees it, rarely someone speaks of it, and rarely someone hears of it; but even on hearing of it no one knows it. O Arjuna, the incarnated being in the body of every creature is eternal and indestructible. Therefore you should not grieve.
Considering your own dharma, you should not tremble, for there is no greater good for a warrior than a battle required by dharma. Happy are the warriors, O Arjuna, who encounter such a battle, as a gate of heaven open wide.
But if you will not wage this dharma war, you will abandon your own dharma and glory and incur sin. Besides, people will forever speak of your infamy, and for one who has been esteemed, disgrace is worse than death. The great warriors will think you deserted out of fear, and those who highly esteemed you will belittle you. Many unspeakable words will be spoken by your detractors slandering your strength. What is more painful than that?
If you are slain, you will win heaven; if you are victorious, you will enjoy the earth. Therefore arise, O Arjuna, determined to fight! If you become impartial to joy and sorrow, gain and loss, winning and losing, and engage in this battle, you will not incur sin.
What has been declared to you, O Arjuna, is the theoretical wisdom; now listen to the yoga of awareness [buddhi yoga]. When you are disciplined with it, you will be free from the bondage of action [karmabandhana]. On this path no effort is lost and no harm occurs. Even a little practice of this dharma protects one from great danger. The awareness of the resolute has a unity, O Arjuna; the awareness of the irresolute is endlessly fragmented [bahushākhā].
O Arjuna, undiscerning people are satisfied with the letter of the scriptures [Vedas] and uttering flowery words while engaging in many rituals and rites for attaining selfish desires [kāmātman] and heaven, saying, “There is nothing else.” The fruit of these actions is rebirth. The awareness of those whose heart is carried away by words and who cling to pleasures and power is not established in contemplation [samādhi].
The scope of the scriptures [Vedas] is limited to the three gunas [strands of material causality]; but you, Arjuna, should transcend the three gunas. Free of opposites, constantly oriented to truth, without acquisitiveness, be self-possessed. All the scriptures [Vedas] have as much value for those who have spiritual discernment as the water in a well has when there is a flood of water on all sides.
You have a right only to action, never to its fruit. Do not let your motive be the fruits of action, but do not be attached to inaction. O Dhananjaya [Arjuna], do your work established in yoga and abandon attachment. Be impartial to success or failure, for yoga is equanimity [samatvam].
Actions are far inferior to buddhi yoga, O Dhananjaya; seek refuge in awareness [buddhi]. Those who are motivated by results are pitiful. One who is in buddhi yoga leaves behind both good and evil deeds. Yoga is skill in action, therefore strive for yoga.
The wise who renounce the results of their actions through buddhi yoga are freed from the compulsion of birth and attain the state that is free from sorrow. When your awareness is free from the tangle of delusion, then you will become indifferent to what has been said by the scriptures and what might be said. When your awareness, now perplexed by the scriptures, is steady and stable in contemplation [samādhi], then you will attain yoga.
Ravi Ravindra, PhD, is an international speaker and the author of books on religion, science, and spirituality. A Canadian of Indian birth, he is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where he served for many years as a professor in Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Physics. His spiritual search has immersed him in the teachings of Yoga, Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, and Christianity, as well as interreligious dialogue and the relationship between science and spirituality. Learn more.
The Power of Intention
An Excerpt from Say What You Mean
"I developed NVC as a way to train my attention—to shine the light of consciousness—on places that have the potential to yield what I am seeking. What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving of the heart."
—Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg
Have you ever persevered through a challenging situation with a friend and come out the other side with more respect for one another? Or worked out a disagreement with a loved one, finding that you feel even closer, with more care and affection?
Intimacy is born in conflict. Difference can bring us together and help us know one another. Friction can be creative and synergistic, leading to new ideas and perspectives. These kinds of conversations are characterized by very different intentions than our unconscious communication behavior.
What if there were a way to identify and support the conditions that lead to this kind of experience? A way to shift out of our habitual responses to conflict to a more helpful approach? This is one of the central questions behind Marshall Rosenberg’s development of Nonviolent Communication. In the beginning of his seminal book, he writes:
Believing that it is our nature to enjoy giving and receiving in a compassionate manner, I have been preoccupied most of my life with two questions. What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?1
Rosenberg grew up in Detroit in the 1940s. During that time, he witnessed the race riots in which dozens of people lost their lives. These events, and his experiences of anti-Semitism as a youngster, seeded in him a passion for understanding the roots of violence. He discovered that our thoughts and speech play a huge role in our ability to stay connected to compassion. His method of NVC comprises a systematic training of our attention—relearning how to think, speak, and listen in ways that are more conducive to peace and harmony.
Instead of getting caught in habitual narratives of blame and judgment, in NVC we learn to identify the specific observations we want to discuss, our feelings about those events, the deeper human needs from which those feelings arise, and our requests for how to move forward together. We learn to listen in the same way, sensing what’s beneath others’ words. The entire system rests upon one core theme: creating a quality of connection sufficient to meet needs.2
This isn’t about what we say but rather where we’re coming from. It’s about our intention.
When Daryl Davis Met the KKK
Daryl Davis is an African American musician and author who spent the first years of his life abroad. It wasn’t until age ten, in 1968, that he discovered people could hate him for his skin color. While marching with his all-white Cub Scout troop in Massachusetts, people threw rocks and bottles at him. The incident sparked a lifelong curiosity about human attitudes. “How can you hate me when you don’t know me?” he wondered.
Years later, after playing a gig in an all-white bar in Maryland, Davis was approached by a white man who said it was the first time he’d “heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.” Davis shared that Jerry Lee Lewis was a friend of his and that Lewis had learned to play from black musicians. The two continued their conversation and over time became friends. The man eventually shared the names of local KKK leaders, whom Davis contacted and interviewed for a book he was writing.
Davis asked them about their views on various subjects and listened. At first, the Klansmen never asked Davis for his thoughts, believing he was “inferior.” However, with patient, friendly conversation and through Davis’s continual effort to create a real connection, they gradually became interested in his side of things. It was as if Davis’s own warmth and respect slowly drew forth those very qualities in them.
In the end, he formed friendships with many Klansmen whose beliefs shifted after getting to know Davis. Many left the Klan and even gave Davis their robes and hoods. Over the course of his work, Davis has convinced—through dialogue and friendship—more than two hundred members of the KKK to leave the organization.3 Daryl Davis may have never taken an NVC class, but he understands the power of intention. When we create genuine human connection, radical transformation is possible.
Intention is the single most powerful and transformative ingredient in dialogue. It shapes our verbal and nonverbal communication, directing the course of a conversation. If you take nothing else from this whole book, I hope you will take with you the importance the intention to understand, to come from curiosity and care, has in your interactions.
This intention to understand represents a fundamental, radical shift at the basis of our orientation to a dialogue. It involves weeding from our consciousness any blame, defensiveness, control, or manipulation and instead focusing on creating a quality of connection that is conducive to collaboration. Everything I share with you in this book is designed toward this end: creating more connection and understanding.
To make this shift, we need to see the limits of our habitual responses and the value of the intention to understand—its potential for transformation, creativity, and wholeness. There are two key principles that support this. The first runs through this entire book: the less blame and criticism in our words, the easier it will be for others to hear us. When someone trusts that we’re actually interested in understanding them—that we’re not manipulating things to get our way, that we’re not trying to win or prove them wrong—they can stop defending themselves and just hear what we’re saying.
Principle: The less blame and criticism, the easier it is for others to hear us.
From this perspective, it’s in our best interest to come from curiosity and care. If we’re rooted in this intention, our verbal and nonverbal communication sends the message that we’re genuinely interested, which ultimately helps create the space to hear each other and work together.
This leads to the next principle: the more mutual understanding, the easier it is to work together and find creative solutions. This seems self-evident, yet we often lose sight of this simple fact. When we comprehend the deeper reasons behind what each of us wants, we can start to collaborate.
Principle: The more mutual understanding, the easier it is to work together and find creative solutions.
We’re wired to feel joy when we give and to feel empathy in the face of suffering. Contributing to others is one of the most rewarding experiences we can have. This natural impulse is like an inexhaustible well of goodwill deep within the human spirit.
Because we feel joy in giving and compassion with suffering, when we fully understand one another we want to help instinctively. If I truly understand what’s in your heart, why you want what you want, I am moved to find a way to work together. When I can help you see why something is important to me, priorities shift and there’s more space and willingness to collaborate. (Just think of a time when you initially said no to a request, only to agree later when you better understood the situation.)
This approach to conflict is at the heart of nonviolent resistance. We have more power and integrity when appealing to the humanity of our fellow beings. This was the principle underlying Gandhi’s work, the civil rights movement, and why Rosenberg named his method Nonviolent Communication. Taking this approach doesn’t mean that we are passive, that we don’t assert ourselves or take a stand for what we believe in. Cultivating the intention to understand makes us more effective by leveraging our connection to one another’s humanity.4
A Different Way of Seeing
Davis’s story, and the stories of many others who meet hatred, racism, and bigotry with love, points to a different way of viewing the world. It’s a view that Rosenberg was seeking when he asked questions about the nature of compassion and violence. It depends on our ability to look for the humanity in each other, to see beyond our disagreements to something more essential.
All human actions are attempts to meet fundamental needs. Beneath our behaviors, preferences, beliefs, and desires are certain longings for physical, relational, or spiritual needs. We all have needs for safety, belonging, connection, and empathy. We have needs for meaning, contribution, creativity, or peace.
One finds this idea across many religious, spiritual, and contemplative traditions, as well as in the behavioral and social sciences. In Buddhism, it’s put succinctly: “All beings want to be happy.” It’s the kind of wisdom that struck me as being right intuitively the first time I heard it. What happiness looks like differs from person to person, even from day to day, but at the root is an attempt to meet our needs.
Principle: Everything we do, we do to meet a need.
Remembering this perspective is one key to being able to come from curiosity and care. The view calls forth the intention. Whatever is happening, we can get curious about the deeper human needs and values beneath our words or actions. When we understand each other at the level of our needs, our similarities outweigh our differences. This, in turn, creates a generative, positive cycle of views, intentions, and experiences.
The great strength of this approach is that it’s not limited to our intimate relationships. Whether we want to enjoy time with a friend, collaborate with a coworker, or build a diverse coalition, our genuine intention to understand has the power to create or enhance connection (for its own sake and in service of meeting needs).
To employ this in conversation requires a few things. First, we need to build our capacity to come from curiosity and care. We need to really home in on what it feels like to have a genuine intention to understand so that we can bring our mind back there at will. Next, we need to train ourselves to notice when we’re operating from our habitual tendencies. Last, we learn how to find our way back to curiosity and care.
Coming from Curiosity and Care
Every child is born with a natural desire to understand their world. Just as we have the innate capacity to be aware, we all have the capacity to be interested. Just as we can train ourselves in presence, we can cultivate the intention to understand.
To genuinely understand something requires curiosity and care. Curiosity means that we are interested in learning. Learning requires humility; we must be willing to not know. To understand means “to stand beneath.” To comprehend anything, we need to put aside our preconceived ideas and be open to new ways of seeing.
Curiosity also requires patience. Conservationist and researcher Cynthia Moss shared that it took her twenty years of observing elephants, closely studying their habits and movements, before she began to realize how complex they were.5 Such enduring patience can only arise when there is true curiosity, a deep intention to understand.
In order to be interested in something, to give attention, we also need to care. We don’t pay attention to things we don’t care about, and we don’t care about things we don’t pay attention to. This caring can be about many things. We might care about integrity, staying true to our values. We might care about peace and well-being. We might care about broadening our perspective. We might care about resolving conflict in our own lives in order to nourish hope that we can do better as a society. We might care about transforming the systems and institutions within which we live.
What’s essential is the quality of care itself, goodwill connected to the empathic sense. It includes warmth, vulnerability, and flexibility. Care means that we are open to being affected by what we learn, that we are committed to seeing the other person’s humanity, and that we are willing to include their needs in the situation rather than be rigidly fixated on getting what we want in exactly the way we want it. All of this is possible with practice.
PRACTICE: Coming from Curiosity and Care
Explore cultivating curiosity and care in conversation. Beforehand, reflect on your intention. How do you want to approach things? Where do you want to come from inside? See if you can find a genuine intention to understand the other person—their thoughts, views, feelings, or needs. How does it feel to be genuinely interested?
Try recalling this perspective when you are in conversation. What matters to this person? What do they long for or need? What is the effect when you are able to come from curiosity and care? As always, try this out in low-stakes situations at first.
Mindfulness and the Intention to Understand
Our ordinary relationship to experience is to judge and control it. Sit down and observe your own mind for a few minutes and you’ll notice these tendencies firsthand. We react to experience by moving toward what’s pleasant and away from what’s unpleasant, judging the pleasant as good and the unpleasant as bad.
Through mindfulness practice we find that this habit is not only futile but also stressful and exhausting. We waste a great deal of our energy chasing pleasure and resisting pain, trying to control things beyond our sphere of influence. The basic shift we make over and over again in formal meditation is to cultivate the intention to understand experience rather than judge or control it. The more we explore this in mindfulness practice, the more readily we can make this shift in our conversations and day-to-day lives.
PRACTICE: Observing with the Intention to Understand
Take ten minutes or more for seated mindfulness practice. Do whatever helps you to arrive: orient; take some slow, deep breaths; relax into your sitting posture.
Let your attention settle with the sensations of breathing in and breathing out, allowing your breath to be natural. Whenever you notice your mind has wandered, gently let go and bring your attention back to breathing.
Pay particular attention to when your mind reacts to experience, liking or disliking what happens. When you feel something unpleasant, do you resist it, pulling away? When you feel something pleasant, do you try to hold on to it? When thoughts come, do you grow frustrated or berate yourself? Notice how your mind judges and tries to control the flow of experience.
Each time you notice this reactivity, cultivate an intention to understand rather than to judge. Whatever is happening, can you bring some curiosity and care to the experience? Try to notice the difference between when your mind is interested in the present moment and when it is reacting—pushing or pulling, leaning forward or manipulating. Which happens automatically? Which is more peaceful?
There are many ways to cultivate the intention to understand in the midst of conversation. For me, one of the primary ways of strengthening curiosity and care has been to integrate these qualities into my daily life. Try it out for a period of time—a day, a week, or more. Anything that occurs—an email, a conversation—simply aim to understand. “What matters here—to me, to them? What can I learn from this?” The more we remember this way of looking at things and feel a sincere interest in learning, the easier it becomes to approach dialogue in this way.
1. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, 1.1. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, 1.
2. NVC encourages the practitioner to create connection sufficient to accomplish the task at hand. In personal and intimate relationships, connection can be an end in and of itself. In other arenas, connection is in service of some shared goal. We aim to create enough understanding and genuine connection to accomplish that goal. Failure to recognize this can lead to frustrating experiences in which the practitioner’s focus on connection is misattuned to their interlocutor. For example, if I ask for a glass of water, I’m not wanting empathy for my thirst!
3. Daryl Davis, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America, directed by Matt Ornstein (Los Angeles: Sound & Vision, 2015), https://accidental courtesy.com.3. Daryl Davis, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America, directed by Matt Ornstein (Los Angeles: Sound & Vision, 2015), https://accidental courtesy.com.
4. Dialogue and nonviolent resistance share the creation of the Beloved Community as their goal. Dialogue with those in power is the first request; nonviolent resistance creates pressure toward dialogue, “pushing the powerful into a moral corner” in order to change the way systems function. For more, see Kashtan, Spinning Threads of Radical Aliveness, 319.
5. Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (New York: Picador, 2015), 13.
Oren J. Sofer leads retreats and workshops on mindful communication around the United States, particularly in Insight Meditation venues, including Spirit Rock, Insight Meditation Society, and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, but also in educational settings, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more.
[An Excerpt on the practice of tsok, or ganachakra, from The Tantric Path of Indestructible Wakefulness, the Vajrayana volume of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma]
Feast Practice and the Destruction of Rudra
In connection with samaya, one of the practices that has been developed is called a feast offering, or tsokkyi khorlo. Tsok is “feast,” kyi means “of,”and khorlo is “chakra” or “wheel”; so tsokkyi khorlo means “wheel of feast”or “feast offering.” Vajrayana practitioners are supposed to do a feast offering on the tenth day and the twenty-fifth day of the lunar calendar,the tenth being the day of the herukas, and the twenty-fifth being the day of the dakinis.* On those days, you must offer a feast connected with the sadhana that you are practicing.
The process of a vajra feast is to collect food and purify it, and then invite your vajra brothers and sisters into the feast to share your experience. You also invite the tathagatas and herukas and dakinis as guests. You visualize them approaching you, and you give them offerings from the feast. This offering is called the select offering. If you have gone against the samaya vows, you make a second offering, called a confession offering,as an amendment of your vows. For the third part of the feast, you make a final offering, called a destruction offering. With this offering some food is taken out and put into a triangular black box in order to invoke Rudra, who is then destroyed or killed on the spot. The killing of Rudra is the third part of the feast. After the ceremony is completed, the students and masters who took part in it share the feast food and drink. At the time of Naropa, feast practice was not all that formalized, so feast practice was more like a seemingly ordinary party. But these offerings and the destruction of Rudra were already a part of the whole thing.
There are two important ingredients to be included in a feast offering:meat and alcohol. Alcohol is connected with passion, and meat is connected with aggression. These are the higher ingredients, and you cannot prepare the feast offering without them. Then you can collect fruits or grains or other food to create a meal.
Indulgence plays a very important part in tantra. However, feast practice seems to have become a rather corrupted situation in Tibet. For example, if somebody wanted to have a good drink, or to eat meat although they were vegetarian, they could put their meat and drink on the shrine table and have an excuse to have a good time. Because it was now vajra food, they figured it would not be breaking their vows.
An ordinary person who has not received abhisheka and has no awareness or respect for the vajrayana approach should not be invited to participate in feast practice. In feast practice, poison and medicine are very close. People with no understanding of vajrayana would have a problem with that. Since they would have no idea of the vajrayana meaning of sacredness, it would seem to them to be a contradiction to have a sacred party going on where everybody was eating and drinking and enjoying themselves. They would think that there must be something wrong. But feast practice is a very deliberate practice. It is not just about having a good old party; that would not quite be a vajra feast. True feast practice is overwhelmingly powerful. Students who were not used to such a vajra practice probably could not keep up with it.
Working with the Samsaric Physical Body
The meaning of the feast offering is to encourage the yogins and yoginis to take care of their bodies, so that their wisdom is not neglected. The yoginis and yogins of the vicinity join together to make sure that they are working with the samsaric physical body. By working with the samsaric physical body, you also work with the greater mandala-realm world at the same time.
As the Hevajra Tantra says: “Great wisdom abides within the body.Therefore, one should give up any questions completely. That which pervades all things comes from the body and the sense organs, but at the same time it does not come from the body and sense organs.” This means that the body is the source of the path, and that without the body, you cannot have the path and the journey.
So the body should be treated well. But you do not do so just to make the body a good solid ladder, to just maintain it so you can tread on it.You should respect the body as the inner vajra mandala. The idea is that the body is very sacred, and it is also the property of the herukas of the mandala.
Other Books Discussing Tsok
The Breath as a Resource
An Excerpt from The Monkey Is the Messenger
"There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom."
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
The breath is a most precious resource that we routinely ignore. Simply put: no breath, no body, no you. Although the body can go for days without food and water, if you deprive your body of breath for longer than one minute, you will begin to live a very different version of reality. It’s common knowledge that in the Eastern traditions the breath is intimately linked with spirit, prana, the vital force behind our being. In the creation myth of Genesis, God breathes life into Adam, after forming his body out of the earth. For us, the breath is the nexus between mind and body, the place where psyche and soma intertwine. How we are breathing has everything to do with our physical and mental states. And yet, how in touch with our breath are we, in the tussle of our lives?
On the physical plane, breathing stimulates the circulatory system, which delivers needed oxygen and nutrients (via plasma) to our cells. Breathing literally nourishes our entire system. We might spend quite a bit of money putting all the clean foods, supplements, and green juices imaginable into our bodies, but if we’re not breathing well, they won’t do us much good. It’s like buying something online and never arranging for it to be shipped.
Oxygen is also both a stimulant and a relaxant: it wakes us up and puts us at ease at the same time. This is the story of meditation in a nutshell: we are here to do the work of mindfulness and to relax and let go at the same time. Oxygen is the only known substance that can do either of these things with no adverse side effects.1
How you breathe is how you feel. Consider for a moment that crying is a form of breathing. Conversely, laughing is a form of breathing. Shortness of breath is symptomatic of a panic attack. Colloquially, relaxation is synonymous with “breathing easy.” These are examples of how our breathing reflects our state of mind. In other words, the stimulus comes before the emotion, which leads to a particular breathing pattern: for example, something absurd happened, you found it funny, and the breathing pattern of laughing began. But we can make it work the other way around, too. We can breathe purposefully to induce states of mind.
In an interesting set of studies, European psychologists Pierre Philippot and Sylvie Blairy confirmed that joy, anger, sadness, and fear each correlate with a specific breathing pattern. They then conducted another study wherein different participants were instructed to follow the breathing patterns identified in the first study to see if they would begin experiencing the same, correlated emotions as the participants from the first. The participants in the second study were indeed able to induce joy, anger, and sadness just by breathing in a particular way (fear was a bit trickier, however). We can think of it this way: whenever we are unaware of our breath, it is reflecting our state of mind and our state of mind is being influenced by unconscious breathing patterns, possibly leading us unintentionally to negative mind states. When we are aware of our breath, we gain the power to collaborate with it in order to affect our state of being.2
Whenever we are unaware of our breath, it is reflecting our state of mind and our state of mind is being influenced by unconscious breathing patterns . . .
The breath is the most significant bodily function that has the option of being either involuntary or voluntary. Just as the breath is the nexus between mind and body, it is also the bridge between our voluntary and autonomic nervous systems. Given that many diseases of mind and body have been shown to result from underlying distorted patterns in the autonomic nervous system, it is a boon to us that we can rewire our autonomic system with the voluntary one. That is, the more we can introduce healthy and balanced nervous system states through proper breathing, the more likely those temporary states are to become enduring traits.3
We need two wings to fly. With regard to the breath’s role in meditation, we’ve already discussed the first wing: allowing the breath to find its natural rhythm. We are about to explore the second wing, which is knowing how to engage the breath with appropriate deliberation. These two can work together to influence the nervous system.
After the next section I’ll suggest and elaborate on three breathwork practices so that you can have a repertoire: one for relaxation, one to bring energy, and one for balancing. Forever and always, we want to seek balance in our practice. If we are too heavily on one side of a spectrum, we always want to calibrate toward the other end. Simply put, if we are sleepy, energizing breathwork is best. If we are anxious or jittery, we can employ relaxing breathwork. If we aren’t leaning too far on either side of that spectrum, we can employ balancing breathwork. As the saying goes in Ayurvedic medicine, “Opposites are medicine.”
How You Breathe Is How You Once Felt
I recently had a direct experience of the psychological nature of the breath. This anecdote will also serve as a primer for our next chapter, where we will discuss model scenes: what they are, how they come to be stored in our bodies, and how they show up as repetitive patterns in our lives. What follows is an example of a model scene that showed up in my breathing habits and unlocked a world of insight and healing for me when I was able to stay with it.
I experience burnout, or what’s often called “vicarious trauma,” in my work more than any other helping professional I know. The nature of my work simply doesn’t mix so well with my nervous system, which has been rendered a bit threadbare by years of emotional turmoil and substance abuse. Today, when I push my limits too hard or say “yes” to too many commitments, I invariably pay the price of a certain ache in my bones, a mental fog, irritability, a loss of empathetic connection, and diminished stamina for activity. I resented burnout for being such a frequent visitor after it first started coming around, but thanks to the growth mindset, burnout has become one of my biggest teachers. I am someone with a predilection for intensity and a terrible feel for my own boundaries, but now burnout has stepped in to keep me in check. It’s painful and inconvenient, but I doubt my body could get my attention otherwise.
I was in the Bay Area for some teaching gigs when burnout stopped me dead in my tracks. I came to town several days early, hoping to catch up with some old friends, and of course I had worked myself to the bone in the days leading up to my departure from New York. Within a day of arriving in California, my system tanked and I found myself in a pit of exhaustion. I ended up spending the next three days alone, incapable of much more than long periods of supine meditation and breathwork. I had to put myself in what my friend and holistic beauty guru, Britta Plug refers to as “health jail.”
On my third day of incarceration, in my third hour of lying on the ground, feeling into the minutia of my breath and body, insight hit. I noticed for the first time that at the onset of each inhale I took, despite my intention to allow it to be natural, there was a nanosecond where I sort of yanked at the breath. A micro-moment of rushing, of impatience, of wanting to just get to it already. I started to feel in a new way how I tensed my jaw and my shoulders to pull in breath as opposed to expanding my torso and diaphragm. I could also feel how there was a slight spike of adrenaline that came with this activity. Suddenly I couldn’t not feel the jagged activation this was causing in my body. My unconscious habits around breathing were putting me on the same mini emotional roller coaster that our phones do when they buzz in our pockets.
I got up and walked into the kitchen where I picked up a plate with that identical sharpness and sense of rushing. Whoa. I opened the refrigerator door with the same jolt. Double whoa. I reached for a container of leftovers with the same adrenal edge. Good god. Really? I put the leftovers in a pan . . . same thing. Then I remembered that my ex- girlfriend Sam had once commented on this odd, dysrhythmic way I have of moving about, saying she found it endearing.
The same habit present in my breathing was also reflected in literally every move I made with my body. No wonder my nervous system was in the gutter. I was asleep to the unnecessary and taxing jagged edge with which I approached just about everything. As my day progressed I became watchful of this. I slowed myself down, trying to ease into my various movements around the apartment. Then the insight deepened in a way I could have never anticipated.
I was in a yoga class later that afternoon, attempting to maintain these slow and steady movements and smooth breathing, when a buried memory emerged. When I was five or six years old, I would spend my summer days at a babysitter’s house with a few other kids. I used to eat very slowly as a kid, and this routinely drew comments from adults. But this babysitter wasn’t having it. Every day she’d find me still making my way through my lunch while the other kids had finished and were out playing. The babysitter, most likely dying for a break, began making fun of me for this, but to no avail. Eventually she began leaving me in the kitchen and turning off the lights behind her, leaving me alone and eating in the dark. After some days of this, humiliation set in and I began rushing through my lunch like everyone else.
No wonder my nervous system was in the gutter. I was asleep to the unnecessary and taxing jagged edge with which I approached just about everything.
The shame had left an imprint on me. Why else would this seemingly random memory—long forgotten and yet so very connected to my present experience—emerge now? Because I was young when this habit of rushing began, it was like the color of my own eyes: I couldn’t see it. Nevertheless, it was there—right there in my breath, in my body, in my autonomic nervous system—the whole time. My body was waiting for me to notice, and was delivering to me the gift of an aching exhaustion to point me in its direction.
In fact, the only reason pain and difficulty exists in our lives is to draw our attention to something that needs it.
Once, in the discussion period of a class, an attendee shared his experience of being able to relax his body at first, only to find that almost immediately his body would tense back up involuntarily. His impression was that maybe he just couldn’t do the practice, that there was something wrong with him, and he wanted to know if he should try a different form of meditation. I reflected his comment back to him in a more general way. I said something along the lines of, “I heard you that you’re able to relax, but maybe it feels a little bit like you’re losing control when you do, which is scary, so you tense back up.” He agreed that this described his experience. I suggested to him that I might be describing a pattern that plays out in his work and relationships, that I wondered if he felt driven by a need to stay in control and whether he got anxious anytime that grip loosened. The look on his face registered the correlation as he agreed a second time. He also agreed that this was the source of some problems in his life. I invited him to view the practice of embodied meditation as a safe place where he could work on this problem.
This man gained a very personal insight from his experience, but we can also tease out of it another, more universal insight: when we learn how to relax in our bodies, we learn how to open up and allow the natural flow of life to course through us. Maybe that’s scary, but I find the only alternative—living a life based on reactive fear and endless bodily tension—to be terrifying.
Calming Breathwork: 4-8-12 Breathing
The body responds positively to rhythm and repetition. One example of this is the universal inspiration to dance to music. Another example, which is perhaps more germane to our work here, is the way we instinctively rock and sing to babies in order to calm them down. When we introduce rhythm and repetition to the nervous system, it induces the relaxation response (discussed in chapter 3).4
4-8-12 Breathing can be practiced sitting up or lying down, and it is an excellent method for calming our system. It entails inhaling through the nose for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of eight, and exhaling through the mouth for a count of twelve. You’ll probably find that the exhale is finished before the count of twelve is up; simply keep acting as if the breath is still going out, enjoying the space between breaths (just as with the natural breath). It doesn’t matter how slow or fast you count, just that you keep as steady a rhythm as possible. In this breathwork, we are holding the breath to allow for maximum oxygen absorption. We are also allowing the exhale to be three times as long as the inhale, which is going to slow the heart rate down and downregulate the nervous system as well. This is an excellent practice to know and use if you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks.
On Using Breathwork to Address Anxiety and Panic Attacks
If you are intending to use this as a breathing exercise at the onset of a panic attack, please note that a lot of mistakes are commonly made. First of all, in order for any breathing exercise to be useful to us in such a moment, we have to practice it regularly when we’re not in a state of panic. If you don’t practice, and then you try to introduce this technique during a panic attack, your mind’s going to say, “Oh, really? You think some deep breaths are going to do us any good?” It will feel pointless, and you won’t use it long enough for it to have an effect. Also, all breathwork practices have a cumulative effect on our system over time. Again, our nervous system loves familiarity, so the more regularly we practice whatever breathwork it is, the more impact it will have.
Also, start the breathing practice the moment you feel anxiety coming on. If you catch the onset of an attack quickly and meet it in a friendly way with skillful breath, you stand a good chance of heading it off at the pass. If you start this breathing after you’re in a full-blown attack, probably the best you can hope for is that it will help manage it.
Finally, neuroscience estimates that, for any breathwork to meaningfully downregulate your system, your breath needs to be slower than six cycles per minute (i.e., longer than five seconds per inhale and per exhale). This needs to be maintained for two and a half minutes or longer (a little less than the length of a pop song) in order to take effect.
Energizing Breathwork: The Twelvefold Belly Breath
The Twelvefold Belly Breath is excellent for breaking up stagnant energies in the body and creating a sense of energized clarity. It can be practiced sitting up or lying down. I picked this one up through my studies with Dharma Ocean, but reportedly it is a qi gong practice for clearing the lungs. It literally squeezes stale blood out of the organs and allows for fresh blood and resources to be absorbed. It pulls the diaphragm closer to the spine on the outbreath, which is associated with the release of vital energy in yoga, and it encourages full inhalations, which the body loves. Practiced multiple times in succession, it will also break up anything that is stuck in the digestive organs, which has a refreshing effect on mind and body. Energetically speaking, we are clearing out the rust and accumulated debris of past experience and clearing space for fresh vital energy to arise in the subtle body. Another way of saying this is, it gets you high.
To do this practice, there’ll be some anatomical talk (unfortunately something we shroud in shame in our society). The inhale is a full breath taken into the lowest part of the belly, between the navel and the pubic bone; the exhale is similarly thorough and is where the magic lies. In order to squeeze as much stale air out as possible, we’ll pull the navel toward the spine and engage the pelvic ﬂoor on the exhale. That is, squeeze in the anal sphincter, pull the perineum (the region about one inch in front of the anus) up and into the body as you pull the belly in. This engagement will take some practice at ﬁrst to really get, but the payoff is more than worth it. As you breathe in again, the entire system is invited to relax and the breath lands in the low belly, and with the exhale you engage the lower pelvis and the belly again. Do this breath for a total of twelve times. You can repeat this cycle of twelve breaths two or three times if you wish.
Although this practice is fairly vigorous, we want to breathe without creating any strain. This will take some trial and error. Do watch for habitual tensing, especially in the neck, shoulders, and jaw, where we tend to pull the breath from instead of allowing the diaphragm to draw it in. Relax these areas if you notice you are gripping. Full breath does not mean labored breath.
Breathwork for Balance: The Ninefold Purification
If you are neither sleepy nor anxious, this is your go-to breathwork. You may know this one as “alternate nostril breathing,” or nadi shodhana for you yogis out there. There are many variations on this traditional practice—I’ll give you the most simpliﬁed version I know of. It entails a total of nine deliberate breaths with some short breaks in between. This technique is practiced sitting up.
Take your left index ﬁnger and bring it to the outside of the left nostril without closing it off. Take a comfortably full inhale through both nostrils. Close the left nostril with your ﬁnger and exhale smoothly through the right nostril. Add a short, staccato push at the tail end of the outbreath by quickly moving your belly inward. Repeat this process three times total.
Let your hand relax on your lap and take a natural breath. You will be able to feel a subtle shift on the right side of your body.
Now we’ll switch sides. Bring your right index ﬁnger to the outside of your right nostril, inhale through both nostrils, close off the right nostril, exhale out of the left side with a short push at the tail end. Repeat a total of three times.
Let your hand relax after you complete three cycles. Take one easy breath and notice any shift in sensation on your left side.
I want to remind you that we are not here to make an enemy of anything or anyone in our practice. We are here on a mission of supreme friendliness, not as an angry landlord evicting unwelcome squatters.
Next, do three breaths in the exact same manner but with both nostrils unobstructed. Breathe in through both nostrils, then breathe out through both nostrils, adding the slight push at the end. Simply relax when you are done, and allow the beneﬁts to arise in the body.
With all breathwork practices it is helpful to have a sense of stale, stagnant energy leaving the body on the exhale and fresh energy entering on the inhale. You also are welcome to imagine warm light entering your body on the inhale and dark smoke leaving the body on the exhale. That said, I want to remind you that we are not here to make an enemy of anything or anyone in our practice. We are here on a mission of supreme friendliness, not as an angry landlord evicting unwelcome squatters. We are simply assisting any energies that wish to depart in doing so, and ﬁlling that space in with something that will support our whole system in the meantime.
1. Andrew Weil, Breathing: The Master Key to Self- Healing (Boulder: Sounds True, 2001).
2. Pierre Philippot and Sylvie Blairy, “Respiratory Feedback in the Gen-eration of Emotion,” Cognition and Emotion 16, no. 5 (2010): 605–27.
3. Weil, Breathing.
4. Herbert Benson, Relaxation Revolution: The Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing (New York: Scribner, 2011), 54–70.
Ralph De La Rosa, LCSW, is an integrative therapist, meditation teacher, transformative life coach, writer, and musician. Ralph is a teaching mentor in Lodro Rinzler’s MNDFL meditation teacher training program, where he teaches regularly, and a regular contributor to Susan Piver’s online Daily Dharma Gathering. Learn more about Ralph.
Visit Ralph De La Rosa's website.
Bettering Our Relationship with Food
Trying a New Fruit
Find a fruit you have never eaten. An Asian food market is a good place to look. Star fruit, lychee, kiwano, rambutan, papaya, custard apple, mangosteen, and dragon fruit are some possibilities. At a Mexican market look for mamey, guanabana, sapote, chico, or pitahaya. Ask to make sure they are ripe.
Sit down with the new fruit and investigate it with all your senses, using the Nine Hungers as a guide. (This is a great way to introduce mindful eating and the nine aspects of hunger to children.) Take it in with your eyes, like a piece of sculpture. For each hunger, ask, “What do I notice? How would I describe this to someone else?” Next, cut it open. What do you see? Smell it. Touch the outer skin and inner fruit. Take a piece in your mouth and roll it around a bit so you can distinguish the flavors. Put full attention in your mouth as you chew and swallow. Does your mouth want more? Now ask your stomach if it wants more. Ask your cells or organs if they like this fruit. Ask your mind if it wants you to try more. Why or why not? Ask your heart if it finds this fruit soothing or comforting.
Put “new fruit” on your shopping list. Or post on your social media a photo of fruit and your experience with eating it mindfully.
If you lived one thousand years ago, you would have no scientific equipment to analyze the nutritional content of a potential food. You would have only the experience of your sense organs and the experience of others. (“Don’t eat that fruit. It made Joe sick and die.”) If you buy a strange fruit or vegetable in a modern market, you have the assurance that many people have tried it, liked it, and survived, and that there is even a demand for it.
I suggested an unknown fruit because humans are born with a liking for sweet foods. Also, you can eat a fruit raw. You could also try this exercise with unknown vegetables such as kohlrabi, chayote squash, oca tubers, tamarillo, or romanesco, but you will need to find out how to prepare and cook them (something easily done on the internet).
When I try this exercise with children, some are courageous and eager to investigate. “Oh, cool! This is going to be fun!” And some are timid or resistant. “It looks yucky. I’m not going to taste it.” When they see another child try a bite and enjoy it, however, they may join in. We have those same voices inside our adult heads too. We can all fall into the safe habit of eating the same thing over and over.
We think we have certain innate food preferences, but the only inborn preferences are a liking for sweet and an aversion toward bitter flavors. We are conditioned to like certain foods. This begins with what our mothers ate before we were born. Amniotic fluid takes on the flavor of foods the mother eats, so what mother eats, baby tastes. If mothers eat particular foods or spices, such as garlic, their babies will prefer those foods and flavors after they are born. As the food writer and author Bee Wilson said in a 2016 episode of Fresh Air, “Imagine swimming around in that [garlicy amniotic fluid] for nine months. That baby will grow up to love garlic . . . It feels like home, it tastes like home.”
The same is true of breast milk. In one study, when mothers drank carrot juice in the last weeks before giving birth or when breastfeeding, their infants later more readily accepted and showed more enjoyment of carrot-flavored cereal than infants who were not exposed to carrot flavor in their amniotic fluid or breast milk. Perhaps forever after, carrots will taste like love.
Our attitude toward eating a new fruit can reveal something about our attitude toward life. Buddhists divide people into three categories, based upon the “three poisons”: greed, anger, and ignorance. These three, if allowed to run unchecked, can poison our experience of life and bring much suffering to us and those around us.
A person who is a “greed” or desire type loves novelty, variety, and new experiences. They might be excited about the opportunity to try an unknown fruit. However, the downside is that they are easily bored and can feel restless and unhappy if the menu of life is not always bringing new “tastes.” The positive side of greed is a strong desire to learn.
A person who is an “anger” type is averse to change and novelty. They might be cautious about trying an unknown fruit. They often react to new ideas or suggestions with, “Yes, but . . . ” or with a reason why it won’t work. The downside is that they make decisions according to what is the least aversive alternative rather than for positive reasons, and can become depressed, with a constricted life. The positive side of aversion is appropriate caution in the face of something new.
A person who is an “ignorance” type reacts to new situations with indifference, apathy, or dissociation, saying, “Whatever . . .” or “I can’t be bothered to try.” They might choose to remain uninvolved in the exercise of trying a new food. The downside is that they miss out on new experiences and, most important, they can miss out on the experience of being present for their life—the difficulties, lessons, and joys of a unique human life. The positive side of ignorance is “beginner’s mind” and the willingness to not know.
Once at the monastery I presented this typology of personality types. One person said, “That is so interesting, I’d like to read more about it.” The next person said, “I don't agree with that at all.” I asked someone who was silent what she thought, and she said, “Huh? Oh, I didn’t really pay attention to what you were saying.” Everyone else laughed.
Each type has its own basic strategy for being safe, successful, and loved in life. All of us have aspects of all three, but can you tell—even from your eating habits—which type sounds like you? Do you crave new tastes and eating experiences? Are you averse to many or new foods? Do you check out while eating and retreat into thoughts about past and future or fantasies? Would you like to change or expand your strategy?
Our attitude toward new foods can reveal our underlying strategies for life. Awareness of our own strategies brings choice, and choice brings freedom, including the choice to be compassionate toward other people who are also boxed in by old strategies.
Our attitude toward eating a new fruit can reveal something about our attitude toward life.
Eating with the Non-Dominant Hand
For one week try eating at least part of each meal with your non-dominant hand. You can expand this to include all drinks and more meals each day. If you’re up for a big challenge, try using the non-dominant hand to eat with chopsticks.
Put a picture of a hand with an X through it in your lunch box or near where you usually eat. Or put a Band-Aid on your dominant hand or a rubber band around your wrist to remind you to switch to using your non-dominant hand. You could also place a sign where you eat that says “left hand” (if you are right-handed). Or use an unusual color of nail polish on your non-dominant hand, to signal, “use me!”
This experiment always evokes laughter. We discover that the non-dominant hand is quite clumsy.
This exercise takes us back to what Zen teachers call “beginner’s mind.” Our dominant hand might be forty years old, but the non-dominant hand feels much younger, perhaps about two or three years old. We have to learn all over again how to hold a fork and how to get it into our mouths without stabbing ourselves. We might begin to eat with the non-dominant hand, and then, when our attention wanders, our dominant hand will reach out and take the fork away. It’s just like a bossy older sister who says, “Hey, you little klutz, let me do it for you!”
You can have more fun if you use your non-dominant hand for other everyday tasks such as brushing your teeth or hair, opening doors, writing, or cutting with scissors. You can also try switching the usual roles that each hand plays when they work together. Have the non-dominant hand wield the hammer and do the pounding while the dominant hand holds a nail, or reverse the hands while stirring a pot of food or washing dishes. I’ve discovered that my right hand is skilled in fine motor movements, but my left hand is the less intelligent “strong woman” who can better hold a baby on my hip or steady the cheese grater while the right hand grates the cheese.
Struggling to use the non-dominant hand can awaken our compassion for anyone who is clumsy or unskilled, such as a person who has had disabilities, injuries, or a stroke. We see briefly how we take for granted scores of simple movements that many people cannot make.
Researchers speculate that one reason that obesity is less common in countries like Japan is that when you eat with chopsticks, you must take small bites. Using chopsticks with the non-dominant hand is a humbling experience. If you want to eat a meal in under an hour and not end up spilling food all over, you have to be very attentive.
Using the non-dominant hand reveals our impatience. Isn’t it interesting that we become impatient with eating, one of the most pleasurable activities we humans engage in? Why are we anxious to get it over with quickly? It’s self-defeating!
If each person has one major lesson for each lifetime, mine would be impatience. I’ve investigated impatience by asking, impatient to get to what? I’m impatient to finish breakfast so I can do what? E-mails. I’m impatient to finish e-mails so I can get to . . . working on this book . . . finishing a ceramic statue . . . eating lunch . . . lying down for a nap. . . . If I continue to carry this forward I discover that I’m impatient to eventually get to what . . . my death?! That realization jolts me back into a more vivid experience and enjoyment of this moment of life, a life I am not at all impatient to leave.
If you step back and simply observe how your two hands work together as a team in routine tasks such as eating or washing dishes, you will see that they work together beautifully, quietly and continually caring for you. If everyone in the world worked together in this way, aiding and supporting one another as they cared for the life of this earth, the world would be an entirely different place.
Using the non-dominant hand can help us become more flexible and discover that we are never too old to learn new tricks. If we practice frequently, over time we can watch our skill develop. I have been practicing using my left hand for several years, and I now forget which hand is the “right” hand to use. This could have practical benefits. If I lose the use of my dominant hand, as a number of my relatives did after strokes, I won’t be “left” helpless. When we develop a new skill, we realize that there are many other abilities lying dormant within us.
Simply using your non-dominant hand can invoke beginner’s mind and open a world of interesting discoveries.
Isn’t it interesting that we become impatient with eating, one of the most pleasurable activities we humans engage in?
One Bite at a Time, or Put Down That Utensil!
This is a mindfulness practice to do whenever you are eating. After you take a bite, put the fork or spoon back down in the bowl or on the plate. Place your awareness in your mouth until that one bite has been enjoyed and swallowed. Only then do you pick up the utensil and take another bite. If you are eating with your hands, put the sandwich or apple or cookie down between bites.
Post notes saying “one bite at a time” wherever you eat, or an icon of a spoon or fork with words “Put it down!”
This is one of the most challenging of all the mindful eating practices we do at our monastery. In attempting this exercise, most people discover that they have the habit of “layering” bites of food. That is, they put one bite in the mouth, divert their attention away from the mouth as they shovel food onto the fork or spoon for the next bite, then put a second bite in the mouth before the first one is swallowed. Often the hand is hovering in the air, with another bite halfway to the mouth, as the preceding bite is chewed. They discover that as soon as the mind wanders, the hand assumes control again, putting new bites of food in along with partially processed bites. It is amazing how hard this simple task can be. It takes time, patience, persistence, and a sense of humor to change long-term habits.
Manufacturers of foodlike substances are well aware that we like the hit of intense flavor and texture sensations that occur as soon as we take the first bite of food. They are also aware that as soon as those sensations begin to fade, we will take another bite. And another. The more quickly the sensations disappear, the more of their product we will mindlessly consume. You can try this for yourself. Pick something like cheese puffs or a variety of potato chips that are coated with flavor dust. Put one in your mouth and let it sit there. You can roll it around with your tongue, but don’t chew it. What happens to the initial crispy texture and bright flavor? How long does it take for it to become uninteresting or even repulsive? What is your impulse when that happens?
A nurse told me about a woman who was learning to chew her food well, one bite at a time, a necessity following her bariatric surgery. The woman was surprised at what a difference it made, how it enriched and expanded her experience of eating, and said, “If I’d learned this earlier, I wouldn’t have needed the surgery!”
Putting down your utensil between bites used to be part of good manners. It counteracts the tendency to wolf down our food. One person exclaimed after trying this task, “I just realized that I never chew my food! I swallow it almost whole, in my haste to get the next bite in.” She had to ask herself, “Why am I in such a rush to get through a meal, when I enjoy eating so much?”
This is another exercise in which we become aware of impatience. Eating quickly, layering one bite on top of another, is a specific example of impatience. Doing this practice may lead you to watch impatience arise in other aspects and occasions in your life. Do you get impatient when you have to wait? We have to ask ourselves, “Why am I in such a rush to get through life, when I want to enjoy it so much?”
Experiencing one bite or one swallow at a time is a way of experiencing one moment at a time. Since we eat or drink at least three times a day, this mindfulness practice gives us several built-in opportunities to bring mindfulness into each day. Eating is naturally pleasurable, but when we eat quickly and without mindfulness, we don’t enjoy it. Research shows that people eat their favorite foods more quickly. Binge eaters also report that they keep on eating in a vain effort to re-create the pleasure of the first bite. Because the taste receptors tire quickly, this will never work. If we want the flavors in each bite to be clear, we need to pause a bit to refresh our taste buds.
When the mind is absent, thinking about the past or future, we are only half tasting our food. When our awareness rests in the mouth, when we are fully present as we eat, when we slow our eating, pausing between bites, then each bite can be like the first, rich and full of interesting sensations.
Pursuing pleasure without mindfulness is like being caught on a treadmill. You eat more but enjoy it less. Mindfulness allows pleasure to bloom in thousands of small moments in your life.
Experiencing one bite or one swallow at a time is a way of experiencing one moment at a time.
Jan Chozen Bays, MD, is a Zen master in the White Plum lineage of the late master Taizan Maezumi Roshi. She serves as a priest and teacher at the Jizo Mountain–Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon. She is also a pediatrician who specializes in the evaluation of children for abuse and neglect. Learn more about her books.
Bhartrihari the Poet, Bhartrihari the Linguist
Everything known for certain about India’s poet Bhartrihari could be engraved on a grain of rice. He steps into the wavering historical record like a ghost out of the mist in 671 C.E., when the Chinese pilgrim I-Tsing (Yijing in the newer way of spelling) jotted down his name in a travel journal. I-Tsing had left Tang Dynasty China on what proved a brave, persistent twenty-year quest for Buddhist teachings and manuscripts across Asia. His travels took him to India’s splendid center of learning, Nalanda, a crossroads of the Buddhist world in those days, part monastery, part university.
The grounds held lotus ponds, peacocks, green iridescent parakeets, an eighty-foot-tall stone Buddha layered with hammered copper, fragrant jasmine coiling over sandstone walls, shady arcades with red-tiled roofs.
Today the ruined grounds of Nalanda sit in the state of Bihar, a painfully impoverished “nation” (100 million residents) with extensive ecological damage. This damaged world is one you can almost glimpse in some of Bhartrihari’s poems, as though he could see around the bend of millennia. What we know, however, of the old Nalanda Institute conjures a spacious, biologically diverse campus filled with parkland and artificial lakes. The campus had been built during the course of several centuries by donors of enviable wealth. For scholars in I-Tsing’s day it must have looked like paradise. The grounds held lotus ponds, peacocks, green iridescent parakeets, an eighty-foot-tall stone Buddha layered with hammered copper, fragrant jasmine coiling over sandstone walls, shady arcades with red-tiled roofs. The name Nalanda may have been that of a nāga or serpent that lived in the achingly blue waters of one lotus pool.
During his stay at Nalanda, I-Tsing listened to lectures and debates punctuated by a great bell in the morning and a drumbeat that observed the passing hours. The pilgrim noted in his diary the name Bhartrihari, a figure he heard had died two decades earlier, around the year 652. I-Tsing spoke of Bhartrihari as a linguist, a poet, and a Buddhist. He may have initially met the name in a treatise by the Buddhist logician Dignaga, who cites some of Bhartrihari’s reflections on grammar. I-Tsing could have read or heard some of Bhartrihari’s poetry, too. If he did, he recorded none in his journal.
To get a glimpse of Bhartrihari’s milieu—and why Nalanda was a likely place to hear word of him—it is instructive to conjure the site. The translator Hsuan Tsang, a pilgrim whose life-story is embedded in legend, had preceded I-Tsing by several centuries. He brought this description back to China: “The whole university is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the convent from without. One gate opens into the chief college, with eight other campuses distributed about. The richly adorned towers and fairylike turrets, which look like pointed hilltops, cluster together. The observatories seem to be lost in morning mist, their upper stories above the clouds.”1 A water clock organized the daily rounds—one massive bell signaling the morning hour to bathe in the ponds. Evening had chanting and the reciting of sūtras. Hsuan Tsang gives a further description. “An azure pool winds around the monasteries, adorned with the full-blown cups of the blue lotus; the dazzling red flowers of the lovely kanaka hang here and there, and outside groves of mango trees offer the inhabitants their dense and protective shade.”2
Nalanda housed at least four libraries, including a nine-story tower to hold the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) sūtras, foundational texts for Mahayana Buddhism. One story says Bhartrihari was the brother-in-law of Vasubandhu, who co-founded the Yogacara school of Buddhism, a notable interpretation of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. If correct, this dates Bhartrihari to the fourth or fifth century, not the seventh.
Bhartrihari's Collections: The Vākyapadīya and Śatakatrayam
What Bhartrihari left behind is a treatise on grammar, the Vākyapadīya, far in advance of its era. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, at the University of Berlin in the late nineteenth century, consulted the treatise for his doctoral dissertation, a specialized treatment of Sanskrit grammar, and used its ideas to set the stage for modern linguistics. Bhartrihari also left an indeterminate, though limited number of lyric poems. Later scribes arranged the poems into books, divided more or less thematically. For centuries the compilation has carried the bland title Śatakatrayam: it comprises three (traya) collections of a hundred (śataka) poems.
A hundred detached stanzas, not linked by narrative, not grouped into themes, but moving cyclically across a patterned terrain of emotion, was a standard collection for old India. The emblematic number one hundred fit old India’s delight in symmetry. Somewhere along the way an anthologist provided Bhartrihari’s three śatakas with descriptive titles: Nīti, Śṛngāra, and Vairāgya: the first is a book of counsel for those involved in high-class life; the second, a book of romantic love; and the third, a book of “dis-passion,” or hermit renunciation. These were not Bhartrihari’s titles, nor the way he himself arranged the poems.
There is no way, Kosambi says, to know what kind of arrangement, if any, the poet gave them. Nor is there any way to confidently determine that these are the poems Bhartrihari actually wrote.
In the mid-1940s the Indian scholar D. D. Kosambi examined nearly four hundred manuscripts and books attributed to Bhartrihari. The collections were confounding. Though all carried the title Śatakatrayam, they diverged crazily in number of poems, which poems they included, and in what order the poems appeared. Sifting out two hundred stanzas that show up in nearly all manuscripts, Kosambi set these aside as the nucleus of an authentic collection—poems likely written by Bhartrihari. There is no way, Kosambi says, to know what kind of arrangement, if any, the poet gave them. Nor is there any way to confidently determine that these are the poems Bhartrihari actually wrote. The earliest manuscript anyone has found was written down a thousand years after the poet’s death. Poems with his name attached had been swapped for centuries. They passed from person to person, orally or in fragile handwritten collections that moldered and crumbled in India’s monsoon-punctuated climate. Some had been sloppily reproduced by indifferent scribes. There are words that make no sense and occasions of nonsensical grammar. Kosambi is clear; the poet himself could not have “promulgated any edition comparable to what we possess today.”3
Common Themes in Bhartrihari's Poems
Many of the Bhartrihari collections make an awkward attempt to stack the poems into subgroups, based on related image, repeated vocabulary, or similar opening phrases. No poet would order poems like this. It stinks of contrivance. It drains out the life force. It reduces the impact of each poem and blunts their sharp inventiveness.
My sense is that Bhartrihari was a complicated man. A thousand emotions, ideas, words, and rhythmic syllables stormed through him. He ordered the chaos by writing poems. In particular he shows himself torn between sexual desire and a hunger to be free of failed love affairs and turbulent karma. Meeting the eyes of a woman could alter his life, and from the poems, this sounds like his preeminent challenge. Placing his love poems together, as though they came from a single period of his life, makes little sense. I’d guess he felt sexual attraction throughout his years, writing poems of love from youth into old age.
To group these poems by topic is to miss the texture of life, the way the passions surge through, settle down, rise up again.
In a different mood Bhartrihari looked with undisguised fury on the show of luxury. He knew the ways of the rich, and he despised their allure. Quite possibly he never visited the campus at Nalanda that had hosted I-Tsing. Had he gone, the lavish grounds might have provoked skepticism or revulsion: seeing religious rites settled amid grand wealth would have troubled him. When political power or religious exaltation took precedence over wisdom, or brushed kindness aside, a great loathing rose up. Some of his best poems, written to sensuous, infantile warlords, coil with contempt. He was proud of being a poet.
Bhartrihari returns to familiar themes: love, sexual desire, despair, anger, fear; a tenuous brief ecstasy in the arms of a lover, an urge for spiritual peace. These drive him to make poems. To group these poems by topic is to miss the texture of life, the way the passions surge through, settle down, rise up again. It misses his wizardry with vocabulary or command of rhythm. His ability to leverage the precise grammar of the Sanskrit language and release its snaking syntax. (There is rhythm as well in the way a writer orders poems in a manuscript or for oral recital.) For his poems to ring into the twenty-first century, he had to study rain and sleet, mangy street dogs, dung-smeared mendicants, and sharply dressed ladies. He had to examine the properties of timber, flowers, medicines, and herbs. To beg and go hungry.
His mastery of Sanskrit tells me Bhartrihari the poet could indeed have been Bhartrihari the linguist, though scholars are cautious in identifying the two. I see no reason to think a mystically inclined grammarian could not have been a unique, heartbroken, barefoot, well-read, and at times caustic poet, who thought it no big deal to break the rules of grammar. If he never gathered his poetry into a book, he did produce a substantial number of poems held together by a consistent personal clarity.
Coils of burst
The ketaki pine’s fragrance
stings then vanishes.
Clouds heap up, thunder growls
and the soft mewing of
peacocks at love.
How can a long-eyelashed woman
get through the season,
drenched with eros
Prajāpati* stirred up the wind,
food for snakes
harmless and easily had.
Wild animals chew plants,
they sleep on the ground with ease.
For humans he made
a different way—
designing our spirits to cross
samsara’s stormy froth.
Go that way.
It is a matter of
*Prajāpati, “lord of creatures.” A totem figure, mythic ancestor of all living beings.
You hold the bankroll,
speed to my command
just like this!
What you want
you take through force.
I speak of the true world
and root out the malady
Mad for a few coins
people debase themselves
to you; but they come
hear me dispel
the mind’s unruly thoughts.
You don’t give a
damn for your poet, King—
less than I do for you.
Take this counsel
as I depart.
Mantras can’t dispel it,
it is way past the compass
Hundreds of exorcisms
won’t drive it out.
Love is a seizure that wrenches
the whole body
with its fury.
Your vision breaks diabolically
familiar things turn
Should I settle along
a holy river
and practice rigorous yoga?
Or squire ladies about, who favor me with
Might I drink from that torrent
of ancient books—
the many poems, brimming, deathless,
What to do—in this life?
It’ll be gone
in an eye blink.
1. Paraphrased from S. Beale, The Life of Hsuan Tsang.
2. Grousset, In the Footsteps of the Buddha, 159.
3. Kosambi, The Epigrams Attributed to Bhartṛhari, 64.
Andrew Schelling is the author of fifteen books and chapbooks, the most recent a collection of essays, Wild Form, Savage Grammar. His translations of India’s classical poetry appear in numerous anthologies. The Academy of American Poets honored him with the Harlod Morton Landon Translation Award in 1992 for his Dropping the Bow: Poems from Ancient India. Learn More.
The Journey of Sacred Art
When I was nineteen years old I had a dream in which I opened the lid of a trash can and saw myself with one side of my head shaved bald. The other side had long hair. This strange vision haunted me. Looking in the mirror I would imagine half of my hair missing. I did not understand this dream, but felt that it was important. At first I thought that I could paint the image to exorcise it. Employed as a billboard artist at the time, I was able to paint a large self-portrait and find a ‘‘dead board’’ on which to mount the image. The obsession was still not subdued, so I shaved my hair the way it had appeared in my dream. Even then the experience was not complete for me. I did a series of public performances displaying my split persona. I maintained this haircut for half a year, during which time I wrote and gave a great deal of thought to what the image and my actions might mean.
I came across Robert Ornstein’s research into the hemispheres of the brain in which he distinguishes between the largely rational functions of the left hemisphere and the intuitive functions of the right. I was allowing for the unrestricted growth of the intuitive (the hairy side) and eliminating or reducing the ‘‘tentacles of reason’’ from the rational (the daily shaved side). I decided that my new self-image was an exploration of the polarities of life.
Our mind uses words to polarize, differentiate, and categorize. We separate the world into polarities: poor and wealthy, dark and light, female and male, self and other, matter and spirit. Our words describe a dualistic world, defining and limiting our concepts of self. I am a certain race and nationality. I am a certain age and earn a certain amount of money. I wear my hair a certain way and wear certain clothes. These defining characteristics are only a partial aspect of who we are, a fraction of our true identity. I was disrupting my normal appearance and behavior to examine these mentally imposed polarities.
It became apparent that I was killing or discarding (the dream trash can) one identity, and initiating myself into a new yet-to-be discovered intuitive self. I continued to do strange performances, including works where I vomited on a human brain (Brain Sack), lay in urine and excrement for hours (Idiot’s Room), and spent all my money to go to the north magnetic pole (Polar Wandering). After returning from the north magnetic pole, broke but elated, I reflected, ‘‘I must be looking for something. I must be looking for God, whatever that is.’’ It seemed like a challenge or a prayer. Within twenty-four hours the following two life-changing events occurred.
At a party I took LSD for the first time. Sitting with my physical eyes closed, my inner eye moved through a beautiful spiralic tunnel. The walls of the tunnel seemed like living mother-of-pearl, and it felt like a spiritual rebirth canal. I was in the darkness, spiraling toward the light. The curling space going from black to grey to white suggested to me the resolution of all polarities as the opposites found a way of becoming each other. My artistic rendering of this event was titled the Polar Unity Spiral. Soon after this I changed my name to Grey as a way of bringing the opposites together.
I decided that my new self-image was an exploration of the polarities of life.
The same evening I met Allyson. She was the only other person who had taken LSD at that party. We have been together ever since that time in 1975. Our love has been the greatest teacher in my life. For me she is the flesh and blood incarnation of God’s infinite love. So my challenge to God, my prayer, had been answered.
The heart is the altar of the body. The heart is consecrated by its association with love and the living light of the soul. The eyes are receivers and transmitters of this divine light. We know another’s soul by watching his or her eyes. Seeing with the eye of the heart, the mystic eye, is seeing with the soul.
Artists build a bridge to the soul by doing their art. Building that connection can take an artist through unknown and treacherous regions of the psyche. Sometimes our inner drive toward authentic creation can resemble a regression into the fractured world of madness. To pass beyond the worldview of reason cannot be done through logic and discursive rational thought. The artist leaps into the unknown until love ignites the mystic eye.
The Calling of Art
Artists are called to fulfill their creative potential. They elect this path for themselves or feel fated to it. In mystical literature there are references to shamans and mystics being ‘‘chosen.’’ Sometimes it is unclear whether an invisible spiritual world is choosing a candidate or whether the innermost nature of the aspirant is the cause. Both factors—an ‘‘external’’ calling and an ‘‘internal’’ calling—coalesce and direct the will. The artist comes into synchronistic partnership with a force that broadens and deepens his or her life’s work.
The mission of both mystics and artists is frequently revealed through inner voices and visions. Transcendental reality completely envelops and convinces the experiencer. Some psychopathologists might misname this as a hallucination or evidence of psychosis, but the mystical experience is of primarily positive affect. Those who heed the call, though their lives or egos come undone in some ways, will be in contact with the most powerful of all forces in the universe, divine creativity and love.
The mystical experience is not some dreamy fantasy, as anybody who has been there can agree. In his book The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto writes of the ‘‘mysterium tremendum,’’ the experience of losing control and of awe, dread, and terror when confronting the transcendental. This is something that a lot of New Age artists and musicians forget about. As Rabbi Hillel said, God is not just flowers and bird songs, God is an earthquake. One is shaken to the core and the ‘‘little self’’ dies (rarely permanently). When you are experiencing universal mind, your identity is not restricted to a little meat-bag body. The constricted ego is gone, and your awareness is infinitely coextensive with the All.
William James and Walter Stace put together a categorization of some of the most important common denominators of the mystical experience. James writes:
Mystical states in general assert a pretty distinct theoretical drift. . . . One of these directions is optimism, and the other is monism. We pass into mystical states from out of ordinary consciousness as from a less into a more, as from a smallness into a vastness, and at the same time as from an unrest to a rest. We feel them as reconciling, unifying states.
The mystical experience imparts a sense of unity within oneself and potentially with the whole of existence. With unity comes a sense that ordinary time and space have been transcended, replaced by a feeling of infinity and eternity. The experience is ineffable, beyond concepts, beyond words. The mental chatterbox shuts up and allows the ultimate and true nature of reality to be revealed, which seems more real than the phenomenal world experienced in ordinary states of consciousness. When we waken from a dream, we enter the ‘‘realness’’ of our waking state and notice the unreal nature of the dream. In the mystical state we awaken to a higher reality and notice the dreamlike or superficial character of our normal waking state. When mystics describe the experience, reducing it to words, their statements seem inherently paradoxical, such as ‘‘Form is emptiness, and emptiness form’’ or ‘‘Thou art that.’’ These are true statements coming from the perspective of integration with the All, the view of mystic nonduality. Conventional, rational discourse, however, is dualistic.
Perhaps that is why art can more strongly convey the nature of the mystical state. Art is not limited by reason. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a sacred picture is beyond words. The worshiper uses art to see through the rough image made by hand to the transcendental subject that is the archetypal source of the image. The art historian Roger Lipsey recounts an experience of viewing Russia’s most holy icon, Our Lady of Vladimir, in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. A shabbily dressed older man was reciting aloud from his tattered prayer book, while ‘‘planted a few feet from the exhibition case.’’ The man was undisturbed by passing schoolchildren and continued his prayers as other viewers came and went. Lipsey noticed his own irritation at having this man pray openly in a secular museum setting, and the praying affected his impression of the icon, pointing out how spiritual art is a function of its use. The man was using the work of art as a focal point for spiritual communion, and Lipsey was forced to reflect on his own relationship to the object:
How differently we have had to proceed than the Russian worshiper whose use of the icon of Our Lady is predetermined by tradition. . . . The image of Our Lady of Vladimir points far beyond itself. Its traditional mission is fulfilled when the worshiper remembers deeply—remembers and reexperiences the values, sacred narratives, teachings and characteristic emotions of the Christian cosmos. The work of art preserves and restores a worldview; not merely an intellectual worldview, but the feelings that at best animate and authenticate that worldview.
The attraction of divine beauty and sublime depth shines through and draws us toward transcendental art as the man praying in the presence of the icon was drawn to the roots of his faith. When our dualistic rational mind is temporarily suspended and we fuse with the mystic state symbolically transmitted through the art, the spiritual art has succeeded. The mystical experience provides transformative contact with the ground of being, filling both artist and viewer with an expanded appreciation of life and meaning beyond words.
The heart is the altar of the body.
In contrast to the religious artist who repeats a previously established and prescribed iconic tradition, the contemporary artist must find a way to plunge into the transpersonal state in order to experience and then convincingly convey transcendental reality. The revelations of mystical experience constitute the initiation of the spiritually inclined artist. An initiate is one who is introduced to new knowledge, admitted into seership, sometimes with secret rites. There are many ways by which the aspirant may access the mystical dimension: meditation, prayer, yoga, breathwork, tantric practice, dream, vision quest, working with a qualified spiritual master, visualization, fasting, sleep deprivation, sensory isolation, shamanic drumming, chanting, near-death experiences, and psychedelic or entheogenic drugs. These or other related methods may trigger experiences that take the aspirant from a mundane perception of reality, wherein objects seem separate and composed of only material properties, to a view of divine unity with boundless depth of dimension and meaning.
Once the artist has had a mystical experience, the task is to integrate the visions and energy of this state into the physical act of making art. The artist brings the infinite into finite form, compressing absolute reality into the relative phenomenal field of appearances. The deeper the individual artists penetrate into their own infinitude, the more able they are to transmit that state. The artist relies on visionary revelations that point to the spiritual ideal beyond mundane perception. By externalizing these revealed symbols in art objects, the artist provides a crystallized passage back to the mystic visionary state.
Spiritual imagery can have several effects on the viewer. An experience of transpersonal vision can seem like an encounter with an awesome ‘‘other’’ and yet be intensely personal, introducing one to the vast creative force of the universe and yet being as intimate as the blood in one’s own veins. Spiritual imagery performs an act of psychic integration and healing by uniting opposites. Most religious symbolism brings together dualities that the intellect has taken pains to separate, such as spirit and matter, heaven and hell, female and male, yin and yang, life and death. Also, spiritual imagery can give us a new worldview, a new way to interpret reality. Since the transcendent force is embedded in sacred art, it can empower us to transform the ways we think, feel, and act by awakening our own creative spirit. The mystic artist offers gifts of sensuous beauty through art, while also offering a deeper gift, a contribution to spiritual growth.
I have effectively used visualizations, meditation, and shamanic drumming to access powerful vision states. But having mentioned drugs several times in this book, I want to discuss my feelings about artists and the use of visionary drugs, a process that could be termed experimental mysticism. The visionary substances include such drugs as marijuana, hashish, DMT, LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, MDMA (Ecstasy), 2CB, ketamine, ayahuasca, Salvia Divinorum, and many other natural and synthesized compounds. Each kind of sacrament has its own individual properties, such as duration and quality of mental influence. Substances like LSD tend to catalyze the visionary state but can allow access to hellish dimensions as well as heaven worlds. MDMA has been called a heart-opening ‘‘empathogen,’’ bringing a sense of fearless appreciation of existence, without the overwhelming visionary DMT plenitude of LSD. This class of drugs has been called Phantastika, psychomimetics, hallucinogens, psychedelics, and, most recently, entheogens, because of their ability to provide the user with a glimpse of the divine within. Psychically unstable artists with ‘‘borderline personalities’’ should avoid the drugs because further destabilization of the chemistry of their brains can lead to a psychotic break. This happened to a friend of mine, who had to be hospitalized a few weeks after taking LSD. The drug seemed to catalyze his latent manic-depressive disorder.
However, many artists have derived tremendous visionary and spiritual insights from these sacraments. In the recently published journals of Keith Haring, one of America’s finest artists of the 1980s, there is a letter written to LSD guru Timothy Leary. In the letter Haring states:
There is too much to explain to put into writing: my first LSD experience at 15 and consequent trips in the fields surrounding the small town where I grew up in Pennsylvania. The drawing I did during the first trip became the seed for all of the work that followed and that now has developed into an entire ‘‘aesthetic’’ view of the world (and system of working).
The effect that the reprogramming had on my life at 16-17-18, made me find new friends, leave Kutztown, see ‘‘God’’ and find myself (with complete confidence) inside myself and believe in this idea of ‘‘chance,’’ change and destiny.
Visionary drugs have provided crucial insights to artists, as is obvious by Haring’s testimony and many other artists’. A study of LSD and creativity was performed by Oscar Janiger, M.D., and many painters during the 1960s before LSD was made illegal. By their own assessments the art produced by the artists while under the influence was more creative. In my own experience, LSD has provided access to very high spiritual realms, but the artwork that I produce during that time is not very accomplished. Later, when my hands are steadier, I recall the peak visions and sometimes base my work on them.
Unfortunately, in America at this time, the entheogens remain illegal substances, with stiff penalties for use, unless one is a Native American pursuing the religious freedom to take peyote. This is a grossly unfair restriction of religious rights for nonnative peoples, which I hope will be rectified in the twenty-first century. One of the main problems is finding proper sacramental support structures and environments for the elixirs’ responsible use. Various ayahuasca churches are now cropping up where small groups of people can journey in a supportive group setting. Rave events, where participants take psychedelics with large numbers of others while listening to trance-dance technomusic, have also provided a means of experiencing group soul. But because of religious persecution of ‘‘illegal users,’’ there remain great dangers in this pathway.
The first hurdle that an entheogenic visionary encounters is ensuring the purity and effectiveness of the sacrament. That is, given the illicit status of the drugs, can you find pure enough and heavy enough dosages to catapult you into the oversoul? Concerns about purity have steered many toward natural or plant-based compounds. Given that one can find such a source, there are two other main factors that determine the degree to which an entheogenic session will be successful, and these have been described as ‘‘set’’ and ‘‘setting.’’
‘‘Set’’ means the psychonaut’s predetermined attitude, that is, his or her preparation and willingness to experience directly the infinite spirit within. There are cases of completely jaded cynics having mystical breakthroughs, but mystical experience favors the spiritually inclined mind. Pray for a positive, transcendental experience. Be clear and state your intentions to use your insights for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps you may find a ritual way to rid yourself of considerations and obstructions to accessing ultimate reality. One way is the Native American ritual of taking a section of string and tying a knot for every emotional or intellectual obstruction that you can name. After a period of meditative knot tying, you take the substance and then burn the string. Other people go through a period of fasting and meditative orientation prior to ingestion.
‘‘Setting’’ refers to the physical and psychological environment one chooses to surround oneself with during the period of the session. A meditative environment where one feels secure and supported by the beauty of nature, art, and loved ones is an ideal setting for eliciting mystical visionary states. Adequate time alotted to the journey is essential, in order to minimize causes for anxiety. A spiritual setting can be greatly enhanced, even defined, by the proper use of sacred sound. The mind is incredibly suggestible and sensitive in the entheogenic state, and choosing the most uplifting mantras, music, or sounds of nature optimizes the experience.
Whatever vehicle your journey takes, be it meditation, prayer, yoga, breathwork, shamanic drumming, or vision drugs, may it take you to the highest heavens where you come face to face with your spiritual source, and may the insights gleaned from such a journey be brought directly into your sacred art.
Alex Grey is best known for his depictions of the human body that “x-ray” the multiple layers of reality and reveal the interplay of anatomical and spiritual forces. His paintings have been featured in venues as diverse as the album art of the Beastie Boys, Newsweek magazine, the Discovery Channel, rave flyers, and sheets of blotter acid. Learn more.
Shambhala Review: To most people who are trying to follow some sort of spiritual path, politics poses a very difficult problem. Many just decide to give up, to bypass it. This doesn’t seem to be a very legitimate way of dealing with such an important part of our lives. Could you give some guidelines from a Buddhist point of view?
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: In this country we have the particular problem that we have inherited a lot of things, and even though we want to understand them properly and do the proper thing, still, there are so many extraneous things we have to work through. This makes it somewhat difficult. Generally it is a question of having a sense of responsibility to society. This seems to be the important thing. People involved with a spiritual discipline have a tendency to want nothing to do with their ordinary life; they regard politics as something secular and undesirable, dirty or something. So, to begin with, if a person came with a sense of responsibility to society, that would be a Buddhist approach to politics and also to the social side of life, which is the same, in a sense. There should be a sense of one’s own responsibility, not relying on other people’s help. One’s own economic situation should be self-sufficient; a sense of responsibility begins there. I think one of the problems is that the abstract notion of democracy is misleading. In some sense, a lot of the problem comes from the aggression inherent in our concept of democracy; people begin to feel they have been cheated or have not been allowed enough freedom to do what they want, to say what they want. It lacks a notion of discipline that should go along with it: just throw everything into the big garbage pail and, hopefully, somebody will do the sorting out in our favor. This is a big problem. I think the Buddhist idea of a politician is not so much one of a con man or of a businessman who wins favor with everybody, but someone who simply does what is necessary. Sometimes the situation is such that you have to go through undesirable experiences, even give up your sense of freedom. Sometimes you may even have to allow yourself to step back. I think in this country, politics are based on a kind of bad-mouthing and trying to speak out, which is all right, but which usually amounts to not knowing what to say; one is just copying someone else’s aggression. Then aggression starts to snowball. In some sense, the main point is responsibility, which is important in how the government is run, how the situation is organized (not just ignoring everything completely and regarding it as a bad job). I mean, from a Buddhist point of view, there is some sense of taking an interest, we could say, for the sake of all sentient beings. This means we should take part in it. This does not mean to say you have to take part in riots or blowing up banks or anything like that. But it means to undertake some kind of process whereby you try as much as possible to at least eliminate the byproducts that you inherit. When you begin to do this, then you begin to have a feeling that a fresh start is taking place.
SR: The byproducts are . . . ?
Rinpoche: Our long-term inheritance from problems that took place before and of which we are still victims. Trying to change this karmic chain reaction. Just start fresh.
SR: You are talking about responsibility on a personal level, an individual level, not as a group.
Rinpoche: Yes. I think the notion of a group is very misleading. There is no such thing as a group, actually, but putting individuals together is what makes a group. So it depends on whether the individuals are strong. That is precisely the Buddhist notion of sangha.
SR: An incident took place during the Vietnam war that was very surprising to most Westerners and perhaps to Buddhists in particular. I don’t know if you remember it or not, but a young monk committed suicide by setting fire to himself; he poured gasoline over himself and then lit a match. He did this as a political protest. It was very surprising to most Westerners, and even to Western Buddhists. Do you remember that incident?
Rinpoche: Yes, indeed I do. I read a book about it. I was in England at the time.
SR: Can this be explained in a Buddhist context?
Rinpoche: Well, I don’t think you could. I would not say it was a truly Buddhistic kind of approach but rather more of a Southeast Asian or Oriental mentality, like the hunger strikes in India, more of a national characteristic. For instance, there was a big protest of the Koreans who cut off their fingers in front of the Japanese embassy. This is traditional rather than Buddhist. And it really doesn’t help anything. You just become a headline in the newspaper for several days and then the whole thing is forgotten. So, I would not say that this is a particularly Buddhist approach. Obviously, those Buddhists had suffered a lot and felt tremendous pain and discomfort, but nevertheless, they could have done something different.
SR: So we have these two extremes. On the one hand we have those who take a violent approach to politics and either blow up banks or commit acts of violence; and on the other hand, we have personal acts of violence to oneself, like this monk. If neither of these is the proper approach—and the proper approach, from what you have indicated, is not passive and is on the individual level—what sort of approach is it? Would you go into this some more?
Rinpoche: Yes. We use the terms passive and active. We have to be very careful. Active does not mean aggressive, just active. In a sense, it is a sort of passive activity, more of a reconstruction of new situations rather than riots or things of that nature. If each person, in his own capacity, contributes a little bit by having a very sane approach, first of all, to his own personal life, which should be straightened out, then his sense of sanity could be developed. It might be just a drop in the ocean, but it would be very valuable. Start in this way and at the same time pay attention to what is happening and see how you can contribute.
SR: This is a bicentennial year as well as an election year. People will be going to the polls in November to elect a new president, new congressmen, and in a great many states governors as well. And since politics are never black or white, and you can never find just exactly what you would like to vote for, is there, from a Buddhist standpoint, a way to prepare yourself when you go to the polls to make these difficult decisions?
Rinpoche: Well, I think even if you had a most enlightened president, things still wouldn’t be different, because he too inherits the political setup and economic traditions of the country. So he also is trapped in a particular chain reaction. You can’t have an ideal situation. I suppose the best approach is a long-term approach; taking it in stages, like hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana: a slow approach. It is similar to trying to shift gears into some kind of element of sanity that exists in your particular realm, your particular congressman or president, and trying to follow it up. It is not so much what we should be doing this year alone but that we should follow it up all the time, trying to develop some trend of continuity in a different direction, rather than purely believing that there is going to be tremendous good news if the right president is elected. Somehow, that is not going to work. It takes the work of centuries. But I think it is possible; it is up to people to change, to take part and pay attention, if they can do so.
SR: Do you foresee Buddhism taking a more public role in politics? Do you see it influencing politics?
Rinpoche: Well, I think we cannot say that we are planning on having an active role in politics. The decision is not up to us. However, this might happen as more and more people become involved in Buddhism, especially as intellectuals and influential people begin to be slowly attracted to the Buddhist approach. So it is a question of sheer numbers. Because of their own life situation, I think in quite a short time, perhaps, Buddhists will have a visible effect on politics. And the effect will be great, and they will find themselves playing a part in politics, rather than just jumping in. So it could happen.
SR: Do you see anything in particular happening as a result of this?
Rinpoche: Well, hopefully some kind of sanity would develop, obviously. We can’t expect a golden age. On the one hand, if we have a long period of time without a war, everyone will be affected by a depression; and on the other hand, if we have a long period of an economic high, everyone will just abuse himself completely. Some kind of turmoil is necessary, but we do not particularly have to develop it. It happens. At the same time I think the Buddhist contribution to these situations would be very different in that the Buddhist approach is nontheistic. It does not have a concept of uniformity, particularly—just basic unity. And because of this, there is no hierarchy, like a belief in God. Therefore, since everything is self-reliance, purely self-reliance, that does encourage people to think more for themselves. In time that would have a great effect, I would say.
SR: Christianity, more or less, has been a religion of a future life. In other words, life here is very ephemeral and we are here only in order to prepare ourselves for another life, a greater life, which comes after death. This has influenced the social concepts of the West to a great extent. A great deal of social evolution didn’t take place because the attitude was to keep to the status quo since this life was not supposed to be improved; you are supposed to accept it as God’s will in order for you to prepare yourself for the life to come. Am I correct in saying that Buddhism does not have this sort of attitude toward life? That this life is only preparatory for another?
Rinpoche: Well, I suppose the Buddhist approach is, just do it, on the spot, rather than reliance on the great white hope that something just might happen, and therefore, we should push toward it. In that case you never see the end product; you just keep pushing all the time; this tends to make things very vague, in a sense, and, at the same time, very aggressive. You cannot experience what is going on. From that point of view, the Buddhist approach is not really based on hope. It’s based on just sit and do it on the spot. Perhaps this may be a very powerful improvement. I particularly think a person’s mind begins to take a turn more toward experience, rather than faith alone. I think this is the core of the matter in politics as well: you are supposed to just have hope, rather than living experience; then hope becomes just a nonexistent entity. But you are still supposed to push on aggressively, struggle toward it. The idea, I suppose, in the Western world or the world of democracy, is the notion of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, or trying to create the ideal Jewish level, or whatever, which is really a poverty-stricken way of viewing it. I am sure the traditional doctrines did not possess this kind of approach, but this is the way we see it and this is what we have: man is sort of wicked and fallen from God’s grace, and he should do penance and try to build things up. This is the sort of wretched attitude which is a problem. As long as we condemn ourselves, no confidence can take place. People are bewildered and only rely on technicians or technocrats or, for that matter, on theologians or politicians. One feels he is just a layperson and doesn’t possess a specialized knowledge or profession and hasn’t studied how to do things—therefore he feels completely outside of the situation. This is one of the greatest problems I see in the Occidental world.
SR: How would Buddhism approach social reform, brotherhood of man?
Rinpoche: Well, I don’t think a Buddhist would look on it as social reform. Buddhists would look at the chaos and the problems that exist in the present situation; it’s delightful and something to work on. Then you work with it, you have some feeling of being very relaxed in your own chaos and turmoil; thus, you have complete confidence. The end product has never been expected or tailored. Just what is happening on the spot; you just do your duty, you just do your thing, day by day, simply. Then whatever shape it might take because of that, you accept it, of course. There is no idea of pigeonholing anything or trying to reshape anything. The interesting point is there is no such thing as a greater plan for an ideal world, a utopian world.
SR: Do Buddhists have a tendency to be isolationists?
Rinpoche: I don’t think so. Particularly because the mahayana Buddhist’s concept is to relate to your surroundings and try to help each other. The Buddhist notion is to use everything available around you to further yourself and your fellow sentient beings. Buddhists may be less aggressive, and if somebody wants to come and fight, they may not fight. They might defeat their enemy, but the way of fighting is, not so much of a fistfight or street fight, but taking advantage of the whole situation.
SR: From a mahayanist point of view, do you think we might have a closer relationship with all peoples?
Rinpoche: I think so. Definitely. Not only people but animals included—all sentient beings. (Laughter)
SR: So there might not be as much nationalism?
Rinpoche: Well, there would be the same sense of dignity and celebration, obviously, but at the same time, it would not be nationalism. When we talk of nationalism, that is a sign of weakness. A person wants to fight just anyone who enters his territory, to defend himself. Therefore, you call yourself a so-and-so nationalist. Which as a sign, a symbol, becomes an expression of a sense of territory and patheticness.
SR: Thank you.
The Core of Walt Whitman’s Poetic Vision
I am enamoured of growing outdoors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships, of the wielders of axes and mauls, of the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.
What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill, Scattering it freely forever.
The pure contralto sings in the organloft,
The carpenter dresses his plank . . . . the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whaleboat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars of a Sunday and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,
He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bedroom;
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;
The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist’s table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand
. . . . the drunkard nods by the barroom stove,
The machinist rolls up his sleeves . . . . the policeman travels his beat . . . . the gate-keeper marks who pass,
The young fellow drives the express-wagon . . . .
I love him though I do not know him;
The half-breed straps on his light boots to compete in the race,
The western turkey-shooting draws old and young . . . . some lean on their rifles, some sit on logs,
Out from the crowd steps the marksman and takes his position and levels his piece;
The groups of newly-come immigrants cover the wharf or levee,
The woollypates hoe in the sugarfield, the overseer views them from his saddle;
The bugle calls in the ballroom, the gentlemen run for their partners, the dancers bow to each other;
The youth lies awake in the cedar-roofed garret and harks to the musical rain,
The Wolverine sets traps on the creek that helps fill the Huron,
The reformer ascends the platform, he spouts with his mouth and nose,
The company returns from its excursion, the darkey brings up the rear and bears the well-riddled target,
The squaw wrapt in her yellow-hemmed cloth is offering moccasins and beadbags for sale,
The connoisseur peers along the exhibition-gallery with halfshut eyes bent sideways,
The deckhands make fast the steamboat, the plank is thrown for the shoregoing passengers,
The young sister holds out the skein, the elder sister winds it off in a ball and stops now and then for the knots,
The one-year wife is recovering and happy, a week ago she bore her first child,
The cleanhaired Yankee girl works with her sewing- machine or in the factory or mill,
The nine months’ gone is in the parturition chamber, her faintness and pains are advancing;
The pavingman leans on his twohanded rammer—the reporter’s lead flies swiftly over the notebook—the signpainter is lettering with red and gold,
The canal-boy trots on the towpath—the bookkeeper counts at his desk—the shoemaker waxes his thread,
The conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him,
The child is baptised—the convert is making his first professions,
The regatta is spread on the bay . . . . how the white sails sparkle!
The drover watches his drove, he sings out to them that would stray,
The pedlar sweats with his pack on his back—the purchaser higgles about the odd cent,
The camera and plate are prepared, the lady must sit for her daguerreotype,
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minutehand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium eater reclines with rigid head and just opened lips,
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck,
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other,
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you,)
The President holds a cabinet council, he is surrounded by the great secretaries,
On the piazza walk five friendly matrons with twined arms;
The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold,
The Missourian crosses the plains toting his wares and his cattle,
The fare-collector goes through the train—he gives notice by the jingling of loose change,
The floormen are laying the floor—the tinners are tinning the roof—the masons are calling for mortar,
In single file each shouldering his hod pass onward the laborers;
Seasons pursuing each other the indescribable crowd is gathered . . . . it is the Fourth of July . . . . what salutes of cannon and small arms!
Seasons pursuing each other the plougher ploughs and the mower mows and the wintergrain falls in the ground;
Off on the lakes the pikefisher watches and waits by the hole in the frozen surface,
The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep with his axe,
The flatboatmen make fast toward dusk near the cottonwood or pekantrees,
The coon-seekers go now through the regions of the Red river, or through those drained by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas,
The torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahoochee or Altamahaw;
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great grandsons around them,
In walls of adobe, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day’s sport.
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time . . . . the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am.
I love him though I do not know him
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine,
One of the great nation, the nation of many nations—the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . . ready for trade . . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings,
A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts . . . . a Hoosier, a Badger, a Buckeye,
A Louisianian or Georgian, a poke-easy from sandhills and pines,
At home on Canadian snowshoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of iceboats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians . . . . comrade of free northwesterners, loving their big proportions,
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen—comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat;
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest,
A novice beginning experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion,
Not merely of the New World but of Africa Europe or Asia . . . . a wandering savage,
A farmer, mechanic, or artist . . . . a gentleman, sailor, lover or quaker,
A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or priest.
I resist anything better than my own diversity,
And breathe the air and leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
The moth and the fisheggs are in their place,
The suns I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.
These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing,
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This is the common air that bathes the globe.
This is the breath of laws and songs and behavior,
This is the tasteless water of souls . . . . this is the true sustenance,
It is for the illiterate . . . . it is for the judges of the supreme court . . . . it is for the federal capitol and the state capitols,
It is for the admirable communes of literary men and composers and singers and lecturers and engineers and savans,
It is for the endless races of working people and farmers and seamen.
This is the trill of a thousand clear cornets and scream of the octave flute and strike of triangles.
I play not a march for victors only . . . . I play great marches for conquered and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall . . . . battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.
I sound triumphal drums for the dead . . . . I fling through my embouchures the loudest and gayest music to them,
Vivas to those who have failed, and to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea, and those themselves who sank in the sea,
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all
overcome heroes, and the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known.
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise
This is the meal pleasantly set . . . . this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous . . . . I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited . . . . the heavy-lipped slave is invited . . . . the venerealee is invited,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.
This is the press of a bashful hand . . . . this is the float and odor of hair,
This is the touch of my lips to yours . . . . this is the murmur of yearning,
This is the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face,
This is the thoughtful merge of myself and the outlet again.
Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?
Well I have . . . . for the April rain has, and the mica on the side of a rock has.
Do you take it I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? or the early redstart twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?
This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.
Who goes there! hankering, gross, mystical, nude? How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?
What is a man anyhow? What am I? and what are you?
All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own,
Else it were time lost listening to me.
I do not snivel that snivel the world over,
That months are vacuums and the ground but wallow and filth,
That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the end but threadbare crape and tears.
Whimpering and truckling fold with powders for invalids . . . . conformity goes to the fourth removed,
I cock my hat as I please indoors or out.
Walt Whitman (1819—1892) is considered by many to be the greatest of all American poets. His collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, in which “Song of Myself” appears, is probably the most influential volume of American literature. Whitman’s work was radically unconventional in both content and technique, with a poetic style that was free and organic in structure.
Increasing Complexity Means Increasing Consciousness
What Type: Boy or Girl?
The next component of the “Comprehensive Map of the Territory of You” is easy: each of the previous components has a masculine and feminine type.
Types simply refers to items that can be present at virtually any stage or state. One common typology, for example, is the Myers-Briggs (whose main types are feeling, thinking, sensing, and intuiting). You can be any of those types at virtually any stage of development. These kinds of “horizontal typologies” can be very useful, especially when combined with levels, lines, and states. To show what is involved, we can use “masculine” and “feminine” as one example of types.
Carol Gilligan, in her enormously influential book In a Different Voice, pointed out that both men and women tend to develop through 3 or 4 major levels or stages of moral development. Pointing to a great deal of research evidence, Gilligan noted that these 3 or 4 moral stages can be called preconventional, conventional, postconventional, and integrated. These are actually quite similar to the 3 simple developmental stages we are using, this time applied to moral intelligence.
Gilligan found that stage 1 is a morality centered entirely on “me” (hence this preconventional stage or level is also called egocentric). Stage-2 moral development is centered on “us,” so that my identity has expanded from just me to include other human beings of my group (hence this conventional stage is often called ethnocentric, traditional, or conformist). With stage-3 moral development, my identity expands once again, this time from “us” to “all of us,” or all human beings (or even all sentient beings)—and hence this stage is often called worldcentric. I now have care and compassion, not just for me (egocentric), and not just for my family, my tribe, or my nation (ethnocentric), but for all of humanity, for all men and women everywhere, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed (worldcentric). And if I develop even further, at stage-4 moral development, which Gilligan calls integrated, then . . .
Well, before we look at the important conclusion of Gilligan’s work, let’s first note her major contribution. Gilligan strongly agreed that women, like men, develop through those 3 or 4 major hierarchical stages of growth. Gilligan herself correctly refers to these stages as hierarchical because each stage has a higher capacity for care and compassion. But she said that women progress through those stages using a different type of logic—they develop “in a different voice.”
Male logic, or a man’s voice, tends to be based on terms of autonomy, justice, and rights; whereas women’s logic or voice tends to be based on terms of relationship, care, and responsibility. Men tend toward agency; women tend toward communion. Men follow rules; women follow connections. Men look; women touch. Men tend toward individualism, women toward relationship. One of Gilligan’s favorite stories: A little boy and girl are playing. The boy says, “Let’s play pirates!” The girl says, “Let’s play like we live next door to each other.” Boy: “No, I want to play pirates!” “Okay, you play the pirate who lives next door.”
Little boys don’t like girls around when they are playing games like baseball, because the two voices clash badly, and often hilariously. Some boys are playing baseball, a kid takes his third strike and is out, so he starts to cry. The other boys stand unmoved until the kid stops crying; after all, a rule is a rule, and the rule is: three strikes and you’re out. Gilligan points out that if a girl is around, she will usually say, “Ah, come on, give him another try!” The girl sees him crying and wants to help, wants to connect, wants to heal. This, however, drives the boys nuts, who are doing this game as an initiation into the world of rules and male logic. Gilligan says that the boys will hurt feelings in order to save the rules; the girls will break the rules in order to save the feelings.
In a different voice. Both the girls and boys will develop through the 3 or 4 developmental stages of moral growth (egocentric to ethnocentric to world centric to integrated), but they will do so in a different voice, using a different logic. Gilligan specifically calls these hierarchical stages in women selfish (which is egocentric), care (which is ethnocentric), universal care (which is worldcentric), and integrated. Again, why did Gilligan (who has been badly misunderstood on this topic) say that these stages are hierarchical? Because each stage has a higher capacity for care and compassion. (Not all hierarchies are bad, and this is a good example of why.)
So, integrated or stage 4—what is that? At the 4th and highest wave of moral development, according to Gilligan, the masculine and feminine voices in each of us tend to become integrated. This does not mean that a person at this stage starts to lose the distinctions between masculine and feminine, and hence become a kind of bland, androgynous, asexual being. In fact, masculine and feminine dimensions might become more intensified. But it does mean the individuals start to befriend both the masculine and feminine modes in themselves, even if they characteristically act predominantly from one or the other.
Have you ever seen a caduceus (the symbol of the medical profession)? It’s a staff with two serpents crisscrossing it, and wings at the top. The staff itself represents the central spinal column; where the serpents cross the staff represents the individual chakras moving up the spine from the lowest to the highest; and the two serpents themselves represent solar and lunar (or masculine and feminine) energies at each of the chakras.
That’s the crucial point. The 7 chakras, which are simply a more complex version of the 3 simple levels or stages, represent 7 levels of consciousness and energy available to all human beings. (The first three chakras—food, sex, and power—are roughly stage 1; chakras 4 and 5—relational heart and communication—are basically stage 2; and chakras 6 and 7—psychic and spiritual—are the epitome of stage 3). The important point here is that, according to the traditions, each of those 7 levels has a masculine and feminine mode (aspect, type, or “voice”). Neither masculine nor feminine is higher or better; they are two equivalent types at each of the levels of consciousness.
This means, for example, that with chakra 3 (the egocentric-power chakra), there is a masculine and feminine version of the same chakra: at that chakra-level, males tend toward power exercised autonomously (“My way or the highway!”), women tend toward power exercised communally or socially (“Do it this way or I won’t talk to you”). And so on with the other major chakras, each of them having a solar and lunar, or masculine and feminine, dimension. Neither is more fundamental; neither can be ignored.
At the 7th chakra, however, notice that the masculine and feminine serpents both disappear into their ground or source. Masculine and feminine meet and unite at the crown—they literally become one. And that is what Gilligan found with her stage-4 moral development: the two voices in each person become integrated, so that there is a paradoxical union of autonomy and relationship, rights and responsibilities, agency and communion, wisdom and compassion, justice and mercy, masculine and feminine.
The important point is that whenever you use IOS, you are automatically checking any situation—in yourself, in others, in an organization, in a culture—and making sure that you include both the masculine and feminine types so as to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. If you believe that there are no major differences between masculine and feminine—or if you are suspicious of such differences—then that is fine, too, and you can treat them the same if you want. We are simply saying that, in either case, make sure you touch base with both the masculine and feminine, however you view them.
But more than that, there are numerous other “horizontal typologies” that can be very helpful when part of a comprehensive IOS (Myers-Briggs, enneagram, etc.), and the Integral Approach draws on any or all of those typologies as appropriate. “Types” are as important as quadrants, levels, lines, and states.
Masculine and feminine meet and unite at the crown—they literally become one.
Sick Boy, Sick Girl
There’s an interesting thing about types. You can have healthy and unhealthy versions of them. To say that somebody is caught in an unhealthy type is not a way to judge them but a way to understand and communicate more clearly and effectively with them.
For example, if each stage of development has a masculine and feminine dimension, each of those can be healthy or unhealthy, which we sometimes call “sick boy, sick girl.” This is simply another kind of horizontal typing, but one that can be extremely useful.
If the healthy masculine principle tends toward autonomy, strength, independence, and freedom, when that principle becomes unhealthy or pathological, all of those positive virtues either over- or underfire. There is not just autonomy, but alienation; not just strength, but domination; not just independence, but morbid fear of relationship and commitment; not just a drive toward freedom, but a drive to destroy. The unhealthy masculine principle does not transcend in freedom, but dominates in fear.
If the healthy feminine principle tends toward flowing, relationship, care, and compassion, the unhealthy feminine flounders in each of those. Instead of being in relationship, she becomes lost in relationship. Instead of a healthy self in communion with others, she loses her self altogether and is dominated by the relationships she is in. Not a connection, but a fusion; not a flow state, but a panic state; not a communion, but a meltdown. The unhealthy feminine principle does not find fullness in connection, but chaos in fusion.
Using IOS, you will find ways to identify both the healthy and unhealthy masculine and feminine dimensions operating in yourself and in others. But the important point about this section is simple: various typologies have their usefulness in helping us to understand and communicate with others. And with any typology, there are healthy and unhealthy versions of a type. Pointing to an unhealthy type is not a way to judge people, but a way to understand and communicate with them more clearly and effectively.
There’s Even Room for Many Bodies
Let’s return now to states of consciousness in order to make a final point before bringing this all together in an integral conclusion.
States of consciousness do not hover in the air, dangling and disembodied. On the contrary, every mind has its body. For every state of consciousness, there is a felt energetic component, an embodied feeling, a concrete vehicle that provides the actual support for any state of awareness.
Let’s use a simple example from the wisdom traditions. Because each of us has the 3 great states of consciousness—waking, dreaming, and formless sleep—the wisdom traditions maintain that each of us likewise has 3 bodies, which are often called the gross body, the subtle body, and the causal body.
I have 3 bodies? Are you kidding me? Isn’t one body enough? But keep in mind a few things. For the wisdom traditions, a “body” simply means a mode of experience or energetic feeling. So there is coarse or gross experience, subtle or refined experience, and very subtle or causal experience. These are what philosophers would call “phenomenological realities,” or realities as they present themselves to our immediate awareness. Right now, you have access to a gross body and its gross energy, a subtle body and its subtle energy, and a causal body and its causal energy.
What’s an example of these 3 bodies? Notice that, right now, you are in a waking state of awareness; as such, you are aware of your gross body—the physical, material, sensorimotor body. But when you dream at night, there is no gross physical body; it seems to have vanished. You are aware in the dream state, yet you don’t have a gross body of dense matter but a subtle body of light, energy, emotional feelings, fluid and flowing images. In the dream state, the mind and soul are set free to create as they please, to imagine vast worlds not tied to gross sensory realities but reaching out, almost magically, to touch other souls, other people and far-off places, wild and radiant images cascading to the rhythm of the heart’s desire. So what kind of body do you have in the dream? Well, a subtle body of feelings, images, even light. That’s what you feel like in the dream. And dreams are not “just illusion.” When somebody like Martin Luther King, Jr., says, “I have a dream,” that is a good example of tapping into the great potential of visionary dreaming, where the subtle body and mind are set free to soar to their highest possibilities.
As you pass from the dream state with its subtle body into the deep-sleep or formless state, even thoughts and images drop away, and there is only a vast emptiness, a formless expanse beyond any individual “I” or ego or self. The great wisdom traditions maintain that in this state—which might seem like merely a blank or nothingness—we are actually plunged into a vast formless realm, a great Emptiness or Ground of Being, an expanse of consciousness that seems almost infinite. Along with this almost infinite expanse of consciousness there is an almost infinite body or energy—the causal body, the body of the finest, most subtle experience possible, a great formlessness out of which creative possibilities can arise.
When somebody like Martin Luther King, Jr., says, “I have a dream,” that is a good example of tapping into the great potential of visionary dreaming, where the subtle body and mind are set free to soar to their highest possibilities.
Of course, many people do not experience that deep state in such a full fashion. But again, the traditions are unanimous that this formless state and its causal body can be entered in full awareness, whereupon they, too, yield their extraordinary potentials for growth and awareness.
The point, once again, is simply that whenever IOS is being utilized, it reminds us to check in with our waking-state realities, our subtle-state dreams and visions and innovative ideas, as well as our own open, formless ground of possibilities that is the source of so much creativity. The important point about the Integral Approach is that we want to touch base with as many potentials as possible so as to miss nothing in terms of possible solutions, growth, and transformation.
Consciousness and Complexity
Perhaps 3 bodies are just too “far out”? Well, remember that these are phenomenological realities, or experiential realities, but there is a simpler, less far-out way to look at them, this time grounded in hard-headed science. It is this: every level of interior consciousness is accompanied by a level of exterior physical complexity. The greater the consciousness, the more complex the system housing it.
For example, in living organisms, the reptilian brain stem is accompanied by a rudimentary interior consciousness of basic drives such as food and hunger, physiological sensations, and sensorimotor actions (everything that we earlier called “gross,” centered on the “me”). By the time we get to the more complex mammalian limbic system, basic sensations have expanded and evolved to include quite sophisticated feelings, desires, emotional-sexual impulses, and needs (hence the beginning of what we called subtle experience or the subtle body, which can expand from “me” to “us”). As evolution proceeds to even more complex physical structures, such as the triune brain with its neocortex, consciousness once again expands to a worldcentric awareness of “all of us” (and thus even begins to tap into what we called the causal body).
That is a very simple example of the fact that increasing interior consciousness is accompanied by increasing exterior complexity of the systems housing it. When using IOS, we often look at both the interior levels of consciousness and the corresponding exterior levels of physical complexity, since including both of them results in a much more balanced and inclusive approach.
Ken Wilber is the author of over twenty books. He is the founder of Integral Institute, a think-tank for studying integral theory and practice, with outreach through local and online communities such as Integral Education Network, Integral Training, and Integral Spiritual Center.