Tag Archives: suffering

The Problem with Grace

If I were to pick one word that is central to my spiritual worldview, it would be Grace. And yet, I often find it to be the most difficult to talk about. It is profound as Truth and simultaneously problematic as a concept. It is a word that points to the deep nature of Reality and our soul’s relationship with God. But any explanation I can possibly think of is problematic if taken literally and applied inappropriately.

For instance, the words, “Everything is Grace,” can be either a soothing balm or a dagger to the gut depending on our understanding and application. They can be used to minimize danger, trivialize the suffering of others, or to spiritually bypass our own journey. They can also be that deepest reminder of our inherent OK-ness, even when our body, mind, and life circumstances are not OK.  They point us to the indestructible nature of Being, even in the face of death.

Ram Dass has often taught that the words, “Suffering is Grace,” are a tool that should only be applied to one’s own self. It should never be imposed outwardly on others. This is, of course, good practical advice and a safeguard from becoming a total dick, but it also points towards a deeper understanding than the words.

The semanticist Alfred Korzybski coined the now famous phrase, “The map is not the territory.”  Our ideas about the Universe are not the same as the Universe itself. A map is only useful if it takes us where we want to go. “Suffering is Grace” is one map that can be used to lead us right to the heart, even in the midst of extreme pain, but only in certain circumstances.

This map can also be used to circumvent our discomfort in witnessing another’s pain. Rather than using it to let go of our own discomfort, we instead minimize the other’s suffering. But Grace is not a concept to minimize pain. It is a force erupting from Infinity that grants us the capacity to hold it.

The concept of Grace is like a finger pointing at the moon. Move the hand, and it points us astray.

Sometimes Grace is what we pray for, like a mariner raising their sail and waiting for the winds to come. Other times Grace is more like dusting off an old window to allow in the light of the Sun.

Grace is all-pervading. That means that there is nowhere that Grace does not exist. It is the fabric of Existence itself, and yet… when I think of humanity’s worst atrocities and the most traumatic experiences of the human condition, there is no way I can call any of that Grace.

These inconsistencies create a doorway into a space that is deeper than words, where I no longer need to pin concepts to intuitive understanding and where I can truly rest in the spaciousness of Grace.

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Bracing Against the World

Our samskaras, or the accumulation of habits formed from past action and thought, are deep impressions that have dug themselves into our mind-body system. These samskaras manifest in the form of bracing. We tighten in our mind-body in order to push away unpleasantness or to grab at the desirable. It is this contraction that creates the illusion of separation. By bringing our awareness to these deep holdings, they begin to loosen on their own, returning to their natural state.  We stop bracing against the world.

We often think of this in terms of our personal life. We brace against our relationships to other people, to work, and to ourselves. But, there is another set of deep contractions that we rarely, if ever, talk about.

We constantly brace against the immense suffering that surrounds us and the inevitable guilt we feel as an accomplice. Every time we buy something… anything, drive a car, turn on the electricity in our homes, or even travel to a dharma retreat, our mind-body braces against the horror of our involvement in the exploitation of people and the planet, and we brace again to stave off the helplessness of having no escape in sight. It is this bracing that allows us to continue without fully acknowledging our role as accomplice, or if we do it stays hidden from sight or subdued as a subtle whisper.

We brace out of the mistaken fear that we will drown in the world’s pain, but what we seek to protect is merely the outer shell of our Being. By protecting it, we not only create a dam from the world, but also from ourselves. The world’s suffering is our suffering. We spend precious energy maintaining this illusion of separation.

When we lower the floodgates, this outer shell begins to crumble against life’s oncoming river. What remains is something remarkable- the fierce courage of an open heart.  This heart carries the tides of grief and beauty on its inhale and exhale like a billowing sea, informing the way we inhabit the world and animating each step. This heart sings the song of the world.

For most of us, this is not a one-time event, but a continual and gradual letting go. I have found that each time I allow myself to feel, I discover a new part of me that is still holding on, not yet ready to let go, still believing in a someone to protect from a world out there.

But this also leaves me with a strengthened faith in the process, for an open heart is inherently satisfying. It teaches that the world’s pain contains seeds of its power. And, if we are ever going to change the oppressive power structures at play, we will need that power to do so.

Problems cannot be solved without being acknowledged, and all of us, I don’t care if you have spent years in spiritual retreat or years protesting on the streets, can go a little deeper.

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Using Spiritual Truth to Shield Against the World

For a moment the mind rests. Self identifications cease. The veil lifts. We see the Truth of it all.

As our conceptual mind emerges back towards the forefront, it attempts to glean what it can from this vast expanse and filters it into words. The universe is perfect. The fabric of existence is Love.

This transcendental experience quickly becomes a vague memory, and we use the memory to prove the existence of our new god- The universe is perfect. The fabric of existence is Love.

We worship these words as truth and then use them as shields against a world that often doesn’t agree- Genocide. Homelessness. Systemic oppression. Global inequality. Environmental destruction.

We brush the problems aside, trivialize them, or worse- we pretend they don’t exist, all in order to turn back towards our god- The universe is perfect. The fabric of existence is Love.

But after so many blows, our shields begin to crack.  There is doubt. What once seemed so true now seems at odds with the world. What was once revealed Truth is now just a conceptual idea, and when weighed against all of the evidence, seems like an easily disproven one.

All of this stems from a lack of faith in that inexplicable mystery that first birthed those words in our mind. The universe is perfect. The fabric of existence is Love.

Faith doesn’t need to cling to words because it accepts the ineffable understanding behind the words. Faith can sit with unknowing and trusts that inconsistencies only show us our understanding is incomplete. When the veil lifts and we catch a glimpse of the mystery’s divine harmony, we accept it. And when we read the news, look a homeless women in the eyes, or fill up our gas tank on a late night in a moment of awakened horror, we accept that too as truth.

The universe is perfect. The fabric of existence is Love. And yet…

The suffering is unbearable. Much of it is avoidable. Much of it is man-made. Much of it could be stopped. There is no spiritual “truth” I have found that can lessen the burden of this suffering. There is no divine understanding to magically make sense of it all.

It is a fierce practice to hold these two truths, perfection and suffering, simultaneously in our being. I find I often either teeter more towards one side or the other in any given moment. When I am too far on one side, I often find the other one to be triggering. It’s either too fluffy or too dreary.

My work, as I see it, is to constantly rework that balance, and to trust that the inconsistencies are my doorway to a greater and more expansive Truth, one that I may never have the proper words for but I have faith is at the heart of all things.

The universe is perfect. The fabric of existence is Love.

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A Spiritual Response to Crisis

The belief that we are all One is not spiritual if it blinds us from injustice. It is only spiritual if it reminds us of our interdependence- that none of us are free until every last one of us is free. Belief in in the Perfection and Harmony of the Cosmos is not spiritual if it allows us to gloss over suffering, but only if it empowers us by aligning our actions with that Cosmic Arc of Justice. Even prayer is not spiritual if it becomes a substitute for action, but it is a bold act of resistance if it fuels us in the fight for justice.

A spiritual response to crisis is not a justification of it, or a belief structure awkwardly imposed over it.  A spiritual understanding of crisis is that which allows us to see the world as it is, and this in turn inspires deep and heartfelt engagement. The spiritual map is that which leads to a more just world. The spiritual worldview is a way through crisis, and its very truth is both found and expressed through action.

Do your duty without any attachment to the fruits of your work, for only by acting without attachment can you realize God (Bhagavad Gita 3:19)

This is the true spiritual work. This is what sweeps us up in that Great Eternal Force. It’s working to make change, and doing so without any aim for personal gain. It’s living our Dharma. It’s marching. It’s organizing. It’s writing or making art that inspires. It’s growing a garden. It’s living by our values. It is speaking up against racism and sexism. It is tirelessly working to end all forms of oppression. It is a deep listening that allows us to authentically feel this great and painful grief- the firm realization that we are not progressing as we should, that we can do better. That we must do better.

If we cannot feel this then we cannot move forward in a real way. Our activism will be stunted, and its motives will be suspect. To truly make impactful change, we need to live with this collective grief and cradle it close until its painful message can emerge as wisdom, enriching our actions and drawing us closer to a world of freedom and justice for all.

A truly spiritual worldview allows us to do this. A spiritual worldview connects us to an innate and inexhaustible power that can live with grief and bear witness to pain. It is not a buffer that protects us from the atrocities of the world or that justifies oppression using cosmic wordplay. The spiritual worldview reminds us that such protections are not needed, that they only serve to dim the light on the indestructible nature of Being.

The Bhagavad Gita could, in one sense, be summarized by the words of Neem Karoli Baba, “All action is prayer.”

I have found that this is only true if I actually take time in my day for contemplative practices. These practices not only spirtualize my activism, but they make it more effective. The more I get in touch with myself, the easier it is to see where I am caught. This widens my perspective and fine tunes my awareness. I can begin to see more clearly the oppression in our culture and to resist it in the wisest and most skillful way.

But to practice with the wrong perspective can actually strengthen my narcissism rather than to dismantle it. My time in meditation and payer can be become an escape, and this can further enhance the view that I am the center of the Universe. Activism, service and Dharma help remedy this and make my contemplative practices more honest, real, and alive.

Thus I have found that contemplative practice and social engagement are both strengthened by the spiritual worldview, and in turn this worldview is fed and informed by these two practices. If I am ever going to successfully overcome my selfish tendencies of mind, I am going to need the full force of the spiritual life to do so. And until I do, I am just another cog in the wheel of the dominant, exploitative, capitalist culture.

“In the Name of God, the All‑Compassionate, the All‑Merciful” (Quran).

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Because the World Needs us.

I have been writing much about suffering, so today I thought I would write about love. It’s difficult to discuss it in a way that is fresh and alive. The word itself died long ago in the coffin of cliche and teenage romance. What good will saying it one more time do?

When I first heard Ram Dass say the word’s “Souls not roles,” I felt my nerves tingle and cells sing. I printed out those words and taped them on my dashboard. When I drove, it seemed the whole world sang their glory. It only took a few days for the song to fade, and then they too were just words.

When I studied poetry in college, I learned the golden rules of modern American verse. The universal is gleaned at through the specific, and the abstract is earned through imagery and sound. Love requires the highest price; even better to invoke it without saying it.

Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir served as a bridge to the devotional poetry of India, which seemed to have its own set of golden rules. It can appear soft and trite for the unprepared. Tulsidas writes for those on the path. His words are earned through years of practice. We prepare ourselves, working our emotions, attachments and mind, so when the gods shower us with rose petals we can appreciate their perfume. Tulsidas takes us beyond the clouds to be obliterated by the Sun.

I don’t know how to reach that depth of love without acknowledging suffering. Maybe it’s protestant guilt, unknowingly inherited through our culture and embedded in a poetry that teaches us love must be earned. Or, maybe its because my Guru once said, “I love suffering. It brings me so close to God.” We know Ram Dass has earned it when he looks from his wheelchair and says, “Suffering is grace.”

In Truth, the world has already earned it. It cries out tears of anguish, desperately in need of that Love.


The Dharma of Our Times

Now published on the Be Here Now Network.

I have spent years trying to find that morally superior stance that could acquit me of the suffering of society.  As a young environmental and human rights activist I found solace by making corporations the enemy. They were the cause of our suffering. Eventually that no longer worked, and so I had to find another strategy. As I moved away from activism and moved towards a deeper sense of spirituality and alternative living, the goal became to remove myself from the system. Yet, no matter how much I gave up, how much I shopped at co-ops, drove gas made from veggie oil, or moved onto an off-the-grid eco village, I couldn’t escape it. One day it dawned on me that even if it was possible to be totally off the grid, totally unreliant on any fossil fuel or system of government, totally in a sustainable way, I would still be responsible. It would require me to be completely removed and isolated from society while knowing what was going on. And how could I sit by idly while others were suffering? Wouldn’t my lack of engagement still hold me responsible?

The world is a messy place. Global warming, habitat loss, pollution and overpopulation are destroying the planet. We have corruption at every level of government. It seems we are constantly bombarded by signs telling us we are not good enough and pushing us to buy more. Our world is in a perpetual trance of war, and there are countless instances of needless suffering.

And there is no perfect solution to make it all go away or to absolve us of this. This doesn’t mean we don’t try. We should still work to end suffering and to live life in a way that is in harmony with our values. But forming an identity from this weakens our effectiveness.  It actually pushes the world away as we run into the safety of our labels and self-identifications.

The immensity of our global situation leaves us coping with strategies to keep it at bay. Some of us develop scapegoats, some of us ignore it through entertainment or our own personal concerns. Some of us try to escape through spirituality or alternative living. Some of us convince ourselves its not really a problem, or even if we admit it is, we don’t fully acknowledge it for fear that we will drown in a sea of unbearable guilt, fear, sadness and rage.

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Normalizing Truth

How are you?

How many times have I held back answering that question honestly because I didn’t want to deal with the responses that would follow?

Being honest and truthful is a powerful practice to soften the edges of the ego, drop pretense, and help foster more intimacy in the community, but our culture doesn’t make this easy…

How many times have I…

Admitted an insecurity or a character flaw only to have someone try to make me feel better?

Discussed a hardship in my life only to have someone offer me advice on how to fix it?

Offered advice or flattery to another person rather than being truly present with their sharing?

What could be a moment of openness and sharing, where the boundaries between self and other evaporate into the vast sky of Being, instead turns into a gaping chasm of separation.  Of course, advice and soothing words have their place, but I feel if we are truly listening, we will find they are useful far less than they are said. Often they lead me to feeling misunderstood at a time when I am vulnerable.

Many spiritual teachers, therapists, and others have commented on how these responses come from a desire to relieve our own discomfort, and I feel this is true. Because we can’t sit with our own pain, we can’t do so for others.

Every time someone shares their suffering with me it is an opportunity to look within at my own resistance, and every time I resist sharing what is truly on my mind it is another opportunity to do the same.

But what fascinates me most about this is that we lack a culture for sharing difficult experiences. It is so far out of the bounds of our social framework that it puts us at a loss of words. We don’t know how to respond.  And how could we expect it to be otherwise?  Since we don’t know its OK for people to be real, we assume they must want us to fix them if they are doing so.

It is so far out of the bounds of our social framework that it puts us at a loss of words.

Changing our culture is difficult. It is far more difficult than changing politics, but also far more profound.  I wish I had some big solution for this, but at this moment I can at least talk about its importance, and I can vow to intensify my efforts to be real with my friends and family and to allow them the space to do the same.  This is how we normalize Truth.

“Always tell the Truth.” -Neem Karoli Baba


Compassion, Privilege, and Spiritual Practice

I just finished spending time at the “Ram Dass Spring on Maui Retreat.” An incredible assortment of teachers was present, including Lama Surya Das, Mirabai Bush, Saraswati and Raghu Marcus, Nina Rao, Rameshwar Das and Shantala. Of course, for me and many others, our reason for being there was Ram Dass.

It’s hard to put into words what the magic of the retreat was like. Ram Dass showered us with love from his own open heart, and we melted into it. Each of us in our own way blossomed and bathed in the light. We practiced meditation, yoga, chi-gong, kirtan, and listened to dharma talks. Spending time with satsang only deepened the love, and much of the magic occurred during the free time between sessions. People openly divulged their insecurities and fears to strangers during lunch. Hugs, sincere well-wishing, deep listening and caring all became so commonplace that it was hard to remember any other way even existed. The love was real, and it felt amazing.

Many asked questions about how to bring this magic back into our daily lives, and others expressed their fear that it would slip away. All of us, I’m sure, sincerely hope that our time in love together will help us to be a little softer, a little more caring, and a little more present and loving in our daily lives.

This is my wish also, but that’s not what was on my mind during this retreat. Instead, I have been consumed with What do I do about all of this privilege that I enjoy at the expense of others, and how does spiritual practice relate to this?

“Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

How does this love benefit the poorest and most marginalized of us?

It is important to be in touch with our own inner well of compassion, presence and love.  If all of us did this then there would be much less suffering and poverty in this world, but in reality the inequality is staggering. We normally think of inequality as the income gap between us and the super rich, but there is also a gaping gap between rich countries like the U.S. and much of the rest of the world.

The inequality gap is so wide that I fear that the love, compassion, and kindness gained from spiritual practices by privileged Americans like me might be disproportionately benefiting other privileged people.

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Faith and suffering

I love suffering. It brings me so close to God

-Neem Karoli Baba

These words have often been my lifeline when it feels like I can’t breathe. When the constriction from my own mind has cut me off from the world, and when I am unable to connect with anything or anyone outside of myself, these words remind me to relax into my suffering and arrive at its unmistakable truth- that God is here, in this moment, in this suffering.

The suffering is still here, but now there is no where else I would rather be. There is a space around it. There is room to breathe.

In these moments I’ve found that true joy can coexist with suffering. An unbearable love can be found within even the most horrendous agony.  I’m often awestruck by the unexpected arising of gratitude. I become thankful for this unasked-for pain and for losing my balance enough to catapult me into a deeper stillness.

It reminds me why I am on this path and why I do these practices. I don’t write for people to read, I don’t sing for people to listen, I don’t meditate to be calm, and I don’t pray for some reward. I may believe that tomorrow or even in a few moments, but for now… this is the gift, here, in this erratic pain.

This strengthens my faith. It becomes evident that, even when I forget and mistakenly try to stroke my ego or to fulfill my desires, it does its silent work.  Through singing the Names, through looking at my Guru, through service, and through prayer, grace shines its holy fire on the rope of my narcissism and cinders its threads even as I work to tie knots.

I have faith that I will be brought back to this Truth, again and again, even through pain as long as its needed, for once its fire has burnt the last thread, there will be no more rope or the tying of knots.

 


Beliefs masquerading as Truth

Truth is that which can stand on its own. It needs no support. There is no amount of evidence or reasoning that can either prove or disprove Truth. We often call this type of knowing faith.

But there is quite a bit of confusion about faith. Faith comes from the heart. It cannot be found in the mind. This misunderstanding has pushed many into increasingly blind, extreme, and unhealthy viewpoints. By taking a thought and clinging to it against all evidence and reason, it traps us in the prison of our own limited perspective.

It cuts off all possibility for healthy discussion. It has made many feel that their religion is the only one, and has blindly led millions to challenge the findings of science. This has made many agnostics and atheists skeptical of the role of faith in today’s world.

But faith is not a belief that we hold to tightly. When our “faith” is misplaced, we feel the need to squeeze it, as if we are trying to compress a fleeting sand into a solid rock.  This squeezing may create the illusion of solidity, but it requires effort to continue the charade. The second we stop holding, it crumbles.

Faith requires none of that. It takes no energy or holding. Truth just is. It is found through the continual letting go of clinging in the mind. Truth is always present, but we can see it more clearly when our mind is open and free from clinging.

Truth is who we are. Faith is the inner knowing that comes from relaxing into the Truth of our Being.

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Intimacy

I see a bright crescent
forming like a smile
at the bottom of your
pupil. (This is how pain
condenses to
honey.)

I unwrap the wool from
my body and allow
this thick nectar
to soak
through my skin.


Mustard Seed

This is the faith
found folded inside
the absence
of all things,

existing
not for god
or for man or the angels
but for it’s own
Existence.

It’s what’s left
when loss and confusion
have stripped away the nail
from where the universe
hangs.


Fragility

Let me touch my
lips to your cheek, so
I may swallow your tears.
Then, maybe
they will enter my bloodstream,
and I can finally feel
your preciousness
with my entire
body.


Log

A log cannot jump out of the flame.
So, what good can resistance do
but grant a few extra moments
of intense
burning?


Don’t Worry

Don’t Worry,
this pain you are feeling
is nothing more than
the excruciating agony
of two holes drilled in your back
and wings shoved in.


Wings

An unharvested tree will only produce rot.
Even a goddess will sour if trapped in a box.

Tonight my back aches
from the weight of wings
unused.


Music

No true poet
claims to create beauty;
he discovers it
the way a tambura player
discovers
that perfect place on the string
to stroke.

Deep within your soul
there is an antique table
where the two Buddhas, Sorrow and Joy,
sit to have tea.

Their arms rest on the table’s edges
as they lean close to each other’s eyes.

Within their intensity
lies four golden strings
waiting
to be played.


Butterfly

Taste your sorrows
the way a caterpillar
sinks his feet in the mud-
each of his leg hairs tremble
as they lick the wet, savory
earth.


Coconut

You crack open my head
like a coconut, snap off my wrist,
and use my finger as a straw
to suck out my water. My hand
is a spoon to scoop out my meat.

I am carved deep and empty.
What remains of my shell
is in love with you madly.


On Beauty and Sorrow

Soothing rains can only fill
as deep as the shovel digs.

Paradise is an island of beauty
with winds of sorrow and bliss.

Even quilts weaved
from spiders and rainbows
will rot when covering mold.

But mold unmasked
is sorrow felt deeply,
waking the heart of the soul.