I originally read The Upanishads when I was in college. In fact, the old paperback copy I still have was my old college text, complete with highlighting and marginalia. Sadly, the binding is coming undone so I think this may be my last reading of this particular book. But it has served me well. Anyway, it had been many years since I read this, and considering all the material I have read in between, I suspected that this reading would be on a different level than my prior readings.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the text:
The Upanishads are late Vedic Sanskrit texts of religious teachings which form the foundations of Hinduism. They are the most recent part of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas, that deal with meditation, philosophy, and ontological knowledge; other parts of the Vedas deal with mantras, benedictions, rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices. Among the most important literature in the history of Indian religions and culture, the Upanishads played an important role in the development of spiritual ideas in ancient India, marking a transition from Vedic ritualism to new ideas and institutions. Of all Vedic literature, the Upanishads alone are widely known, and their central ideas are at the spiritual core of Hinduism.
Much of the text discusses the Self, which is essentially that spark of the Divine that exists within each being.
The Self, whose symbol is OM, is the omniscient Lord. He is not born. He does not die. He is neither cause nor effect. This Ancient One is unborn, imperishable, eternal: though the body be destroyed, he is not killed.
There is a belief held by many on the spiritual path that the goal is to renounce the world and focus only on the spiritual. The Upanishads teach that not only is this incorrect, it is actually detrimental to one’s spiritual growth. Balance is needed, and polarity of any sort leads to darkness.
To darkness are they doomed who devote themselves only to life in the world, and to a greater darkness they who devote themselves only to meditation.
Life in the world alone leads to one result, meditation alone leads to another. So have we heard from the wise.
They who devote themselves both to life in the world and to meditation, by life in the world overcome death and by meditation achieve immortality.
(pp. 27 – 28)
For me, one of the most intriguing passages from this reading was a description of how to realize, or “see,” the Divine presence, God, the Self.
To realize God, first control the outgoing senses and harness the mind. Then meditate upon the light in the heart of the fire—meditate, that is, upon pure consciousness as distinct from the ordinary consciousness of the intellect. Thus the Self, the Inner Reality, may be seen behind physical appearance.
Control your mind so that the Ultimate Reality, the self-luminous Lord, may be revealed. Strive earnestly for eternal bliss.
With the help of the mind and the intellect, keep the senses from attaching themselves to objects of pleasure. They will be purified by the light of the Inner Reality, and that light will be revealed.
I have not even scratched the surface of this book. The wealth of wisdom and insight in this short text is staggering. I highly recommend that any of you who are on the spiritual path read and reread this text.
Thanks for stopping by. May you have a blessed journey.
This book was given to me about 25 years ago by someone who was providing me with spiritual counsel at the time. Throughout the years, I have read through the daily meditations multiple times. Currently, I am taking a break from this one and reading another daily inspirational book (and I have yet another on order), but at some point, I will likely read through this again, since it provides such a wealth of insight and inspiration.
The book offers daily mindfulness passages with a men’s spirituality leaning. Each day you are presented with a quote, a brief elaboration on the passage, and sometimes an associated assignment or prompt to help reinforce the spiritual principle. What I like about the quotes is that they are not from any particular tradition, and come from poets, religious texts, actors, philosophers, etc. Often with self-help meditation books such as this, there is a “tradition” to which the book adheres. That’s not the case with this one, which is why I have used it for so many years.
I do not think this is in print anymore, but you can probably find a used copy online if you are so inclined. I have to say that my copy is beginning to show its age along the spine, and I am not sure how many more yearly journeys it will support. But I will keep it until it begins to come apart, which I will then take as a sign that it is time to explore other paths.
Comments Off on “A Man’s Book of the Spirit” by Bill Alexander
In the old days, those who were well versed in the practice of the Tao did not try to enlighten the people, but rather to keep them in the state of simplicity. For, why are the people hard to govern? Because they are too clever! Therefore, he who governs his state with cleverness is its malefactor; but he who governs his state without resorting to cleverness is its benefactor. To know these principles is to possess a rule and a measure. To keep the rule and the measure constantly in your mind is what we call Mystical Virtue. Deep and far-reaching is Mystical Virtue! It leads all things to return, till they come back to Great Harmony!
First off, I have to say it feels a little strange to hear someone referring to “the old days” in a text that was written around 400 BC. But what this says to me is that people are always nostalgic about the way things used to be. I think that says something about human nature.
In this passage, Lau Tzu encourages leaders to govern through simplicity and with “Mystical Virtue.” Doing so will return a nation to a state of “Great Harmony.” Clearly, this is advice that many of our modern leaders could benefit from. When I look at the world, it seems to me to be the antithesis of a Great Harmony.
There is really nothing that I can add to this short passage. I hope you found it as insightful as I did. Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading.
What is at rest is easy to hold. What manifests no omens is easily forestalled. What is fragile is easily shattered. What is small is easily scattered.
Tackle things before they have appeared. Cultivate peace and order before confusion and disorder have set in.
A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout. A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth. A journey of a thousand leagues starts from where your feet stand.
He who fusses over anything spoils it. He who grasps anything loses it. The Sage fusses over nothing and therefore spoils nothing. He grips at nothing and therefore loses nothing.
In handling affairs, people often spoil them just at the point of success. With heedfulness in the beginning and patience at the end, nothing will be spoiled.
Therefore, the Sage desires to be desireless, Sets no value on rare goods, Learns to unlearn his learning, And induces the masses to return from where they have overpassed. He only helps all creatures to find their own nature, But does not venture to lead them by the nose.
This passage reminds me of some simple tenets for leading a stress-free and productive life. Start out slow. Focus on the task and don’t worry about the outcome. Don’t procrastinate, but start things early and give yourself plenty of time to do what needs to be done. While these are simple, we so often fail to practice them, and as a result, we create unnecessary stress in our already hectic lives.
I have been making a conscious effort to simplify my life, focusing on single tasks instead of trying to multitask. Taking time for myself. Relaxing. Trusting that things will work out the way they are meant to, and not trying to force the results that I think are the best. As a result of these small changes, I feel happier and calmer, most of the time anyway.
Our world is stressful, and it is easy to get caught up in the turmoil. Lau Tzu teaches us the importance of slowing down and shifting our focus to what is really important. It is old wisdom, but certainly applicable to modern life.
Do the Non-Ado. Strive for the effortless. Savour the savourless. Exalt the low. Multiply the few. Requite injury with kindness.
Nip troubles in the bud. Sow the great in the small.
Difficult things of the world Can only be tackled when they are easy. Big things of the world Can only be achieved by attending to their small beginnings. Thus, the Sage never has to grapple with big things, Yet he alone is capable of achieving them!
He who promises lightly must be lacking in faith. He who thinks everything easy will end by finding everything difficult. Therefore, the Sage, who regards everything as difficult, Meets with no difficulties in the end.
My interpretation of this passage is that when faced with any situation, the goal should be to maintain balance and equilibrium. This is sage advice. When faced with a large, daunting task, it is best to take a small step. When you have a small, simple task, take a swift and sure step, taking care of it quickly and easily.
Too often, in our current society, individuals attempt to fight fire with fire, to apply Herculean effort when confronted with a difficult challenge. As Lau Tzu shows, this is not the way of the Tao, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit that our default way of responding often fails to achieve the desired outcome.
Regardless of where each of us stands on the socio-political spectrum, we can all agree that things are not really working well right now. It seems that it would be in our collective best interest to explore other ways of dealing with situations. I for one like Lau Tzu’s approach.
I hope this inspires you as much as it does me. Thanks for stopping by and reading.
The Tao is the hidden Reservoir of all things. A treasure to the honest, it is a safeguard to the erring.
A good word will find its own market. A good deed may be used as a gift to another. That a man is straying from the right path Is no reason that he should be cast away.
Hence, at the Enthronement of an Emperor, Or at the Installation of the Three Ministers, Let others offer their discs of jade, following it up with teams of horses; It is better for you to offer the Tao without moving your feet!
Why did the ancients prize the Tao? Is it not because by virtue of it he who seeks finds, And the guilty are forgiven? That is why it is such a treasure to the world.
This passage begs the questions: What is treasure? What is it that is valuable in our lives? What are the things that are truly meaningful? What are the gifts that are worth giving?
Lao Tzu asserts that the answers to these questions are found within, and not through material wealth. What is worth more, a shiny trinket or expressions of love, compassion, and caring? For me, this hardly even seems a question worth asking. Yet, in our market-driven and status-obsessed culture, many of us can easily lose sight of this simple truth, that relationships matter more than material gain. When we reach the end of our roads, the only things we will still be carrying are the treasures within our hearts and souls.
I hope you found this passage as inspiring as I have, and that it reminds you of the importance of reaching out and doing something nice for another person. These are challenging times, and the best gift we can give to another is a moment of empathy and support.
Thanks for stopping by, and may you never stop reading and learning.
In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.
Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.
In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.
(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)
Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.
School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.
(ibid: p. 276)
I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.
Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.
In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco provides a brief summary of how Christian Europe assimilated ideas and traditions from ancient and pagan cultures.
In our current society, the adoption of elements from other cultures is now deemed “cultural appropriation” and is definitely something that is frowned upon. But historically, this has not been the case, as Eco points out, and in the past ideas and traditions were shared and incorporated, the result of which was the blossoming of ideas and persistence of traditions.
Europe has assimilated Greco-Roman culture in law, philosophy, and popular beliefs. Often with a certain nonchalance, Christianity absorbed pagan myths and rituals and forms of polytheism that linger on in popular devotion. It wasn’t only the Renaissance that stocked up on Venuses and Apollos as it embarked on the discovery of the ancient world with its ruins and manuscripts. The Christian Middle Ages built its theology on Aristotle’s thinking, rediscovered by the Arabs, and while it knew nothing of Plato, it knew a lot about Neoplatonism, which had a huge influence on the Fathers of the Church. Nor could we conceive of Augustine, the greatest Christian thinker, without the absorption of Platonic ideas. The very notion of empire, which lies at the roots of a thousand years of struggle among European states, and between states and the Church, is Roman in origin. Christian Europe elected Latin as the language of holy ritual, of religious thinking, of law, and of university debate.
(Turning Back the Clock: p. 270)
Personally, I am OK with exploring ideas and traditions from other cultures, and incorporating those that resonate with me on a spiritual and intellectual level. But I will credit those other cultures and give them the respect and acknowledgement they deserve. And this is a very important thing to keep in mind. I believe it is acceptable to learn from other cultures and to incorporate elements for the advancement of humanity as a whole, but it is not permissible to steal from another culture as a way of diminishing or damaging that culture. Cultures are living organisms that benefit from diversity. Respect and consideration are critical, though. And if you are ever in doubt, best err on the side of caution.
Shiji Niangniang: goddess in Chinese religion and Taoism (source: wikipedia)
A great country is like the lowland toward which all
streams flow. It is the Reservoir of all under heaven,
the Feminine of the world. The Feminine always conquers the Masculine by her
quietness, by lowering herself through her quietness. Hence, if a great country can lower itself before a
small country, it will win over the small country; and if a
small country can lower itself before a great country, it
will win over the great country. The one wins by
stooping; the other, by remaining low. What a great country wants is simply to embrace
more people; and what a small country wants is simply
to come to serve its patron. Thus, each gets what it
wants. But it behooves a great country to lower itself.
I really like this passage, particularly because Lao Tzu establishes a correlation between a powerful country and the divine Feminine. In Western thought, power is often associated with the masculine, but this is clearly not the case in Lao Tzu’s philosophy. It is within the subtle, the yielding, and the fluid where true strength resides, and these are characteristics of the divine Feminine.
Another metaphor that resonates with me is that of the Feminine being a lowland, or Reservoir, to which all streams flow. Lowlands are associated with fertility, since valleys are fertile areas. Hence, the divine Feminine is both the source of being, and the place where all life must return. There is a sense of cycles here.
The symbolism of the great and small countries establishing a symbiotic relationship likewise represents the symbiotic relationship between the Masculine and the Feminine. Each needs the other to maintain balance, and each provides the other with the aspect that is required to create wholeness and unity.
I trust you enjoyed this passage and that you found my interpretation interesting. I hope you have a blessed day, and keep reading things that uplift your soul.