Tag Archives: spirit

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

My friend and bandmate, Terry, loaned this book to me. She said that I would really enjoy it. She was right.

The book is a work of historical fiction, with some mysticism woven in. It is about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who gets stuck in the space between death and rebirth. Having recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which goes into a lot of detail about the bardo state, I was able to relate to this book on a deeper level.

The book is a quick read. It is essentially constructed of short snippets of text, some from historical sources and others fictionalized to reflect the consciousness of the characters. Stylistically, it works very well, and the inclusion of the historical references definitely added a level of verisimilitude to the work.

One of the things that I got out of this book was the affirming of the fact that every single person, every life, has an impact on the world. We may feel that our existence is insignificant; but that is not so. Throughout our lives, we have an influence on every other living being with whom we come in contact.

What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

(p. 71)

One scene in the story I found particularly interesting and creative features a military officer stuck in the bardo and attempting to communicate with his wife in the form of a letter. His words express the emotions associated with being trapped in a dismal space, desperately longing to move on.

O my dear I have a foreboding. And feel I must not linger. In this place of great sadness. He who preserves and Loves us scarecly present. Since we must endeavor always to walk beside Him, I feel I must not linger. But am Confin’d, in Mind & Body, and unable, as if manacled, to leave at this time, dear Wife.

I must seek & seek: What is it that keeps me in this abismal Sad place?

(pp. 137 – 8)

The last passage I want to share is an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s consciousness, where he is contemplating the transitive nature of life, how we emerge from non-being into being, and maintain a state of constant change through our short sojourn in this life.

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

(p. 244)

As I think about this passage, I think about all the changes I have gone through in my life—some major and others so subtle they were barely noticeable. And I think of the changes I have seen in the people around me, and in the world as a whole. It is the single constant, and the one thing for which we can be certain. We will experience change throughout our entire lives. And when we reach the end, it will be yet another change and transition as we cross the threshold into the bardo.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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“Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda

I’ve had this book on my shelf for so long that I don’t even remember where I got it from. But as part of my goal to clear some of my unread books and continue reading more spiritual texts, I figured I would give this one a read.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. There were great insights, it read well, and the language was nicely crafted. In fact, it seemed just a little too polished for someone who was not a native English speaker, but hey, every writer needs a good editor.

Many years ago, I was a vegetarian, and I was so for about 13 years. When I started eating meat again (my body needed it when training for my first marathon), I grappled with the ethical questions of eating meat, even though I made sure to only get ethically raised meats. Then one day, I had a realization that plants and rocks, being comprised of energy, must also possess consciousness, just like animals, but a type of consciousness that we cannot perceive as humans. To survive, we must get energy from other things, living and non-living (in the case of minerals). A passage in this book affirmed this belief that I have.

The telltale charts of my crescograph are evidence for the most skeptical that plants have a sensitive nervous system and a varied emotional life. Love, hate, joy, fear, pleasure, pain, excitability, stupor, and countless other appropriate responses to stimuli are as universal in plants as in animals.

(p. 78)

During times of deep meditation, I have been fortunate enough to experience momentary shifts in consciousness, slipping briefly into states of heightened awareness. These moments are virtually impossible to convey using the limited tool of language, but Yogananda does an excellent job describing that ineffable experience.

All objects within my panoramic gaze trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master’s, the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, occasionally became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; even as sugar crystals, thrown into a glass of water, dissolve after being shaken. The unifying light alternated with materializations of form, the metamorphoses revealing the law of cause and effect in creation.

(p. 167)

While I love to read, and I believe there is value in reading spiritual and mystical texts, it is important to not only read, but to practice too. Book knowledge will only take a person so far on the spiritual path.

The great guru taught his disciples to avoid theoretical discussion of the scriptures. “He only is wise who devotes himself to realizing, not reading only, the ancient revelations,” he said. “Solve all your problems through meditation. Exchange unprofitable speculations for actual God-communion.”

(p. 377)

The last passage from this book that I want to share concerns what is important for the sustainability and longevity of a society. We are at a point in human history where wealth, military power, and materialism are the measures of a society’s worth and strength. I do not agree with this paradigm. I believe it is art, the humanities, and how we care for each other that are the true measures of a society’s strength and endurance.

The Biblical story of Abraham’s plea to the Lord that the city of Sodom be spared if ten righteous men could be found therein, and the Divine reply: “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake,” gains new meaning in the light of India’s escape from oblivion. Gone are the empires of mighty nations, skilled in the arts of war, that once were India’s contemporaries: ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome.

The Lord’s answer clearly shows that a land lives, not in its material achievements, but in its masterpieces of man.

(p. 340)

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 34” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

The Great Tao is universal like a flood.
How can it be turned to the right or to the left?

All creatures depend on it,
And it denies nothing to anyone.

It does its work,
But it makes no claims for itself.

It clothes and feeds all,
But it does not lord it over them:
Thus, it may be called “the Little.”

All things return to it as to their home,
But it does not lord it over them:
Thus, it may be called “the Great.”

It is just because it does not wish to be great
That its greatness is fully realised.

As I read this passage and contemplated it, I got the sense of the Tao as both the source and the destination. Consider the metaphor that Lao Tzu uses of the flood. All water has the ocean as its source, and all water eventually flows back to the ocean. It is the same with the spirit. All spirits have the Divine as their source, and all spirits return to the Divine. And just as a flood can be both destructive and nourishing, so can the human soul be destructive and nourishing. But ultimately, it is all part of the same flow.

I frequently need to remind myself that there is always a balance between the positive and the negative. So much attention is focused on the negative that it is easy to overlook the fact that there is exactly the same amount of positive in the universe. One can never exceed the other. It then just becomes a question of where do we want to focus our attention. For me, I try to just acknowledge the negative while focusing on the positive. That seems to work best in managing the broad swings of the pendulum.

Thanks for taking the time to read my musings, and I hope you have a blessed day.

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The Tibetan Book of the Dead

This has been on my list of mystical books to read for quite a long time. A couple years ago, I found a copy at a garage sale and bought it. Of course, I felt guilty every time I saw it unread upon the shelf. But I finally got around to reading it, and probably right when I needed to.

This particular copy includes a large amount of introductory text. Usually, I skip introductions, but the commentaries here were very enlightening and I’m glad I read them, particularly Carl Jung’s introduction to the text.

Before embarking upon the psychological commentary, I should like to say a few words about the text itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Bardo Thödol, is a book of instructions for the dead and dying. Like The Egyptian Book of the Dead, it is meant to be a guide for the dead man during the period of his Bardo existence, symbolically described as an intermediate state of forty-nine days’ duration between death and rebirth. The text falls into three parts. The first part, called Chikhai Bardo, describes the psychic happenings at the moment of death. The second part, or Chönyid Bardo, deals with the dream-state which supervenes immediately after death, and with what are called ‘karmic illusions’. The third part, or Sidpa Bardo, concerns the onset of the birth-instinct and of prenatal events.

 (p. xxxv – xxxvi)

Because the book deals primarily with what happens to one’s consciousness after death, the text is understandably highly symbolic. As Lama Govinda points out in his introductory section, whenever the subconscious is being explored, it must be approached through the use of symbols.

If, through some trick of nature, the gates of an individual’s subconsciousness were suddenly to spring open, the unprepared mind would be overwhelmed and crushed. Therefore, the gates of the subconscious are guarded, by all initiates, and hidden behind the veil of mysteries and symbols.

(p. liii)

Lama Govinda then points out a common misconception regarding the Bardo Thödol. Many people may assume that the text is a set of instructions solely intended for the dead or dying. But this is not the only purpose. For people pursuing a spiritual path, there comes a time when they must symbolically die, essentially killing their former selves so that they can be reborn as an enlightened being.

Such misunderstanding could only have arisen among those who do not know that it is one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.

(p. lix – lx)

During the 49-day period in which a person’s consciousness is in the Bardo, the individual experiences numerous visions. The text is very clear that these visions are nothing but illusion. The goal, then, is to recognize that what we perceive, in this reality as well as in the Bardo, is illusory by nature. Once we recognize that what we sense is illusion, our consciousness becomes free.

The whole aim of the Bardo Thödol teaching, as otherwise stated elsewhere, is to cause the Dreamer to awaken into Reality, freed from all the obscurations of karmic or sangsāric illusions, in a supramundane or Nirvānic state, beyond all phenomenal paradises, heavens, hells purgatories, or worlds of embodiment.

(p. 35)

The text offers a great prayer which should be used when facing the terrifying visions associated with the Bardo state.

Alas! when the Uncertain Experiencing of Reality is dawning upon me here,
With every thought of fear or terror or awe for all [apparitional appearances] set aside,
May I recognize whatever [visions] appear, as the reflections of mine own consciousness;
May I know them to be of the nature of apparitions in the Bardo:
When at this all-important moment [of opportunity]of achieving a great end,
I may not fear the bands of Peaceful and Wrathful [Deities], mine own thought-forms.

(p. 103)

Fear is a manifestation of our thoughts. While some fears may be justified, the fact remains that fear is pure thought, which then triggers a physical response to the mental visions. This is something that is carried on with us to the next stage of existence. When our consciousness moves to the next plane, it brings with it the capacity to generate fearful images which can then paralyze the progress of the spirit.

O nobly-born, whatever fearful and terrifying visions thou mayst see, recognize them to be thine own thought-forms.

(p. 147)

I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of this symbolically rich and complex text. But hopefully I encouraged you to read it yourself and explore the wisdom woven into the book. I suspect that this is something I will read again in the future.

Cheers!

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“Catching the Lizard by the Tail” by Nissim Amon

buddhastatue

This morning, after meditating, I perused a magazine called Watkins Mind Body Spirit and read an inspiring article on Buddhist meditation. The article tells the story of a monk named Potila who lived at the time of the Buddha. The Buddha encouraged the well-respected monk to seek guidance on meditating from a younger monk, who provided the following sage advice on how to be attentive to one’s thoughts:

The young monk then gave the following example: “Suppose you want to catch a lizard hiding in an anthill that has six entrances. The lizard can escape through any of them. The best way to catch the lizard is to block off five holes and wait patiently outside the sixth. The five blocked holes are the five senses. When we sit motionless in meditation with our back straight, we are not engrossed in sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch. Generally consciousness escapes through these openings.

“When the five openings are blocked, silence diffuses inside and it’s possible to hear the lizard running around. Then, when it tries to escape, we can catch it immediately.”

I love this analogy, and I can completely relate to the image of consciousness escaping through my senses. One of my biggest challenges when meditating is turning off the mind chatter, but during those rare moments when I do, and my senses are silenced, the experiences are profound.

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“Ulalume” by Edgar Allan Poe

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

(excerpt from poem)

This is a fairly long poem, and I debated whether to include the entire text here. I decided to include some excerpts and a link to the entire text. Click here to read the poem on the Edgar Allan Poe Society website.

This is a poem about being haunted by the loss of a loved one, not unlike “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven.” It is set in October and incorporates seasonal metaphors symbolizing death, such as withering leaves, ashen skies, and cypress trees. But for me, the most intriguing aspect of this dark poem is the exploration of the subconscious mind.

The protagonist describes travelling with his Psyche, or Soul, through the boreal regions of the north.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll —
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

As I read this, I envision the frozen northlands, the Aurora Borealis, and vast expanses of wilderness coated with ice and frost. These represent the speaker’s subconscious mind, where memories and dreams lie frozen in an area that is difficult to reach. He enters this realm with his Psyche, the part of his consciousness connected with the realm of dreams, imagination, and memory. There is also an active volcano, which symbolizes fiery and painful passion and emotion surging up to the surface from deep within. It’s an incredibly powerful image and captures the deep sorrow that the protagonist feels.

While in the deepest recesses of the subconscious, Poe describes the appearance of the goddess Astarte.

At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

Astarte is a goddess of fertility and sexuality, often associated with Venus. I interpret this as the protagonist envisioning the soul of his departed love having merged and become a part of the divine feminine. It’s an interesting idea, that male souls emanate and return to the masculine aspect of the godhead, while the female souls emanate and return to the feminine aspect of the divine. It is almost like a dualistic version of Plotinus’s theory of divine emanation. I suspect this is something I will be meditating on for a while.

Overall, this is a beautifully crafted and evocative poem that works on many levels for me. While I don’t think it’s as popular as some of Poe’s other poems, I feel it is as good if not better.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 16” by Lao Tzu

LaoTzu

Attain to utmost Emptiness.
Cling single-heartedly to interior peace.
While all things are stirring together,
I only contemplate the Return.
For flourishing as they do,
Each of them will return to its root.
To return to the root is to find peace.
To find peace is to fulfill one’s destiny.
To fulfill one’s destiny is to be constant.
To know the Constant is called Insight.

If one does not know the Constant,
One runs blindly into disasters.
If one knows the Constant,
One can understand and embrace all.
If one understands and embraces all,
One is capable of doing justice.
To be just is to be kingly;
To be kingly is to be heavenly;
To be heavenly is to be one with the Tao;
To be one with the Tao is to abide forever.
Such a one will be safe and whole
Even after the dissolution of his body.

This passage seems to reiterate a common theme in the text, that one must clear his or her thoughts in order to become in tune with the deeper spiritual self. But there are a couple things that stand out in this chapter, particularly in the second stanza.

First, it appears that this passage is directed to rulers at the time Lao Tzu lived. I listened to a podcast recently that said China, in the time of Lao Tzu, was undergoing social instability and that the writings of both Lao Tzu and Confucius were in response to the social changes that were under way. So it seems that here, Lao Tzu is offering guidance to rulers on how to best govern the citizens, by tapping in to the deeper spirituality and using that as a guide for making decisions on how to rule.

The other thing that stood out for me was the final three lines, asserting that by becoming one with the Tao, you essentially attain immortality of the soul. I cannot help but wonder if this is more like maintaining consciousness once you pass on to the next realm of existence after death. I do not profess to know Chinese thoughts on reincarnation or the afterlife, but it seems that there is some belief in the eternal quality of the soul. If anyone has insight into this area, I would love to hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment in the section below.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you have a wonderful day!

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