Tag Archives: spirituality

“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 35” by Lao Tzu

He who holds the Great Symbol will attract all things to him.
They flock to him and receive no harm, for in him they find peace, security and happiness.

Music and dainty dishes can only make a passing guest pause.
But the words of Tao possess lasting effects,
Though they are mild and flavourless,
Though they appeal neither to the eye nor to the ear.

This passage is a wonderful example of the beauty of this text. Lau Tzu expresses a wealth of wisdom in a mere six lines.

In the first stanza, we are presented with a leader who has incorporated balance into his life. The Great Symbol is the yin and yang, representing the balance of opposing energies and ideas. Because this ideal leader embodies balance, people feel comfortable and safe around the leader. They know that this person will govern from a place of fairness and not from ego or the desire for power.

In the second stanza, Lau Tzu uses “music and dainty dishes” as a metaphor for lavish entertainment intended to distract individuals from what is truly important. Truth and wisdom are often less enchanting to the casual observer, but this is the place from where lasting goodness and compassion spring. Sound and steady guidance may be less appealing to the eye or ear, but it is much more appealing to the heart and spirit.

While this passage was intended as guidance for a leader, on a personal level I find it applies to my own spiritual path. It is easy to be dazzled by transcendent visions, or ecstatic states of consciousness, but these can often distract a seeker from the path to wisdom and enlightenment. It is the steady practice of meditation, of incorporating spiritual values into everyday life, that will ultimately bring you the greatest spiritual growth. I have had some intense spiritual experiences in my life, but I try not to focus on recapturing those states. Instead, I do the less appealing spiritual work: study, meditation, self examination, and so forth. I see this passage as an affirmation of the path I am on.

Thanks for sharing in my musings. I would love to hear your thoughts on this passage. Feel free to post in the comments section below. Cheers!

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“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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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 07

This graphic series continues to impress me. A lot happens in this installment, and I could certainly write extensively about it, but will focus on the two aspects which stood out most prominently for me.

While Shadow is driving, he picks up a young woman named Sam who is hitchhiking. As they are driving, they get into an interesting discussion regarding Herodotus.

Shadow: It’s like he’s writing these histories, and they’re pretty good histories. Loads of weird little details. And then there are the stories with gods in them. Some guy is running back to report on the outcome of a battle and he’s running and running, and he sees Pan in a glade… and Pan says… “Tell them to build me a temple here.” So he says… “Okay.” … and runs the rest of the way back. And he reports the battle news, and then he says… “Oh, and by the way, Pan wants you to build him temple.” It’s really matter-of-fact, you know?

Sam: I read some book about brains, how five thousand years ago, the lobes of the brain fused, and before that people thought when the right lobe of the brain said anything, it was the voice of God. It’s just brains.

Shadow: I like my theory better.

Sam: What’s your theory?

Shadow: That back then people used to run into the gods from time to time.

I had read Herodotus back in college and remembering liking his histories. Probably something I should read again at some point. But what struck me the most about this section is how, in the past, people did have more interaction with their gods than they do today. I think it is because we have become more distracted by the trappings of our manufactured societies. We have replaced our old gods with new gods, gods of science, technology, commerce, and so forth. Which segues nicely into the next section I want to share.

In this scene, Shadow is watching television in a motel room, and a goddess manifests as Lucille Ball on the TV. She intimates to him that she is one of the new gods, who are the future.

Look at it like this, Shadow: we are the coming thing. We’re shopping malls, we’re online shopping. Your friends are crappy roadside attractions. We are now and tomorrow. Your friends are yesterday.

As I pondered this, I recalled sadly when my wife and I recently went to Cherokee. We went into some of the “Native American” gift shops, and they were all filled with manufactured garbage from China that was supposed to capture the power of what was once a mighty spiritual system. It was depressing. I could not find a single item that was actually made by a Native American craftsperson. I ended up buying only some locally roasted coffee.

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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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Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Picasso: Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

According to the Eden myth, there were two trees in the Garden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. In this poem, Yeats uses these two trees as symbols for the creative and the mortal aspects of the human psyche, respectively. The first stanza corresponds with the Tree of Knowledge, and the second stanza corresponds to the Tree of Life.

While the story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is often interpreted as something negative, a rebellion and fall from grace, Yeats does not seem to see it this way. For Yeats, knowledge of good and evil is essentially what makes us godlike, and the true mystical power of god is the power to create. The first stanza is filled with imagery of growth and flowering, which symbolizes the blossoming of the creative spirit in an individual. He encourages the reader to “gaze in thine own heart,” because that is where the “holy tree” of creativity is rooted, within the deeper self.

Other metaphors that Yeats uses in the first stanza are music and circles. Music is a fairly standard metaphor for poetry, which Yeats attributes to the eating of the fruit from the first tree. The circle conjures images of pagan rituals, most likely Druid or Wiccan, but possibly also of the Golden Dawn. The circles, spirals, and gyres evoke a sense of ritual performed within a circle around a fire. Yeats would have likely believed that the development of spiritual and occult arts was a result of the symbolic eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

And this brings us to the second stanza, and the Tree of Life. It is important to keep in mind that the archetypal humans did not eat of this tree, and as such are destined to wither and die. The effects of this tree are manifested on the outside of a person, as opposed to the Tree of Knowledge which is internal. Hence the demons hold up “the bitter glass,” which is a mirror. Gazing in to it, one becomes aware of aging, of mortality, of impending death. All the symbols that Yeats uses in the second stanza—night, snow, broken boughs, blackened leaves, barrenness, ravens—are all associated with death.

So what is the larger message that Yeats is trying to convey here? It seems to me that he is encouraging us to shift our focus from our outer selves, away from the flesh and our mortality, and instead focus on the inner self, the spirit, the divine essence within all of us. We will die, that is inevitable; but we do not have to spend our lives worrying about getting old and dying. We should live full, spiritual, and creative lives, building loving relationships with others, and creating beauty for future generations.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and as always, please feel free to share yours in the comment area below. Cheers!

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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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