Thursday, April 27, 2006

New Address

The Pagan Bodhisattva is moving to Please update your links. Thanks!

Paganism, Spirituality, and the Body

Inanna of the blog At the End of Desire has a long post up about the body, and how sensual pleasure fits into her Pagan practice.
Within a Pagan belief system, then, we're talking not about "the body" but about bodies. Part of developing one's skills in magic involves learning to sense the subtler realms. Fortunately, since we live in a postmodern age, we have the wisdom of other traditions to help us. For me, yoga has been crucial. It's helped me learn the joys of an embodied spiritual practice and to experience the communication between physical and energy bodies moving together, carried on muscle, tendon, and breath. Lying in corpse pose, I wonder what becomes of the energy bodies when the physical body dies. Are our bodies inextricably linked one to another, or does energy persist, perhaps dissipating, while matter decays and transforms?

Our bodies are no less holy for being temporal, for being born and dying. I eschew any belief system that would rank the physical body less than "spirit" because of the former's inevitable demise. Once I read a poem about the holiness of fragile and temporary things. Yes. Illness is as sacred as health. Purity is a false ideal, and one that hates the body. We're a mess, all of us - earthy, bloody, broken. And we're perfect that way. There is nothing to save.
It's an excellent point, worth emphasizing repeatedly in this day and age: there is no separation between samsara and nirvana. Everything in the material realm is equally divine, equally a glorious manifestation of the Goddess.

But there's a subtle point that needs to be made, as this can easily veer off into hedonism. (I should know - I've veered it.) There is no problem with pleasure; the problem is our attachment to pleasure - our belief that it can fill the void left by the absence of direct knowledge of Spirit.

There are a series of talks between Ken Wilber, George Leonard and Michael Murphy on Integral Naked (get yer free one-month subscription here!) regarding Integral Transformative Practice, which attempts to unite body, mind, and spirit. Murphy talked a little about the early days of Esalen, which served as a kind of "human potential laboratory" for a wide range of ancient and modern spiritual practices. The students and teachers there were so adamant about getting aspirants to stop dissociating from their physical form that people kept putting up signs that read, "Get out of your mind and into your body." In response, Leonard remarked dryly, "I always tore those signs down."

Wilber, Murphy and Leonard, have the mystic's ideal in mind. The goal should not be to denigrate matter in deference to Spirit, or to denigrate Spirit in deference to matter. The goal ought to be to align everything with Spirit.

How do we do this? It's easier to talk it than to walk it. Most of us have trained our minds, paradoxically, to do most activities mindlessly. For me, the first task is a long, slow, arduous training in mindfulness. In every action, word and thought (or, as the Tibetans would say, in body, speech, and mind), I aim to bring my full presence and my full awareness.

When I eat, I endeavor to eat with my full focus on my meal. If my thoughts wander anywhere, I want them to wander to thoughts of people who have far less than I do - people who are going hungry or starving to death in the street while I sit contented in comparable luxury. When I exercise, I want my concentration on my limbs, my muscles, my subtle energies, the firm ground of my being. When I talk to someone, I want my attention focused with intensity on every word, my mind treating every syllable that drops from their lips as important and potentially life-altering. When I write, I want my soul to drip off of every word.

And there's the important distinction. While I don't want to belittle matter in the face of Spirit, I need to make matter subordinate to Spirit. This is not to denigrate matter, but to put it in its proper place. I am not my body. I am not a hunk of accumulated food. I'm a visitor on this splendid Earth, here to celebrate, unfold, and evolve Divinity during the measly 70 to 100 years I expect to live. My life hardly even amounts to a speck of a fraction of a sliver of infinite Being. I can't afford to waste time in the pursuit of empty pleasure, as I've done most of my life. What pleasures I do enjoy, I must enjoy in the spirit of the infinite compassion of Divine embrace.

In the Charge of the Goddess, the Goddess says, "Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals". For years, I thought of "love" and "pleasure" as two separate concepts. As a Buddhist/Wiccan acquaintance pointed out, however, these must be conjoined: a pleasurable act, to be a celebration of the Goddess, must be a loving act. It's not a matter of picking one over the other, but practicing both simultaneously.

Done properly, a pleasurable act ought to be born out of both relative and absolute bodhicitta. Relative bodhicitta involves our cultivated compassion for all living beings, and our desire to serve their welfare as we would our own. Absolute bodhicitta brings the recognition that the dualistic separation of self and other is a nightmare from which all beings must awaken.

Inanna is spot on. We mustn't denigrate our physical beings. We should celebrate them. But our celebration ought to be a transcendent enjoyment. Our nature dictates that we deserve nothing less.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Look At Me When I'm Talking to You, Young Man!

During the work week, I break out of my office around 2pm to take a power walk. I used to run, many years ago. But I've been out of shape since shortly after moving to Seattle. I've tried before to jump right back into running, and every time it's proven to be murder. I've fallen back to walking - at least until my respiratory system recovers from years of Adult Swim and Hostess Fruit Pies.

Yesterday I went out about 1pm for a 50-minute hard stroll around the neighborhood. It was a beautiful day - 65 and blue skies for miles. I was wrapped in natural splendor. All around me, the foliage was iridescent with the rebirth of spring.

And here I was, scuffling along madly, thinking about work and looking at my feet.

I realized early on that I wasnt focused on the beauty that enveloped me. I consciously fixed my gaze forward, paying more attention to nature and to my path than to my black Nikes. I found it hard to hold this. My eyes felt like they were burning from the sunlight, like I had plucked them from my skull and soaked them in acid.

I laughed and thought, What an apt metaphor. My eyes turned away naturally from the sun, not because it was uncommonly bright that day, but because I'm accustomed to looking downward like most people do. (No wonder sunglass manufacturers do such a booming business.) I had to will myself to look straight and soak up the beauty that erupted around me, pushing my way past the temporary inconvenience.

Likewise, my mind turns away from Truth, not because it's too hard to behold, but because it's trained to swaddle itself in the comforts of its fictions.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The (Re-)Ascent of the Spiritual Scientist

Just discovered One Cosmos, the blog of one Robert Godwin. His writing on Spirit is extraordinary, and very much in line with Integral thinking. Here's a sliver from his recent post:
Here is what is at the ultimate root of the so-called “culture war”: are we going to live in an ascending culture or a descending one? In just my lifetime, I have seen how these positions have been reversed. When I was a boy growing up in the 1960’s, there were still many elements and reminders of ascent all around. There were plenty of virtuous and heroic men to look up to, both in real life and in the media. There wasn’t the secular hatred of the higher life, nor was there the obnoxious celebration of everything that is coarse, vulgar, and “authentic.” There was implicit awareness of a spiritual hierarchy, and some acknowledgment that it was worthwhile to try to aspire upward--not materially, but spiritually.

Today everyone is equal, but the only way you can achieve that is by assaulting and negating the vertical. I hope my son always knows that there are people lower than him to whom he is obligated, and people higher than him to whom he has the obligation to revere and emulate. Never emulate someone lower, and never presume to instruct or consider yourself equal to the truly Superior Man. Both stances are spiritually toxic. Schuon is just one of about a dozen such personages to whom I look up with reverence, awe, and gratitude.
What is it that has caused this postmodern flattening? I think the problem, sociologically (and mind you, I speak with only a thimbleful of the knowledge that guys like Godwin and Wilber possess), is that spirituality became religion, and mysticism became ritual. When religion was institutionalized, it cut off the individual seeker from direct communion with the Divine. We'll mediate between you and God, they said - don't worry your pretty little head about surmising the Divine Will.

If "religioning", as Godwin puts it, is going to have a significant revival, it will need to re-dawn as a creative mystical exercise. Somewhere between the models of Campbell and Wilber is a religious "sweet spot" where we can have creativity without chaos, mysticism without irrationalism, Deity without mediation, reverence without institutionalization.

Each of us must become a spiritual scientist. Each of us must take our faith and our destiny in our own hands, and do the hard work required to discover the truth of our own nature for ourselves.

What is Meditation?

Deliberate daily exercise in discrimination between the true and the false and renunciation of the false is meditation. There are many kinds of meditation to begin with, but they all merge finally into one.
- Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Time Is Always On My Side

Integral Awakening has a great post up on what he calls "time yoga", or the art of using your time efficiently. Check it out.

Time yoga has been a big concern for me lately. During the past two years of my depression, I've engaged in more than my fair share of mindless Net surfing. Let me face facts: it was an addiction. It didn't help that I was contributing four to 10 times daily to two blogs. Even beyond that, however, I can't count the hours I wasted trolling political blogs, reading news sites, and Googling obscure trivia.

(Speaking of which, did you know that earwigs don't really crawl into your ear and lay eggs in your brain? Gah. Sorry. Old habits and all that...)

I've managed to pull myself out of this addiction largely through the method that IA suggests. I ask myself, whenever I find that I'm lolligagging, "Am I making the best use of my time right now?" Usually, the answer I get is, "You know it's not, skippy."

I've overcome the worst wastes of my time by confining my news surfing to 10-minute increments throughout the day, and foreswearing any and all political blogs. My next goal in the campaign to reclaim my time: keeping my email window closed, and only checking personal mail two or three times daily. I'm doing it s-l-o-w-l-y, though, lest the digital withdrawal send me into anaphylactic shock.

IA points out that valuing your time is a form of valuing yourself. If you're wasting your time on trivia, you obviously don't care that much for who or where you are. This was an eye-opening statement for me. For over two years, I wasted mucho time on my job. At the time, I told myself it was the company's fault. My job was unfulfilling, the company was making moronic decisions, etc. In reality, however, it was no one's fault but mine. I was disengaged, angry, and chock full of self-loathing.

So, note to self: Mindless Net surfing == downward slide into depression. Check.

Lately, I've found that posing the "Am I making the best use of my time" question is even more effective when I give it a bodhisattva twist. I ask myself: "Are my actions at this moment benefiting both myself and others?" Fundamentally, this is just an explosion of the word "best" in a spiritual context. For me, it helps to make that explicit, since historically my warped definition of "best" has been...well, let's just say not that beneficial to myself and others.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Devotional Improv: Stimulate Spirit by Making It Up As You Go Along

Great Goddess, Divine Mother, Cosmic Creatrix,
may the ambrosia of your compassion overflow
the chalice of my being.
Recently, I've noticed that I feel compelled to compose devotionals and poetry in moments when I'm overcome with Divine love and joy. ( I define "devotional" here as "contemplative prayer in praise of Deity or Spirit". I prefer this to "prayer", which in mainstream American religious thought is often interpreted as result-oriented prayer - asking Deity to give you a raise, smite the heathens, etc.)

I wondered: Is this process reflexive? Could I be overcome with Divine love and joy by composing my own devotionals? The answer, thankfully, is "yes". Based on this work, I've made "Devotional Improv" a daily part of my practice.

Devotional Improv is easy:
  1. Still your mind using whatever technique works well for you. A la Genpo Roshi's "Big Mind" technique, you may ask to speak to the Wise Mind, or speak to the Non-Grasping Mind. Or, you may choose to recite a mantra with great fervor and devotion.
  2. Once you have reached a state of stillness and clarity, create your devotional as you pray. Don't concern yourself with getting it "right" the first time.
  3. If you feel the need to restart, to change the phrase you just uttered - do it. (The above devotional took three tries before it came out in its current form.) Seek out the words and meanings that cause your heart to swell.
  4. Keep yourself open to wisdom. Let wisdom work through you. Let wisdom traverse your synapses, stimulating and re-wiring your mind. Tap into past learning, intuition, and the universal Spirit of infinite Knowing.
  5. Neither get frustrated by your lack of wit, nor ensnared within admiring your own cleverness. This is an offering you're making to Deity. Your offering is no better and no worse than anyone else's. What matters is that you stimulate the movement of Spirit within you and through you.
  6. Once you have composed a devotional prayer that stimulates your Spirit, repeat it 3, 7, or 21 times.
  7. Write your devotional down in a journal for later reference.
Since I'm a Deity mystic, my devotions are directed to the Goddess. You can easily create impersonal devotions to Spirit as well.

Surviving an Ego Attack

Saturday: Bad day. We're adjusting to life with my grandson in the house, which has temporarily turned our schedule upside-down. My wife is spending evenings upstairs with her daughter, teaching her the ins and outs of breastfeeding a screaming baby at 3am. Me? I'm on duty with the four little ones, with the gracious (and invaluable) assistance of my mother and mom-in-law.

On top of this, we learned on Friday that my grandmother has severe colon cancer. Doctors are going in on Monday afternoon to see if they can remove the tumors and save her from this scourge.

The stress with my grandmother, plus the diversion of attention toward the new wee one, set my consciousness on a downward slide Saturday. My Child Ego kept screaming to me that we weren't getting enough attention - we were shouldering too much housework and kid detail - we didn't even have sufficient time and energy to meditate, for crissakes. How am I supposed to transcend the limits of the self and weaken my attachments IF I CAN'T FUCKING MEDITATE??!!

I let the feelings of my Child Ego run through me all morning and afternoon, neither condoning nor condemning them. I applied the appropriate antidotes: taking the second-person perspective (reminding myself that my wife, steppdaughter and moms were working as hard, if not harder, than I was); reminding myself of my Pagan bodhisattva mission; meditating when I could on the Four Thoughts; reciting Goddess mantras and devotionals - the whole nine yards. All to no avail. There seemed to be no antidote to the poison in which my mind was steeped.

But I was being bitchy and short with people nonetheless. I had to face facts: I was too tired to police my thoughts successfully. My mother-in-law kindly let me grab an hour's nap while my youngest son slept. My mind was wracked with thoughts of defeat. This path is hopeless. I'll never overcome my own defects. Wouldn't it be easier just to give up?

Somehow, though, I managed to let these thoughts and feelings pour through me without disappearing entirely down the rabbit hole. I awoke an hour or so later - still somewhat grumpy, but feeling refreshed enough to tackle the challenges remaining in the day without tearing anyone's head off.

Sunday: Excellent day. I was not only better, I was ebullient. I caught the wave of the Tao and rode it 'til the sun went down. Egotistical thoughts reared their head constantly, but fell away just as quickly when they discovered that they weren't winning my endorsement. Every action, no matter how insignificant, became a service to the Goddess. I was filled from the start to the end of the day with passion and joy for life. I felt like I was here to serve as an end in itself, without reward - and I was pleased to be of service.

The lesson learned: Counter-programming (viz. applying "antidotes" to self-limiting thoughts) is effective, but in the long run. Some times, I'm just in a bad fucking mood. I slip out of the Goddess groove and into my old funk, and no amount of counter-programming will lift me out of it. There may be no better solution in these times than to abide in faith and knowledge, check my behavior the best that I can, and wait for the clouds to pass over. Once they pass, I will likely find myself filled with joy and awe at the wonder of the Divine all around me.

Being on this path is no guarantee that I will never be out of sorts. But my path gives me the wisdom to know that such moods, like all other thoughts and feelings and desires, are impermanent. Like the thoughts that bounce around in my field of consciousness during meditation like possessed Mexican jumping beans, these moods too will not only arise and abide, but subside.

Rather than dread these moods, I learned this weekend that I should cherish them. They are unique challenges - and facing them brings Divine rewards.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Integral Options on Tarot, And Other Great Posts

I'm really enjoying Bill's writing at Integral Options Cafe. (Not so much that I'd have sex with him or anything, mind you. I'm sure both of our wives would object.) Bill has three great posts up this week:

Friday, April 21, 2006

On Meditating and (Still) Being an Insufferable Asshole: Robert Augustus Masters on Integral Naked

The Integral Naked discussion boards are buzzing about the dialogue between Robert Augustus Masters and Stuart Davis. I've never read Masters' work. I'll be rectifying that error in due course.

One of my favorite points was when Masters talked about how common it if for spiritual folk to cover up pre-rational problems with trans-rational mannerisms. In other words, we slather spiritual "special sauce" over incidents and attitudes - anger, resentment, selfishness - that have crystallized in our consciousness. We tell ourselves that we're good and selfless and full and love and light. These ideas of ourselves are not realities, but conceptions we use to beat down the knowledge of what's actually inside our minds. It affords us the convenience of pretending we're healed without ever actually healing.

What Masters proposes is radical: not freedom from one's phenomenal self, but freedom through intimacy. By knowing and interacting deeply both with others and with ourselves, we learn to look compassionately upon our traits - some of which may be like "mineral deposits" that are embedded in us for life - and relate to them skillfully.

Does this mean meditation is useless? Not from my experience. If anything, this dialog emphasizes - albeit indirectly - the importance of meditation.

Stuart Davis' point is accurate: Spiritual practitioners in the West are waking up to the fact that you can meditate for 30 years and still be an asshole. But recent events have taught me that meditation is an invaluable backdrop for this moment-by-moment intimacy that Masters and Davis rightly covet. Meditation has taught me that I am not my thoughts, feelings, and desires by giving me the tools to stand back from them and observe their ebb and flow. This stillness of mind that I'm developing has helped me disidentify with my mind so that I can work with it.

What's more, my daily meditation has brought my shadow self to the fore, so that I can deal with that and heal from it as well. I've learned over the past several weeks that I have a dark, angry side to my self that manifests at odd moments. It's a side that feels constantly oppressed by conditions and circumstances, that wants to lash out violently at everyone and everything in its path. It's the part of me that doesn't want to be held responsible for the choices it's made. Instead of owning up, it projects those choices onto others, and revels in being the outraged martyr. If this shadow had its way, I would either wallow in hedonistic pleasure until my life was left in tatters around my feet - or (more likely) snap some evening, down a shitload of pills, and drive my car off the nearest high bridge.

It's not that this shadow has never emerged before. It's that I'm unable to ignore it any longer. Previously I would feel such shame and regret over its emergence that I would shove it back down under whatever rock of my subconscious it had scurried out from under. That's harder to do when you're working with your self every moment of every day. It's like swatting flies off of the elephant in your living room, while pretending that the elephant doesn't exist.

Without the foundation of my daily meditation work, this shadow would be much harder to work with. The knowledge I've gained about the nature of my own mind through meditation is what has given me the courage to engage it.

Ken Wilber said at a recent talk with Andrew Cohen that meditation changes "the fundamental fabric of the cosmos". I don't doubt it. Meditation graces me with the realization that everything - both outer and inner - is dependent arising. I may have created it through my choices; some of it may have been impressed upon me by my parents, my friends, my culture; some of it I may have created uncnsciously, never realizing what subtle conclusions and limitations I was weaving with the yarn of my neural net. But none of it is "me" in any fundamental sense. It's all phenomenal, unbidden, the cumulative effect of a million causes both monumental and miniature.

When I first started on my spiritual path many years ago, I assumed that my mind was infinitely flexible, and being happy was merely a matter of going from room to room in the palace of my mind and evicting the lousiest of its tenants. These days, I'm more in tune with Masters' view. My goal is to use techniques from psychology and spirituality to develop habits of thought and action that manage and, ultimately, transcend these ingrained habits. They may still be with me when I die , but in a weak, neutered form.

What is Shantideva's first piece of advice for dealing with emotions such as anger and pride in the Bodhicaryavatara?
When the urge arises in the mind
to feelings of desire and wrathful hate -
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.
In other words - STOP! Don''t feed the kleshas. Instead, step back and observe them impartially, neither fueling nor condemning these feelings. The ability to do this well - to step back and avoid getting hooked - comes from meditation, from the direct knowledge that I am not identical to my body, my thoughts, my feelings, or my desires. There is a greater Me that transcends dependent arising, is unconditional, diamond-like, sovereign. Get in touch with that Self, if even at a surface level, if even for only half a minute. Tap into that solemnity and stillness, not to avoid my "bad" emotions, but to face them impartially and without judgment. Only then can I decide on the most skillful course of action for addressing them.

Today's Thought

Discover the opportunity inherent in every moment.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

We Don't Need Diets

The Diet Blog is posting about a plant from India that is reputed to suppress appetite. I'm on board with this comment:
Whether appetite suppressants in a pill form are effective or not - the overall concept is flawed. Any time you take a pill in the hopes of easy results - you fail to learn anything about healthful nutrition, better eating habits, or physical fitness.
I'm not judging people who use pills for weight loss. I've done it myself in the past, when being thin and beautiful were important to me. Now, however, I find it more important to be fit, so that my body and mind are fit receptacles for Spirit, and an appropriate channel for the greater work I have to do. I couple this motivation with mind training, breaking my attachment to food and examining my motives whenever I eat. (Am I eating for nutrition? Or because I'm bored, or depressed?) Whenever I find myself fancying the "vanity" benefits of being fit ("I'm gonna look so fucking hot!!"), I let the feeling pass through me, then gently remind myself that my devotion is to the Goddess, not to this temporary vehicle.

"Diet" has come to mean "something you do for four months to shed 80 pounds and bag babes". IMO, we don't need dieting. What we need is to make permanent lifestyle changes:
Anything less is just suffering.

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