The Crazy Element that Makes Art… Art

What Does Art Have?—

Aesthetics has always asked, What does all good art have in common? Is there some common denominator? What is art, anyway? What is beauty? There may be more than one answer to those questions. Sometimes art does different things and serves different purposes. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes stood as art (and not Brillo Boxes) because of what they were “saying” about consumer culture. I spoke of that here.

Lessons Unit: Brillo: Is It Art? – The Andy Warhol Museum

As Immanuel Kant said, art invokes within us, a sense of awe and deep pleasure. Like nature, it takes us where words cannot.

This helps us understand what art does, but still feels inconclusive, as far as what art has. Or is.

Yet, after taking great interest in aesthetics as a philosophy student, through my 20s, I still couldn’t answer, at least to my own satisfaction, the question: What does all good art have in common? Even if there are multiple answers, or none at all. (Maybe it’s like asking what religion is… there is no common denominator. Only what scholars have termed “family resemblances.”)

Nonetheless, it is only now, through direct experience, after 30 years of painting in watercolor, and writing poetry… and writing in general, have I started to get a glimpse of what I feel to be a truthful response.

But first, indulge a memory with me… I promise, it’ll bring us back to the question of art!

The Storm Rolling In—

I remember running to the classroom window, pushing aside those heavy beige, vinyl drapes, to see the sky turning dark, and the sudden burst of light that illuminated the asphalt outside. Then the rumble. And the anticipation it brought on… how loud will it get? How close will it come?

It wasn’t merely because we rarely get ferocious storms in Southern California. My excitement, which I still feel when storms approach, reveals more than that. Alluding to Kant again, who recognized that nature most powerfully elicits that sense of awe, that all art is but a kind of exemplar of the sublimity we find in nature, we find our clue as to what makes both art and nature riveting in the same way. And, the storms outside of LA were all the more so.

It was in the Midwest somewhere… we heard it coming. Like a high speed train roaring. Getting closer. As we ran to open the door, the wind pushed it against the wall. Yet, we couldn’t resist and so we charged into the flurry and out into the middle of the street and it felt like the world was coming to an end. We stood and watched with wild hair and our arms outstretched against the electric jet stream of warm air. We were buzzing. Suddenly turned the heavens poured out a river and in 20 minutes, it was gone.

Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience—

I felt that frenzied excitement when I saw John Bonham’s son and his Led Zeppelin Experience last year. My own reaction was totally unexpected. But that’s the whole point, as I’ll explain below. A genuine reaction to art is, and has to be, totally uncontrived. And to do that, the art will possess some element that is wild, like the storms above. More on that in a moment. When those first notes of Immigrant Song exploded, I was, at that moment, like a teenager. I remember jumping up out of my seat, straining on my tiptoes to see… at any cost and discomfort… perhaps managing to blurt out Oh My God a few times because I couldn’t say anything else. Because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing. Because teenagers do crazy things. Because teenagers have energy (except for when they can’t get out of bed).

Presence (The location of Beginner’s Mind)—

More to the point, a youngster’s sense of physical presence exceeds their mental ruminations. And since thinking is draining, the result is vitality… and there has always been an inverse relationship between presence and the degree to which you are in your head. Meaning, the more you are in your head, in the world of thoughts, the less present you are. It starts when we become adults. When we become rational. Teenagers haven’t gotten there yet. So, they are still free.

That’s why we adults have so much fun at events like that, we don’t just act like teenagers for that moment in time. We become as kids again. Because we are in our bodies… not in our heads. The music (and all art… and nature) is a conduit for feeling. We are feeling the music, and leaving the world of thought behind for that moment. And thus, we have no sense of “should be’s.” We act naturally, in all our exuberance. In Zen, this is what it means to have a “Beginner’s Mind.” To be blissfully ignorant of the world’s ideas and judgments. And so, free to express oneself authentically.

Crazy… It’s The Same Criterion for Both The Artist and The “Feeler”—

It’s not holding back. When a singer moves us it’s because she’s not holding back. She’s willing to sing at the edge, right at the place where her voice might crack. But she’s not concerned with that. She’s not playing it safe. She’s not tightened or constricted or self conscious. It’s what good writers do. It’s what good actors do. She’s doing, in her art form, what we wish we could do in life. She’s purging emotions as we wish we could. And thus, there is a purification process in the art exchange, for both artist and viewer, through the feeling of release.

And so, we’ve come around to what I feel answers the question… What does all good art have in common?

It could be said this way: It’s the element of crazy. Something wild and crazy has to happen in that painting, in the dance, in the routine, in the song, in the performance.

Why? Because art unleashes something that has been laid to rest in the depths of our soul… Ultimately, it’s fear. At the very least, it reveals what we wouldn’t do in “real life.” In that sense, it is therapeutic. It is revelatory. It reveals the capacity to let go and to abandon ourselves. It reveals possibilities we thought weren’t for us… to be whimsical, carefree and unguarded. To be fearless.

Which ultimately means… To be FREE.

When asked, “what does freedom mean to you?“ the iconic singer Nina Simone simply said, “to be fearless.”

But we don’t dare, in our everyday lives. We were taught to be rational. We’re careful. We’re measured. We’re prudent. We’re tight. We don’t dare take a chance!

The Wild Stuff Makes it Special—

It’s the big, bold tree stroke in the foreground of a painting. The stroke that makes you think, as an artist, or someone watching from behind, as you’re about to do it, “Oh no!… You’re going to ruin it!“ because the background was done so carefully. Reason will dictate… Leave well enough alone.

That’s where art steps in. Art messes it all up, like crazy hair. Like that sky that turned black before it opened up and flooded the streets for those 20 minutes.

Art is where convention is, ipso facto, irrelevant, since creativity is by its very definition, the birthing, or the configuration of something new. And this process often looks weird or wild or simply… crazy. To be clear, this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean harmful. Nor necessarily loud. But it does mean bold… in myriad ways. Think John Cage in his silent symphony. Think Marina Abromovic, in her meditative, interactive art. Think Cindy Sherman in her performance pieces, which feature herself as objet d’art, in different guises. All pushed boundaries and convention in their own weird and wonderful way. Keep in mind, to sit still is bold. To be quiet is bold.

In a more prosaic example, I remember seeing footage of Joe Cocker singing at Woodstock, as a girl… I asked my mom what was wrong with him… why was he shaking? Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

Nothing new? The row over Marina Abramović's next show | Apollo ...

Beginner’s Mind—

It’s that element of crazy, again. It feels like freedom—the most basic human requirement. It’s the quality of being uncontrived. The Zen masters call naturalness. And it springs forth from the “Beginners Mind,” which is a mind that is free of concepts. In plain terms, it is a mind that is free of the “should be’s”. Free from fear of failure. Free from the corruption of other people’s judgments and opinions. Free from the rules of convention that we spoke of. Totally spontaneous and totally yourself. Joe Cocker let the spirit move through him (and the drugs). Cindy Sherman had to disappear, in a sense, in order to become the characters she became.

A Strange and Perfect Pairing of Chutzpah and Selflessness—

It’s chutzpah. It’s bold. It’s brave. It breaks the rules. It can’t be tamed. It’s why every new genre has to break from the past. It’s rock and roll. And by rock and roll, I don’t only mean rock and roll as we think of it today. Using it loosely at this moment, I mean that which possesses that quality of boldness that I have been speaking of… Vivaldi, by this standard, was as rock and roll as it gets, with his reputed flamboyance and innovative spirit. He just couldn’t “plug in.” He was wild, like all rockers, who do whatever the hell they want to do. They scream and yell and kick and move their hips, like Elvis. They growl like Gregg Allman and Leon Russell… just growl on tune!

But, in some measure of paradox, the artist has to lose himself, through the boldness. Or, said differently, the boldness must not come from ego, lest it be contrived, which is the antithesis of beginner’s mind. And the same is true for the viewer. And together, the journey is taken into abandon. And this is freedom.

It’s what good acting does… The actor loses himself. He lets go of control, for that moment. He becomes the character, as effort gives way to effortlessness. It’s why Joshua Bell, the violinist, once said that at the moment of performance, all practicing is let go of. He has to trust at that moment that it’s in his bones.

The Enzo Brings it Back Around—

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The Japanese Enzo displays this element of naturalness and spontaneity. Which is wild and irrational in its appearance of not-caring. And… free. Like all good calligraphy, you would never “go back over it.” Because perfection has nothing to do with it. Because perfection is in the head! The question is rather, is it “felt?” Not, “did you think it through?” Were you inspired at that moment? Was it free? Was it confident (and thus, bold)? Was it authentic?

Like me, at that concert… when we act naturally, out of beginner’s mind, there is no limiting or constraining sense of “should be”… there’s no sense of embarrassment. There’s no sense of “not good enough.” Like the wild storm, you just pummel through and do what you came to do… with no inhibition.

For a plant or a stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem… The true practice of zazen is to sit as if drinking water when you are thirsty. Then you have naturalness. ~Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shunryo Suzuki)

In this way, art conveys what we wish we could be in “real life.” We long for that spirit of abandon. It’s why we love road trips; it’s why we love falling in love (“we are not in our right mind”… it’s been called a kind of temporary insanity, but we love it). That’s why we miss being children.

True & Lasting Change Comes from Within

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My thoughts… When I first started teaching at SMC, my beloved Asian philosophy class was not yet available, so I taught Ethics for two years, until it was. I covered many moral issues. I’ll never forget when the Matthew Shepard case made the news during that time. That was more than 20 years ago… Here is a reminder, from Wikipedia:

“Matthew Wayne Shepard was a gay American student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie on the night of October 6, 1998. He was taken by rescuers to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he died six days later from severe head injuries.”

It generated outrage, but not on the level of the Black Lives Matter protests. But it is not a competition. I am not gay, but any human being with a shred of compassion would be disgusted by what happened to him. It was so hideous & unthinkable to me, that gay rights, along with animal rights, became my two big “causes.”

Being half Jewish, I could also point to the way Jewish people are marginalized and have been the object of discrimination for so many years.

Teaching eastern philosophy puts me in touch with the caste system in India, where despite legal measures against this system of social stratification, familiar prejudice lingers on & condemns certain people to a lesser status their entire lives.

And being a woman connects me to the way women have had to fight for equal pay and respect both in the workplace and in society at large, for most of modern civilization, despite various forms of suffragette movements, which have risen up over the years.

The postmodern philosophers in the 60s (led by French philosophers like Lyotard, Derrida & Foucault) started to look at this problem of segregation in all facets of life. They called it “deconstruction.” It just means that they were challenging the division between “us and the other,” or rather, between the “privileged and the marginalized.” Their lens included all systems of segregation, including the idea that we could separate ourselves from nature.

We are still in this postmodern period of questioning divisions. That is ultimately a good thing. But it will be futile until we do our own work.

Since the sixties, there have been sporadic marches for women’s rights, for civil rights, for gay rights, and for many other causes. And then, there have been none, when there might’ve been… should’ve been, like the Matthew Shepard case, which would’ve been equally justified. Certain times and places seem to generate the impetus to march… The French seem to have it in their DNA. Every time I land in Paris, for example, it seems there is a march for something. Does it work? Yes and no. It works by force. It works the way a parent’s punishment toward his/her child works, but has there been a genuine shift within? That’s the big question.

One thing I do know is that angry people tend to cause more harm (as we’ve seen), unless there’s a very specific plan in place, along with a desired end goal and proposal, that can be properly communicated, all of which enables channeling that anger constructively. I have not witnessed this kind of success through the act of protesting. In fact, in these most recent marches, innocent cops have been injured violently… one took a knife in the neck. Who is decrying this? Why should one presumably good cop “take the bullet” for another bad cop he doesn’t even know? The intent may be the dismantling of large scale discrimination, but at the cost of individual lives? His life mattered, too. This kind of crazy-making could not positive or beneficial for anyone. With creativity, we could do better.

Although I am a philosopher, I’m not naturally a “political” person, as it always leads to argument (especially if you’re angry). With the exception of a post about Tibet, some years ago, this is my most “political” post, to date. I used to argue. But these days, rather than argue, I choose to uplift through other means, such as through my teaching. I have the platform to educate by way of subjects and conversations that promote conscious awareness and respect toward all persons and beings. I also practice gratitude for what I have, which is felt by others. If I was angry, I don’t believe I could be effective.

For example, I learned long ago, that all the logical argument in world for animal welfare, wouldn’t… couldn’t… go half as far as having the experience of being licked by a puppy.

It is the same for any “cause.” Making friends with a gay person or a woman or a Jew or a person that is “different“ than you is more meaningful than all of Derrida’s writings.

On the other side, marches, when done peacefully, seem to bode well for a sense of connection, support and solidarity. But this is still external. More importantly, it is “inefficient,” in the long run. We could march for every cause, or we could embody that sense of oneness within, and that would in effect solve all of it.

My favorite philosopher has always been Peter Singer. I still believe that everything comes down to what he so aptly put his finger on… That all sentient beings, by virtue of their ability to “feel,” and to suffer, have a basic longing for life. This includes all “persons” regardless of gender, religion, color, and yes… even species. And our trivial interests do not justify the horrendous treatment that we inflict on “others.”

I have naturally felt this way all of my adult life. I have friends of all colors, religions, nationalities, and species. I just see “persons.” I just see the intentions coming forth from their soul. I see this in all of nature, actually. This is pantheism… God lives in all beings. The earth sparkles with divine love. The Hindu philosophers aren’t the only pantheists. The Jewish philosopher, Benedict Spinoza also had leanings this way, as did the American transcendentalists, like Thoreau. As do indigenous teachings.

In absence of this heartfelt sense of connection, there still will be marches and outrage and all forms of “unrest” … until we advance in the program of “deconstruction” — although most will not label it that way. And this at least is pointing in the right direction… one of more unity and holism.

But, while some protest is valuable, in the absence of peacefulness inside one’s own soul, I feel it will be a case of putting “the cart before the horse.” It all starts within. It starts in the classrooms, it starts in silence, it starts with listening to others. It starts with a walk in nature. It starts in individual relationships. It starts in the heart.

While no human being is perfect, Gandhi had an intense personal practice, which included fasting and renunciation from talking on certain days. He utilized the march, but called it off if he suspected things would turn violent. King modeled his approach on Gandhi’s. He understood that soul force is stronger (albeit more difficult) than physical force.

My thoughts…

The Magic that Happens in Stillness (The Four C’s”)

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In stillness… You go beyond the words and the names, behind the labels and the judgments, beneath the doubts and the mental commentary… to the raw experience of now. At this level of awareness, the distinctions between breather and breath, seer and seen, listener and sound, experiencer and experience, past and future… and between self and other… become blurry. There is just Christ consciousness… Om… emptiness… pure presence… samadhi… enlightenment… Source.

Any of the tools of spiritual practice serve as keys for entry. Breath, sound, prayer… or being in nature.

There is an anecdote about Buddha, and how breath is used to get to this place of stillness:

“How do you attain enlightenment?” One disciple asked.

“Simply be aware of your breathing,” he replied.

It’s not that the breath is all that interesting. It’s only a convenient focusing device. I remember my own Zen teacher calling it a “gimmick.” Zen teachers can be cheeky that way. He was driving home the simplicity of it… focusing on your breath gives your mind something to do, other than spin circles around. The Christians use prayer. The dervishes use the spinning motion of the body.

Out of the mind and into the body. And ultimately… into pure presence.

But here’s where it gets interesting. There’s magic and power there!

Not willpower… Because that would be about asserting the ego. That would be a self-righteous, “pushy” kind of power. That would be an agenda-driven, attachment-charged kind of power.

No. This kind of power comes from what Buddhists call the “unstuck mind.“ We’re not only aware of everything; we’re aware with everything.

In this place of alignment (which is always by degree, as long as we’re in human form) we are able to tap into what I have coined, The Four C’s”:

1. CONNECTION… This is the state of oneness that all spiritual traditions describe. This is the basic meaning of Yoga, “to connect.” Because now the divisive shell of ego has melted down.

2. COMFORT… This is the state of calmness, in which we feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It is the place of surrender. It feels like everything is going to be okay. It feels safe. Because now the insecurities and fears of the ego self have subsided.

3. CLARITY… This is the state in which we are in touch with what is right for our soul, rather than the habit momentum of earthly addictions. Because here, the loud and conflicted voice of the ego has quieted.

4. CREATIVITY… This is the state in which we tap into what Law of Attraction calls, “the energy that creates worlds.” Because here, with the conventional routines of ego in the backseat, the flow of Chi is destined to expand.

Letting Go (A Time of Renunciation)

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Among the Yogis of old, there is a tradition of renunciation. Taken from the context of the Four Stages of Life in Indian spiritual texts, it is the fourth and most challenging stage. Not for the faint of heart, it requires the total abandonment of worldly attachments, belongings, and all creature comforts, including your family home and all the possessions in it. It even requires the relinquishment of your identity as you know it. It is a personal choice and only taken on by a relative few.

The idea is that worldly greatness and material achievements are ultimately meaningless, nothing but “child’s play,” as described by Swami Sivananda, who goes on to say that “mere college study cannot make you great.” Book learning alone does not foster the kind of deep compassion that is generated by a spiritual maturation, nor a transformed consciousness that is only tilled by practice and experience.

A true renunciate is one who can remain in the world, but not be worldly-minded.

Those who are serious about pursuing this path do it in steps and measures. Much like the acclimatization process for climbing Mt. Everest, where you surmount one camp level at a time, until your body has adjusted to the oxygen level… you would start by going out to the woods to live in a secluded way for a month or so, away from all that is familiar and comfortable, as a way of testing your mental strength and determination, as well as cultivating patience and fortitude.

In my Kundalini tradition, the idea is to nurture this kind of inner strength and awakening, while living in the world as a householder, which is the Indian expression for those of us who cannot and aren’t inclined to live in a cave away from civilization for the rest of our lives (most of us!)

But we can look to the renunciates (“saddhus”) for inspiration, and take some valuable lessons from them, especially during this time of seclusion. The most important thing to consider is that, while their lifestyle is one of letting go, ours is one of stressed accumulation.

Renunciation is a purposeful and committed lifestyle of radical letting go.

So many of us are feeling bored and frustrated during this time of lock-down, as if many things have been denied to us. But I feel that as an alternative way of looking at the situation, it might be helpful—and might even propel us into a transformation of consciousness in its own right—to look at this as a mini renunciation exercise.

For example, even if we just changed our viewpoint about it… from one of being forced by outside measures, to one of willfulness, in service to a greater cause, it would lesson the mental burden. And to take it one step further, we could ask ourselves:

“What could I give up” during this time, as a means of practicing self-healing?

I’ll go first: I don’t know how many of you enjoy astrology, but Virgos are known for their meticulousness. Although I’m home a lot in my usual life, as a teacher, I’ve have had to switch to online teaching. This has created some pressure with regard to learning and organizing via platforms such as Zoom. I’m very much a Virgo in these types of scenarios and for me, it’s a short hop between taking it in manageable bits and letting it become a source of pressure and stress.

So, my practice is now to work within the medium I’m most comfortable with (mini lectures via iphone), while continuing to check in with my college students regularly through the online system already in place—”Canvas.” I have been learning to use more of the tools already at my disposal within these systems, that I never made use of before. But I’m doing it one step at a time. For now… for today, my students are fine. The pressure comes from within.

What will you let go of as a gift to yourself?

The Magic Word for Fear & Doubt

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The Word—

“Despite.”

I share this word in hopes that you too, will find it to be, despite its simplicity (pun totally intended), the most utterly magical and miraculous method that I have found it to be. Think of it as a secret weapon… an invisible golden key that you wear around your neck, that sets you free of fear and bestows upon you… pure power.

The Set Up—
Tony Robbins says it is belief that makes the difference in the quality of your life. For example, the difference between whether or not you continue with a job you don’t enjoy, depends on your belief that it will pay off… or, on the deeply ingrained belief that one must toil in life… or perhaps, on the belief that you won’t find another one. Similarly, whether you stay in a relationship that is no longer satisfying depends on your belief that a marriage is forever, ’till death do you part.

And these beliefs prevent taking action. And in circular form, the lack of action reinforces the belief. And so, nothing changes. And then, with evidence of the same old circumstances repeating themselves, you have further reinforcement as proof.

Indeed.

So, the question then becomes… how do I change my belief?

So as not to leave you suspended in mid air, one way is to practice shifting your focus to what is good… to what is wonderful in your life. Be grateful for those things.

Indeed.

BUT… saying to yourself—right at that moment when you are already in the fire— “I will do this thing right now, DESPITE my anxiety,” enables you to get through the fire right now. On the spot.
For Example—
I will get blood drawn, despite feeling horrified of needles.
I will fall asleep, despite feeling anxious that I won’t.
I will do the speech, despite my fear of forgetting my lines.
I will start my business, despite fear of failure.
I will leave this job, despite my insecurities about money.
I will listen to my gut and walk out the door, despite my terror of turning my life upside down.

The Usual Approaches—
Fighting the fear is a form of resistance and just gives it more power. And fully accepting the fear sounds good in pop-Buddhist, self help books… but the reality is that it is more easily said than done. And it falls short of the howhow do you accept the fear when the habit pattern is woven into your very cells? Especially, on the spot. Right now. Not after years of commitment to some ongoing practice, whether it be the simple use of positive thoughts or gratitude for gradual reconditioning… or, a western based program involving hypnotherapy, CBT, or neurolinguistic programming, or an eastern influenced practice of meditation or some form of Yoga.
“Despite”—
“Despite” sidesteps all of that, right here, right now. It is saying… without even saying it… at a subconscious level… IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU ACCEPT OR WHAT YOU FEAR OR WHAT YOU BELIEVE OR WHAT OTHER THERAPEUTIC MODALITIES YOU MIGHT BE ENGAGED IN OR THAT YOU HAVE AN APPOINTMENT WITH THE THERAPIST TO DISCUSS THIS TOMORROW…

“Despite” cuts right through, as a newly sharpened knife snaps through a cucumber. It put all the mental noise and objections aside for now, ’cause there’s something else that’s more important right now… I’ve got to do this right now. We’ll deal with the fear, later.

It’s as one of my teachers, Guru Singh, says… “you can schedule a time for that.” You’re putting the concern aside. You’re not dealing with the messy job of trying to convince yourself of anything, or trying to come to a place of acceptance over anything. “I will do it despite the fact that I’m nervous… and the job will get done… and it’s happened countless times before… and it’s always fine and it’ll be fine this time, too.”

“I always do the thing fine, despite my fear.”
Wrap Up—
It “nonplusses” the fear, to use an Alan Watts word. Your thoughts, at that very instant, lose their power over you. It is akin to saying “thank you for sharing” to your fear, as you would to a toddler, before putting him in the backseat. By acknowledging its existence and going about your business, anyway, they lose their power.

It’s absolutely true that learning to shift our focus to what is good is a good idea. But the reality is that most of us perfectly imperfect humans will fluctuate in our ability to do that on any given day, depending on what kind of a day we are having. The negative mind is strong. Thus, we need a hack. We need a bypass modality for an on-the-spot SOS. At the moment of implementing “despite,” you are in a place that precedes all practice.

 

 

 

Why I Don’t Set Resolutions

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Resolutions Are Too Extreme—

The commonly given explanation for “why resolutions don’t work” focuses on the idea that the resolutions we set reflect extrinsic expectations, rather than intrinsic ones. Or, put simply… because the resolutions reflect what others expect of us, rather than what we really want for ourselves.

I don’t think this gets to the heart of why resolutions don’t tend to work, as I don’t think many folks would set resolutions based on what others want.

I believe most people truly do want to change whatever they’ve set out to change; it’s just that the resolution is too extreme.

Habits Rule—

The reason why extreme gestures set us up for failure is because for the most part, barring urgent situations, we operate on habits, rather than sudden, severe and dramatic actions. It is our habits — carried out consistently, over time — that bring lasting transformation.

Cultivating New Behaviors—

Sudden and mighty actions require great strength and willpower, both of which will work in those urgent situations, when we have to act suddenly and when we surprise even ourselves with what we can do when circumstances gave us no alternative. But there is only so much willpower we can draw on. It’s like a muscle car… good for a sprint or a car show, but will run out of gas quickly.

And I’ve noticed that most resolutions do take this dramatic approach. To use another analogy, it’s like diving into the deep end, before cultivating a swimming habit that feels easy and fun. This is true for most new and preferred behaviors, that would do well with an gradual and doable build-up. For example, running, or cycling, or even positive thinking… it’s a matter of giving more “airtime” to the desired activity, little by little.

To focus on running for a moment: The idea would be to jog for a short stretch, while taking your usual morning walk. Or, with positive thinking… go soft about it: “right now, in this moment, I have everything I need,” as opposed to “everything is wonderful and perfect and I’m so happy” (which doesn’t feel believable).

Reversing Old Behaviors—

This is true for reversing a certain behavior, as well.

Where cultivating new behavior has to do with making it easy and soft and doable, rather than extreme and overwhelming, reversing behavior has to do with momentum.

But both go back to the limited supply of willpower.

Once momentum is in place, we have no choice but to rely on this limited commodity. If will power is all we’ve got, we are poking holes in our own raft. The trick is to cultivate a certain habit while the “problem” is still small… while the situation is in its earliest stages. Like those holes in the raft… if you wait until there are too many, the momentum of the mounting flood will be overwhelming and impossible to curtail.

So, easy does it is the game!

“Make Yourself a Vessel”

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I had been feeling anxious lately. Deep down, I knew why. It was because I had become slack on maintaining my daily connection with Source. Before, I could often channel words of comfort and wisdom from certain spirit guides during times when I was feeling deeply in need. I knew I was missing that connection and that this was why I had been feeling anxious and overwhelmed lately.

It had been many months… or maybe a year since receiving a channeled message. Besides St. Anthony, and one female, in angelic form, who I only know as “Niyah,” one of the spirit guides that I have been able to communicate with is Yogi Bhajan, who left his body in 2004 and was the teacher of my teacher.

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Tratakum Meditation Image

My teacher, Guru Singh, once told me that he uses the Tratakum meditation image of Yogi Bhajan to connect to him, on a regular basis. So, I decided to go back to this practice, and in the first session, I received a very clear message:

Make yourself a vessel.
Make yourself a vessel.
Make yourself a vessel.

Then, only a minimum of explanation…

You are taking on too much, energetically. You are making it about you and from you. That is why you are getting sick and anxious and tired. Let us work through you. We are infinite. In that way, you take none of it on, energetically.

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Ahh… like Krishna’s flute. When you make yourself hollow and empty, like his flute, the Divine fills you up with grace and infinite blessings. God’s breath blows through you. Your actions come from unlimited source.

In this way, life doesn’t have to be hard. The idea is to let grace work through us. Our work should be to align with God/spirit/the divine, so that we are simply the vessel. And like Krishna, who was known for his playful spirit and good humor, we too, can take care of things without it feeling like exertion and drudgery. We can learn not to take ourselves so seriously.

To use Esther Hicks’ expression, we go around “efforting” because we’ve been taught that we must toil… we must push our rocks, like Sisyphus, in order to reap any rewards and make life meaningful. Our well-meaning elders knew no other way.

In our continuing evolution, we can work in a more exalted way… let divine work through you.

Be playful, like Krishna!

The Appearance of a Yogi; A Story of Grace

Another story of miracles and grace. This one is relayed by Caroline Myss.

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I have often been asked whether I believe that grace can actually save a person’s life. There’s no way to prove that it can, of course, but I choose to believe it can from the numberless reports of people who testify to the intervention of Divine energy in their own lives. One vivid story I was told was about a man named Steven, who had developed a serious case of internal and external hives, brought about from taking a new medication to which he did not know he was allergic. The rash began as a small irritation on his skin and proceeded to spread all over his body. After several days, Steven thought he must be allergic to something, but it never occurred to him that it was the medication. Instead, he reviewed the food he had been eating, the soap he was using, and the fabrics of the various items of clothing he was wearing. As the rash continued, Steven developed more symptoms. He broke into a fever every evening and became weaker by the day. He swelled up, retaining fluids in his tissues. Soon the fevers were constant and his weakness so severe that he could not walk. His feet were so swollen that he could no longer put on his shoes.

One morning, at the height of Steven’s suffering, a voice woke him up and told him to get to a hospital because he was dying. Then the voice told him to breathe slowly and deeply, pulling his breath fully into his lungs. An image came into his mind of a yoga master leading him in this exercise. Steven was Christian, and although he was certainly familiar with yoga in an intellectual sense, he had never learned or practiced it. He phoned a friend, however, telling him that he needed to get to a hospital immediately. En route, he continued to breathe as instructed, and every time he closed his eyes, he saw the yoga master.

Steven arrived at the hospital nearly unconscious. He was rushed to the emergency room, where the attending physician immediately administered a shot of steroids. He informed Steven that he had developed a near-terminal case of internal and external hives, and that every organ in his body, along with his skin, was inflamed. He also informed Steven that if he had not arrived at the hospital within a few hours, he probably would have died.

“I had never given any serious thought to yoga, or to any teachings or practices from the Hindu tradition,” Steven later said to me. “As far as I was concerned, yoga was nothing more than a physical exercise, hardly a spiritual practice. And I never thought of the breath as anything other than what we have to have to stay alive. Now I practice yoga constantly, though I no longer see that yoga master when I close my eyes. I have a ‘normal’ and physical teacher, but I still wonder each day, Why did a Yogi come to me? I mean, I had no belief in that tradition at all. How did that happen? I’ll never stop thinking about that experience. It changed my life—actually, it saved my life.”

(From Why People Don’t Heal and How they Can, by Caroline Myss)

The Spiritual Dimension of Narcissism (& Narcissism in Relationships)

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Spiritual Ignorance—

What we call “spirituality,” in all its many guises and paths, is really all the same thing… getting closer to God. Or, better, realizing that we were never separate, in the first place. Hence the expression, “self-realization.” We can also call this “vibrating with source,” or “being twice born,” or “satori” … it doesn’t much matter what we call it, as it’s all about overcoming that sense of separation, which Buddha called avidya.

Although avidya translates as ignorance, it is not ignorance in the usual sense, rather it is the state of being unaware of the abiding connections between all of us and between everything (‘though there really are no “things”) in the universe. We can experience the feeling of connection in myriad ways, for example, through any creative endeavor, through deep encounters with nature, and through authentic connections with other people and animals.

Every spiritual path is built around the need to overcome ignorance and cultivate a sense of deep connection with all that is.

Why is it so important?

Because without it, we will have an ego-driven world, devoid of considerateness, and full of self-centered behavior.

Sounds a lot like narcissism.

Disclamer—
I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that the only difference between garden variety ego and diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the location of where it falls on a spectrum, as there is still much to be learned about the brain and genetics and whatever else may be at work, physiologically and chemically, in producing psychological disorders. So, I will speak as an interested scholar, as a lifelong spiritual student and teacher, as well as someone who has been in relationship with others who embody and display narcissistic behaviors.

Narcissism and the Spiritual Path—
If the spiritual path is marked by the extent to which we become aware of our inherent divine nature, which the unchecked dominance of ego blocks out, then narcissism may be seen as a kind of chronic disunion. This is displayed as lack of empathy, which is always listed as its telltale, defining feature.

Without self-awareness, the narcissist will be oblivious to his/her behavior and how he/she is “coming off” to others. Thus, the narcissist will speak and act in offensive ways, and will be chronically lacking in thoughtfulness, due to the unchecked hyper-focus on his/her own needs, moods and whims.

This tendency may be displayed through disrespectful or inconsiderate communication styles, as well. For example, through a lack of ability to listen to the other, or persistent tendency to interrupt. This comes from either a conscious or an unconscious belief that his/her commentary is more important than anyone else’s, or a childlike lack of self-control.

Vulnerability—
The ability to be vulnerable is inextricably connected up with overcoming ignorance because without it, there is no true human connection being made. And without connection, there is no empathy.

A relationship with a narcissist is always described as one which entails unavoidable feelings of neglect and disappointment, since your needs, as the narcissist’s partner, will not be recognized. The lack of empathy bars this. This is why, besides “lacking in empathy,” the narcissist is often described as acting out of a “sense of entitlement.” This manifests when their need for comfort predominates, to the extent that the narcissist expects others to always accommodate them, eg, food choices, etc., without the genuine desire or ability to reciprocate and sacrifice for others, in turn.

In reflecting on the notion of vulnerability and its importance in cultivating authentic and safe-feeling relationships, I believe that the absence of it is an effect, rather than a cause of the existent narcissism. A narcissist is too afraid to ever let himself/herself be open and vulnerable.

And if vulnerability is by nature a spiritual quality in that it enables true closeness and connection, then without it, a relationship with a narcissist can never be spiritually fulfilling in an enduring and ever-maturing way.

In Summary—
The relationship with the narcissist will be chronically impaired because of the inability to compromise, make concessions and sacrifice for another.

Spiritually, if connection is our ultimate purpose and source of fulfillment here on earth, then the ability to be vulnerable is requisite. It entails the capacity, courage and emotional maturity to be truly open with another and further, to be in touch with others, in a way that reflects a true sense of concern about the other’s needs, comfort and well-being. The narcissist’s lack of maturity and insecurity, which lies below the gruff facade, keeps him/her stuck at the level of his/her own needs. This is avidya.

 

The Indian Woman at the Coffee Shop

What follows is an excerpt from a book that I have been compiling notes for, throughout the last few years. It chronicles many true stories of synchronicity and divine blessings. This story is my own and from my own experience.

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When I arrived at my local coffee shop, to write on the topic of prayer, I parked next to a car identical in year, make and color, to the car I had just before this one. I glanced through the windows and saw that it was loaded with clothing, as well as various and sundry random stuff, including a dog bed. It was this last item that moved me the most. It was as if someone was living out of the car, and they had a dog.

As I gathered my computer, and started toward the door of the coffee shop, I saw a thin thirty-something, Indian woman, walking near the parking lot with her senior dog. It touched my heart because the dog was arthritic. Then after a few moments, I saw them turn around and go toward the parking lot and toward the car that was identical to my old car — it was hers!

I paused for a moment, wondering about her situation. She left her dog in the car… it was a cool morning, so there was no problem with that. I could tell that she took good care of him, by the way she placed him in his little doggy bed, among all the other stuff, which was piled high all around him. And then she walked into the coffee shop before me.

I was moving slowly that morning, and ended up entering just as she was exiting. She asked me if I knew a lawyer. It was indeed, an unexpected, and out of the blue request, to be sure, especially, since we had not already spoken or been introduced in any way. She must have felt an openness about me. She then proceeded to give me the run down of her current life situation and challenges. She was in the middle of a difficult divorce and in transition, and without a stable place to live.

(As an aside, I couldn’t have known, that less than two years from then, I would also find myself in the middle of a stressful divorce.)

Through her rushed and frazzled words, I could sense her stress and fear and anger. And I could tell she had been crying. I told her that unfortunately, I knew of no lawyer. But I could feel her frazzled energy and I told her to breathe… and I breathed with her. And finally she stopped and breathed in a moment of calmness. It was likely her first calm moment in many days.

I told her to take her power back with that breath. And I told her that while she googled attorneys, I would pray for her. I gave her a hug, and after she apologized for being “gross” and un-showered, she went to drink her coffee outside, while I set up my laptop in my usual spot inside, by the window. I did pray for her, heartily… at that very moment, before ordering my usual bagel & tea.

Interesting that after going to this local coffee shop for 10 years, I never saw her there.

About a half hour later, I looked out the window and saw her engaged in a big conversation with a man, who I never saw before. This conversation went on for the next 45 minutes. As I was leaving, I stopped next to them, and said, “I see this man is helping you.” To which she said, with obvious relief and gladness in her tone, “yes!… it’s an incredible coincidence! He’s an attorney and he just happened to walk by and talk to me and he’s been giving me wonderful suggestions.”

She thanked me as I left, but I was thankful too. What really mattered was that she now felt that she had options and hope. A prayer had been answered… just like that.

I never saw either one of them again.