Tag Archives: spirituality

The Sound of the Mosque

Early-morning walk under a still darkened sky

I reached the end of the street where the tiled mosque reaches up, as if waiting for a glimpse of the Dawn

Normally a quiet giant, but on this particular morning I heard chanting coming from within…beautiful chanting

I rounded the corner and leaned underneath the slightly opened window where the sacred sound was gliding through

The neon signs of an all-night convenience store across the street flickered through the day’s first clusters of traffic

I mentally willed the rushing sounds to stop, as I lowered the hood of my woolen jacket to better hear

Does it sound like love?

And in a foreign tongue, the low-pitched singing continued on, delivering the sound of God…

It does…yes it does

DQ

On the Fallacy of Spiritual Perfection

Don Quixote“I’m only human,” the saying goes. To my perfectionistic Virgoan ears, it always sounded like a cliché, or worse, an excuse for shoddy work or behavior.

But, thank goodness, like many other quixotic notions I have had to let go of, I unshackled myself of this, too. Not only does it make life harder and more stressful than it is supposed to be, but aspiring to the impossible is a most subtle form of arrogance, worn in the guise of “high standards,” or worse, spiritual advancement.

Of the latter, one of my teachers in the healing tradition, calls it “purple-washing.”

Because purple—color of the crown ckakra—is thought of as a spiritual color, this expression refers to the tendency of spiritual people to think of themselves as “above” certain emotions, fancying themselves, for example, invulnerable to fear, or anger.

“How lofty of me!” She jokes.

The reality is, perfection is unattainable for three main reasons:

1. Life is change. It was the Buddha’s starting point and the keystone for the body of his teachings. If all of life is impermanent, then we are too. Thank goodness! This means that we are always evolving. Perfection implies that a resolution has been achieved, and is, as such, a frozen state. Thus, perfection and change are a contradiction in terms.

2. The fantasy of perfection is born of ego. What would perfection even look like? It’s unanswerable, since for every ten people asked, there would be ten different answers. It’s relative. And why would we want to be perfect, when we saw, in the above passage, that perfection (if it existed) means no more growth? But back to the point about the ego…by virtue of the fact that perfection is nonexistent in any objective sense, its pursuit easily slides into the realm of narcissism. As psychoanalyst, Karen Horney, has pointed out, it is not narcissistic for a person to value a quality in himself which he actually possesses…the problem arises when narcissists admire themselves for qualities that have no foundation in reality. It seems the pursuit of perfection is the ultimate neurosis!

3. We are supposed to go through emotional trials. It’s part of the game of being human, of being part of this play that the Yogis call Maya. As a teacher, there is thought to be a practical purpose to it all; we go through our own challenges to be able to show others the way through. Having traversed the rough terrain ourselves, we can then show others the potholes. And from the perspective of a healer, we can better recognize the energetic vibration of what we have come to recognize in ourselves. Besides, in every wisdom tradition, from the Kabbalah, to the heart of Yogic wisdom, emotions are thought to be a compass, giving us feedback about where we are on our own journey. So, even as we’re pulling someone else up the mountain with one outstretched arm, we’re simultaneously clearing debris from the path with our other arm. The overarching point is that there is a reason for emotions that are considered “imperfect.” As the teacher of my teacher famously said, “we are spiritual beings having a human experience,” meaning both, that we are limited by virtue of our human embodiment and the challenges that come from limited seeing, and that we are subject to the experiences that come from being trapped in this realm and the duties and interactions that go along with it

In the meantime, we forgive ourselves and others as we stumble our way through the wilds of human life, as we search in vein for the way home. Because after all, as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz discovered, and as we too will discover for ourselves…it was right here, all the time.

Internal Conflict (not desires) Causes Suffering

It is not desires that are the root of misery, angst and suffering. It is conflict of desires.

On Desires—
Firstly, many desires may be seen as intrinsically noble, such as the desire to be enlightened, or, the desire to serve the world through one’s unique skill set. Secondly, many desires are simply natural, such as the desire for the next breath. Thirdly, many desires may be classified as “neutral,” such as the desire to learn to play the violin. With all of them, problems and frustrations arise only when we don’t know how to manifest them, or when there is a conflict with another desire. It is this latter point that I will focus mostly on, below.

Of these many varieties  of desires, there is only one sub-species that I would call inherently “bad,” namely those that include causing harm to others as a motive. The others are not inherently bad, in and of themselves.

Internal Conflict—
The real problems start when we are torn and divided. This is what I’ll call internal conflict and it is at the root of all disharmony, frustration and all havoc, from benign to catastrophic. From the everyday nuisances, like wanting to eat the whole bag of cookies to the huge life-changing situations, such as divorce.

There is always conflict underneath. In the first example, there is a conflict of more than one desire, since on the one hand, you may want to eat the cookies, but on the other, you don’t want to consume all that sugar, or gain weight (so, the other desire would be to maintain your weight). And, in the second example, you may want a long-term marriage, but you also want an honest marriage. If you’re in a situation where this isn’t possible, it will likely blow up in some way, such as in a divorce.

Another example may be: you want to go to Europe for a month, but you don’t want to miss work (so, the other desire would be to continue being productive at work). Again, the internal conflict will likely blow up. Not in such a cataclysmic way, as in divorce, but in a subtler way, such as in the everyday vexations that we all experience in life.

Lurking underneath what Buddha called dukkha, or suffering, you will find that there is an unacknowledged secondary desire. It is just a matter of digging a little deeper in your contemplation.

As a final example, imagine you were a homeowner who wanted very much to get going on the construction of your house. It is taking too long, and if you had it your way, you’d simply call a contractor and tell him to “make it happen.” But real life is more complex. You have to wait for your spouse, who is too busy with work priorities to share in the planning and expenses. So, you have to wait. In this case, we can say that underneath the desire to continue with construction is the pre-existing desire to keep peace in the household.

If it were as simple as wanting to build a room, with nothing standing in your way, you’d simply manifest the desire and move on. The desire, alone, would not be the problem. When something is standing in your way, such as lack of funds, or bad-timing, as in the play-out above, the obstructed desire transmutes into an unhealthy attachment.

As such, it is the internal conflict, caused by discordant desires, that causes suffering.

I Forgive You

ForgivenessI spent the weekend at a meditation workshop. It was the second of three total weekends, that together compose the advanced training, in Kundalini Yoga, called “Mind and Meditation.” It was long, intense and exhausting, but also rich. The lecture-based explanations on all the facets of the mind and how it works, nourished our intellect, while the meditations and group sharing, enriched our hearts and spirits, through direct experience.

There were moments where I was so tired, I just wanted to go home and lie down with my dog. But there were other moments that left me truly transformed.

The sweetest of those was a 31 minute meditation led by my teacher, on guitar. He has a way of putting mantras and words to rhythms that are so lovely, they feel like an enchanting love song washing over your soul. (Well, mantras are love songs, after all.)

The words in this particular meditation were simply, I forgive you. It started softly and then it grew, as the intensity naturally and organically progressed, over the 31 minutes. The funny thing is, I don’t remember if he mentioned that it would be that long. I had the idea that it would only be a short, five minute, lightweight, fun chant to start class with. I was wrong. It kept going…and growing. And once we were deep into it, I sensed I wasn’t the only one wiping my eyes.

What is genuine forgiveness and how will it set us free?

1.  Firstly, what it is not. It is not to condone anything. It is not necessarily to do anything, at all, in the conventional sense. Thus, it doesn’t mean taking your abusive ex back, or bringing back into your life people who have harmed you in some way. As Guru Singh put it, it is not saying, “what you did is okay.” It is simply saying, “what you did is what you did.”

2. It also is not mere acceptance. Although it is a fine place to start. One of my favorite writers, Caroline Myss, refers to the inability to forgive (oneself or others), as the strongest poison to the human spirit. It drains our energy more than anything else. Lack of forgiveness cuts into the core of our ability to enjoy life, because as long as we are doggedly holding on to some injustice, we are investing emotional resources into it, to keep it alive, to maintain our status as victims. This attachment, to the past, to the event, to the story in our head about the occurrence, is like an invisible, heavy-duty, elastic band that prevents us from moving forward. And we are the ones who suffer most—not the other. So, although we still need to go deeper, acceptance begins the process of dislodging the story that is holding us hostage. In short, acceptance may be seen as the birth place of letting go, but it is still in the domain of the mind.

3. Genuine forgiveness goes deeper than the mind. It is a matter of the heart. And it’s not even about the other, at all. It is about our own relationship to the past. And in order for the heart to forgive, it has to feel the feelings, in order that they may pass through and evaporate of their own accord…as things always do when we don’t resist them. This means welcoming the hurt and the pain. You have to go there, to go forth. And in that moment, when the tears may flow, you liberate your spirit from those invisible tethers. This is true forgiveness and it is also true healing.

To forgive means to give forward from a memory into the present moment. ~Guru Singh

Image by Nayarts

Relationship between Presence, Prana & Wisdom

Prana_chi_intuitionYou’ve probably heard by now, that being present stills the mind and all its turbulence.

But…the greatest block to this state of presence is our mental turbulence.

This is like being told you need experience to get the job, but how are you supposed to get experience if they won’t give you the job!

This is a fine predicament.

The answer to this pickle comes in the form of a question:

Have you ever been so engrossed in a task that presence was inevitable?

Tasks of a physical nature are especially adept in bringing us here, since the mind, left to its own devices, soon falls into its customary habits. And we all know, the mind likes to swing.

The physical Yoga postures known as asana do this for us.

Just about all activities that require our active engagement do this for us (watching TV generally doesn’t do it).

Sometimes Yoga instructors will even tell you to find your edge. This is because when we are at our edge, we receive instantaneous feedback that enables us to make corrections as needed.

As it happens, this is where transformation happens.

As with the concept of flow, this is because when we are at our edge, we are at a point where the challenge slightly supersedes our skill level (clearly, if the challenges are too high, this will cause stress and if too low, boredom may result—but this is a slight digression).

When the balance between challenge and skill is just right, presence is obligatory, often at the risk of personal harm; for example, in a balancing pose, or more dramatically, while hanging from a rope on the edge of a cliff (Some of us, myself included, would rather hang out in a balancing pose rather than on the side of a mountain, even though we like mountains very much).

So, it follows that being comfortable is not the best condition for improvement and growth.

Why does transformation happen here?

Because loss of self-consciousness happens in this state of total engrossment.

Self-consciousness is, not surprisingly, what all the spiritual traditions speak of as enlightenment, albeit in myriad ways, e.g., as the loss of the small self, or, as the merging of finite with the infinite, etc.

Now, as it happens, these same conditions also entrain intuition, something we talk about often, in Kundalini Yoga. Intuitive awareness is a form of knowing that goes beyond the ordinary ways of picking up information, in other words, beyond the words and ideas, concepts and data that are the usual ways of exchanging and receiving knowledge.

One of the reasons why this vivid state of undivided presence cultivates intuition is because in this way, the whole body is alive with awareness. In this state, the energetic flow within us is flowing and unobstructed. In fact, as my own teacher used to remind us, when we are aware that we are breathing, we actually take in more prana. Same amount of oxygen, but more prana (or as the Chinese would say, more ch’i). This means our whole body becomes a receiver and transmission instrument (our mind is not localized in the head).

Prana is energy and if everything is energy, as Einstein said, then we merge into everything as just another aspect of this flowing energetic awareness, when we enter this state. The Yogis call it…well, the Yogis call it Yoga. Merging with divine awareness. Or, merging in divine awareness.

The only thing that holds us back from this state, is our own mental stuff and our attachments to that stuff. Flexibility moves us back to center, which is to say, back to everything and everywhere, and so, in this way, the best definition of non-attachment is actually…flexibility.

*Image courtesy of www.easternhealingcenter.com

Gratitude

No matter who you are and what your struggles are, there will be 159 people who seem to have it worse than you and 159 more who seem to have it better. And whatever your situation, there will also be 159 things to blame it on—your family, your culture, your ex, or just plain old bad luck.

But, the judgment of better or worse is all fantasy to begin with, since it is based on speculation and on external yardsticks, such as material wealth and physical attributes. The reality is on the inside. This is why oftentimes, the rich seem miserable and the unfortunate seem happy.

All good treasures are always on the inside.

The greatest of these jewels is the joy that springs forth, like a holy well, from the heart. And the quickest route there, is by way of gratitude, for, like a logical contradiction, it is virtually impossible to be resentful and grateful at the same time. They just don’t go together.

Small steps are the most reasonable way to get there. Big steps into the past or the future can be dangerous. Better to start with this little, tiny, infinite moment…

At this moment, I have my health, or this breath, or this warm home, or this one meal in front of me.

The Sycamore that Wanted to be a Cactus

sycamore I created this story and told it for the first time at Yoga West last Sunday. Some of my students encouraged me to publish it, so here it is!

I was inspired by the two sycamores we share a home with, “Don Quijote” and “Sancho Panza.” The picture with this post is actually one of them. I suppose you could say that we are the family in this make-believe story. Only, the message isn’t make-believe. You’ll probably see very quickly, that we all do what the sycamore tree does.

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This is a story about a sycamore tree who wished he could be more like the cactus. He stood very tall, next to another sycamore tree. Together, they guarded a charming old bungalow house and were much loved by the family who lived there.

He got the idea to imitate the cactus because all the billboard ads say that cactus spikes are in fashion. With all the attention the cactus was garnering, the sycamore began to feel that he wasn’t as handsome or as special as the cactus.

So, the sycamore went online and payed top dollar for the rarest cactus spikes from Mexico. From his elevated position, he was able to watch the street everyday, for his coveted Fed Ex delivery.

Finally, they arrived! And on that day, he pulled off all his fan-shaped leaves and replaced them with the pointy spikes in the box.

While he was online, he had seen more ads for similar imported goods from Mexico. One item, in particular, caught his attention: Genuine El Norteño cowboy boots! The ad said that these boots would make him more masculine. He couldn’t stop thinking about them, so once again, he snuck into the house, went online and ordered them.

And once again, he watched and waited for the unmistakable white truck to come down the street. Finally, when his beautiful boots arrived, he rushed to put them on. But this proved to be a formidable task, as his roots were very long and stringy and he was having a hard time scrunching them into the pointy, leather, boot toe.

At first, he felt proud and pleased with his new look. But after a few days, he wasn’t feeling so well. The Dr. said that without his leaves in tact, he wasn’t getting enough sunlight to facilitate photosynthesis. Tests also showed a deficiency in CO2.

As if this news wasn’t bad enough, he learned that the family members in the old wooden house, weren’t feeling well, either. They were short on oxygen and no longer had any shade to keep them cool on hot summer days.

That did it. The sycamore put his leaves back, at once, and replanted his roots in the earth, which immediately and thirstily began drinking up water, like happy kids sucking up apple juice with straws.

As he fortified his body with sunshine and water, balance was quickly restored and everyone felt better right away. The family once again began to enjoy picnics under the lush, green canopy formed by his fan-shaped leaves, and the giant expanse of shade that this created, kept the air fresh all year round. They even built a beautiful treehouse in his strong, shapely branches!

The sycamore came to realize that there is no other tree quite like him, that each one is beautiful in its own way, and that each fulfills a unique purpose in nature. He now felt very proud to be himself, to serve in a way that only he can, and to be such a tremendous source of delight in the world.

~DDQ

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Moral of the Story…
We give away our authenticity through our fixation on identity and our need for outside approval. We also succumb to what my teacher calls “OPO,” better known as, “Other People’s Opinions.” There is perhaps only one thing that’s worse—we cripple ourselves with our own stories, such as when we buy into it all, and begin to tell ourselves that we’re not good enough as we are.

Three Things Spiritual People Do Differently

1. They See Themselves as Part of the Cause

I remember the Dalai Lama once speaking about Saddam Hussein…how every body blamed him, alone. The reality is, he explained, that without his army, his warfare, his ready militia and unquestioned support among the populace, his capacity to do harm would have been all but nonexistent. In Buddhism, this willingness to see the interconnected causal web underneath the facade, is called deeply looking.

To bring this home, to the everyday, it would be the moment when you ask, how am I contributing to the situation? How did my action or lack of action play a role in the development of this dispute or occurrence? 

2. They See Themselves as a Witness 

I have heard it said that this one skill is the defining criterion of a spiritual life. Not unlike #1, seeing yourself as a witness develops as you begin to shift your focus from finding solutions on the outside, to finding solutions on the inside.

This is what meditation prepares us for—watching ourselves.

Every time you sit, without reacting, you strengthen your capacity to avoid “taking the bait.” Without analyzing, condemning yourself, or getting involved with the passing parade of emotions, you begin to see the whole thing for what it really is…just neurotic bursts of inner dialogue. And eventually, you find yourself able to bring space around the fear, the anger, the doubt, rather than acting on it.

3. They Take the Lesson 

My teacher, Guru Singh, uses the analogy of the postal person. While we may find ourselves resentful of some irksome situation in our lives, perhaps one involving a partner, neighbor or workmate, the energy we spend trying to make them realize how wrong they are will be totally wasted until we figure out what it is we’re supposed to learn from the whole thing. The mailman won’t go away until we’ve signed for the letter!

This too, is not unlike #1, in that the external blame only serves to keep us blinded to our own role in life’s deep interconnected relationships. We are all karmically linked, which is only to say that we affect one another in myriad countable and uncountable ways. The awareness that develops out of a spiritual practice brings us more in touch with this causal dependency.

Why Meditation Works

morning meditateWhen I was growing up, it seemed everyone was impressed with those who could fix computers or who were technologically savvy in some way. They’re so intelligent, they’d say. And then there was always that family superstar who could answer the questions on Jeopardy before the contestants. Everyone would ooh and ahh, admiringly.

But, from the point of view of our soul, we are not here to fix computers or recite historical data.

Philosophy was impressive, too. While I wasn’t the one you’d call for a hard drive on the fritz, nor the one yelling out the answers to civil war trivia, I could talk about free will or argue about the existence of God. Of course, I didn’t choose this line of study in order to impress people, but as a girl in my twenties, I could already count on the type of reaction I’d get when asked what I’m majoring in.

That is…until I went to a real Zen monastery.

When I was in my 20s, I was already drawn to the eastern traditions—I knew about Zen and emptiness. I had read Alan Watts and even knew about koans. And for the first time, no one cared.

The bald man in robes, who they referred to as “Roshi” spoke that day. He said we were all there because we were “neurotic.” No words were ever truer! None of the brilliant papers I’d written seemed to matter at that moment. I still had my hang ups, just like everyone else. Because I still had that head of mine. All the studying in the world doesn’t seem to do much when it comes to true transformation.

That was when it dawned on me: Even the geniuses are screwed up! It’s like this passage:

Have you seen all these people who drink, who search for a partner, and who look for drugs? They start the search in earnest, or have the urge to do it, after 4 p.m. Why do they need drink? Why do people feel they need to take drugs?  They do all that out of an instinct to seek stimulation. At those times their biorhythm has gone down, and they feel irritated. They cannot exist like that and have to have a change…The root cause is that your basic biorhythm of energy, your mental projection and strategy are not reflected in a unisonness of character. Those zones are natural times that shift your energy level, your mental projection, and your performance. That is the time you must direct the mind, refine it, and create a consolidated unisonness of character and projection. ~Yogi Bhajan

The point is, what we are really here to do is guide the mind rather than let it be guided. Guided by what? By our own emotions, by other people’s expectations, by traffic, by disappointments, by the media…by endless, daily provocations (the worst of these being our own thoughts). Neither techie skills, nor historical data, nor a big bank roll can do this for us.

To me, it all boils down to this question: Are you a sanctuary for yourself?

Can you be still in your own solitude? We become a refuge for ourselves only when our mind is at peace. And only then is it remotely possible to be a source of peace for others — because our mind is the wellspring of every word we speak, every decision we make and every action we take.

How do we become our own sanctuary? When we discover our neutral center—the crowned sovereign over all the noise, the judgments, the neurotic outbursts and the incessant tug of war between positive and negative. The neutral channel is the balm that quells the drama that turns people’s lives upside down.

That neutral eye sees right though the drama. Thus, this quality creates vastness of character. This is true greatness. And this is what we’re here for.

If you have not established some vastness in your attitude, then your habits and facets, your fears and pettiness will betray you. ~Yogi Bhajan 

What is meant by “vastness?” No matter what spiritual tradition we’re speaking of, it all comes down to union, or, said the opposite way, letting go of the illusion of separateness. Where is that illusion kept? In the mind. Zen calls it the small self. Yoga calls it the finite self. No matter what we call it, this ego-based identity is what drives the pettiness in our lives, which in turn, makes spiritual union impossible. This is why governing the mind is the first task in any spiritual practice.

How do we refine the mind, in this way? It’s too bad you can’t just take a 6-week course, or a workshop, or an intensive. The old masters weren’t lying when they said you have to sit. There’s no way around it. It’s not as easy, of course, as taking a course and sticking some degree on your wall, but that’s also why there are so few truly enlightened beings in the world.

So how does it work?

Consider this car analogy: Before driving off to work in the morning, you warm up your car for a few minutes. As the engine warms up, a distinct alteration takes place within the engine that affects the oil pressure and viscosity, which prevents wear and tear on your car and gives you a smoother drive. In a similar way, it is through meditation, that we “warm up” our systems by better preparing our minds to handle the stress of daily living, to make the choices that need to be made and to navigate our way through our own doubts and anxieties. Through the refinement process that only meditation affords, we give ourselves a smoother drive.

Not only is there an alchemical process taking place, via the glandular system and the nervous system, but by coming to stillness, we develop a capacity to stay present even when things seem unpleasant. This translates into less reactivity and more patience in the “real world,” as we interface with difficult people and everyday dilemmas.

Through meditation, instead of simply reacting at once, we create space around every stimulus, whether pleasant or unpleasant and whether internal or external.  Our minds challenge us at every turn, like a toddler pulling at our pants for an ice cream, but as we persist, we become solid. We become a witness to the ways of our own minds, which is what Buddha meant when he urged us to study the Self.

To be sure, being a witness does not mean being passive. Nor does it mean being narcissistic. Not passive because we retain our intention to cultivate our awareness even when we get up off the cushion. Not narcissistic because as spiritual warriors, we know all too well the effect of one mind on the world at large.

We know that even a few minutes of warming up our engine daily, will shape every decision we make, in every area of our lives, from relationships to work. This is why it is the highest form of self betterment—because we are getting to the root of our being.

Three Tricks to Forgiveness (how to stay married)

A man asks his friend what he can do about his wife’s annoying habit of speaking rudely to people. Besides this fault of hers, one that causes him frustration, she’s a good person, he says, and he loves her. He also values his marriage of 25 years.

Should he try to change her? Can he help her fix this bad habit? What can he do?

I would offer him these three steps, the combined effect of which, leads only and inevitably to forgiveness.

1. Look Inward (acknowledge your own stuff). 

You have “stuff,” too, I’d remind him.  We all do. Acknowledging our own stuff takes courage and humility. These are the qualities that make this step an important part of living an enlightened life. Turning the pointer inward rather than outward, brings us in touch with a more profound and interconnected view of reality; we begin to see the world as a reflection of ourselves, shaped by our interpretations, which themselves, are shaped by our frame of mind and limitations. The effort to  “expand our consciousness,” boils down to the increasing ability to see reality this way—as a construct of our minds.

But, we are so busy judging what others are doing that we miss the opportunity to see what we, ourselves, are doing. And we spend a lot of energy doing it; we spend our time trying to fix others’ broken knobs and loose screws, rather than our own. It’s a bit funny, when you think about it, that imperfect people spend time and energy trying to make others perfect!

2. Acknowledge that Your Partner Puts Up with Your Stuff (all these years).

Now that the pointer has been courageously redirected inward, we can take the next step, which is to acknowledge that our wonderful other has been putting up with those loose screws of ours…all these years! This is certainly cause for gratitude—a delightful, grudge-dissolving feeling, that swells forth from the heart, like chocolate from a wedding fountain, which, in its simultaneous sweetness and ridiculousness, enables us to laugh at ourselves and celebrate our perfect imperfections.

(It is only a half-joke to say that successful long-term relationships are proportional to the combined ability of each partner to put up with each others’ stuff.)

3. See the Positive in Your Partner (it actually takes effort).

For every one annoying habit, there are surely 100 good ones. It takes practice to remind ourselves to see them. The positive mind needs flexing, like any muscle.

One of my own teachers once spoke of a beautiful teaching; to see and then unsee a fault. Taking the time to consciously recognize and remember what we have forgotten, through time and familiarity, is one way to unsee what may not be a fault at all, but rather…our own lesson in disguise, waiting to be discovered.