Responding to suffering
Compassion and Non-Duality
by Norman Alderton
Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
William Blake, On Another’s Sorrow.
The teaching of non-duality emphasises the unity of which everything is an expression held together by love. Suffering seems to deny this, presenting one of life’s greatest challenges and moving us to feelings of compassion. We can become numb to news media reports, even of such disasters as the 9/11 terrorist incident in New York or the Grenfell Tower fire in London, but when we hear of individual stories of suffering and loss or witness first-hand the suffering of a person close to us our feelings of compassion are more likely to be stirred. This touches on one of the most difficult questions for students of this teaching. How does “my” story and the story of others, fit into the non- dual reality and what is the response to suffering from the non-dual perspective?
RESPONDING TO SUFFERING
In many cases, when we are close to suffering, what to do in response arises naturally in the story and we only have to allow it to unfold. However, for some problems there is no readily defined solution, either at the physical or mental level, yet this does not mean help is not possible. We can best support others by abiding in the awareness of our shared being, by offering a space free of pain and suffering and by our presence without judgment and without adding our personal commentary. This presence transcends individuals and is shared naturally.
Jesus referred to this sharing as love and pointed to two directions in which it should be allowed to flow:
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. – Matthew 22 v 37 to 40.
The two commandments are separated by the mind but on a deeper interpretation they are surely inseparable. The four great sayings of the Upanishads, the Mahavakyas, carry the message of unity: Consciousness is Brahman. This Self is Brahman. Thou art That. I am Brahman. To love God and to love your neighbour as yourself is to recognise that there is no separation. In the drama of life we might see each other through a set of habitual ideas, dominated by the body and characteristics which seem to make up a separate personality. It is, however, natural to recognise that this universal Self, which we truly are, is not bound by what the mind regards as our own body and is not different from the substantiality of the other person.
He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial
eye. – Bhagavad Gita
LOVE IN ACTION
The calm stillness of the unity of life may be perceived in any situation. This unity transcends life’s events but does not negate them. Its recognition is a priceless gift but it is not a gift confined to a separate person. Just as our apparent separate life appears in it so do the lives of others.
First see the Self is within you. Then you will see that the Self in you is not other than the Self in me; it is the same Self. – Papaji
Realising the presence of who we are, the response to suffering is from this awareness, which transcends even thoughts of sympathy for another person.
St Augustine said: Love God, and do what you will, suggesting that right actions and right thinking will flow from this love. This is within the experience of all human beings. The wider awareness is not a separate experience but carries with it a sense that what manifests is its expression. Meeting the situation that arises in this expression will follow naturally. This stepping out of our own limitations and meeting the need is the enactment of compassion.
Being centred in the presence of our own being enables the two commandments to come together and illicit the most helpful response. This place of peace and stillness is always present and always avail- able and it is within the consciousness of each of us to give and receive a sense of wellbeing by recognition of the natural unity and engaging directly in life.
Suppose one is engaged in caring for infants or small children, then there is never a sense of duty, work, service, obligation, help, sacrifice or any other form of ego, for it is only play. This play is due to love, which is like an ocean in which two bodies are engaged in a certain type of movement. There is nothing beside love; no idea of personality or ego arises from either side. – Sri Shantananda Saraswati
SEEING THE ONE AS MANY AND THE MANY AS ONE
The habit for much of the time is to see the world through layers of artifice, which the mind thoroughly enjoys and colours further with its own received pre- judices. Once created, a picture of how things appear gets locked in the mind. Connecting with the senses, which always offer a neutral refuge, with the mind stilled, can help us to see through this artifice. It is in a recognition as the flow of consciousness that the many become one and returns to a whole view of what is; a return to seeing from within and knowing unity. It is in many ways unfortunate that language gives this abiding presence a name. Words like God and Brahman tend to invite the mind back in to restart the search. Yet this is itself part of the outward thrust of creation that ends in apparent separation, and a world of separate people and places as our own separateness re-manifests and projects others. When we contemplate the finite nature of this separateness, difficult circumstances easily move us to tears. However, when we recognise wholeness, joy arises.
It has been said that when we are born we cry and the world rejoices and when we die the world cries and we rejoice. Ken Wilber in his book, The Simple Feeling of Being, describes this inner view towards God and the outer view to the world as follows:
The path of ascent from the many to the one is the path of wisdom. Wisdom sees that behind all the multifarious forms and phenomena there lies the one, the good, the unqualifiable emptiness, against which all forms are seen to be illusory, fleeting, impermanent. Wisdom is the return of the many to the One. The path of descent, on the other hand, is the path of compassion. It sees that the one actually manifests as the many, and so all forms are to be treated equally with kind- ness, compassion, mercy. The one manifests as the many through an infinite act of compassion and charity, and we embrace the many with the same compassion and care. Compassion touches all manifestation with concern and gentle wonderment… But if wisdom sees the Many is One, compassion knows that the one is the Many; that the one is expressed equally in each and every being, and so each is to be treated with compassion and care, not in any condescending fashion, but rather because each being, exactly as is, is a manifestation of Spirit. – Ken Wilber. The Simple Feeling of Being.
RECOGNISING THE SELF IN THE DRAMA
Perhaps in this light it is possible to better understand the more profound expressions of the non-dual message in relation to the drama of life as it unfolds. It would be a mistake to deny the effect of the drama and for each of us this is painful at sometime. Contained within the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, is the Bhagavad Gita, Song of God, which recounts the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna when Arjuna, a warrior, is faced with the prospect of fighting and killing members of his own family. He feels a great sense of compassion for those who will lose their lives. In one of the most insightful expressions of the advaita or non-dual philosophy, Krishna gives advice which includes the following:
Why grieve for those for whom no grief is due, and yet profess wisdom? The wise grieve neither for the dead nor the living. There was never a time when I was not, nor thou, nor these princes were not; there will never be a time when we shall cease to be.
Honest observation tells us that notwithstanding the death of even those closest to us, we do not cease to be the same Self we truly are. We might be consumed by grief but in the end this consciousness, which we are, will find its way to the surface of our awareness, helped by those free of distraction. Reminders of the Self do not have to be given quite so graphically or quite so directly as Krishna’s message but Arjuna’s need was pressing and the words were appropriate for the circumstances. The reality of life, enacting itself, cannot be denied or escaped. As with Arjuna, our view is narrowed by our separate claim to own events. There is simply a need for letting go and allowing what is to be and if that message is realised and shared with a person in need, in whatever form is appropriate, perhaps not even in words but in quality of being, there is a fulfilment.
Joan Tollifson, in her book Awake to the Heartland, puts this acceptance of the drama of life like this: “Ultimately there is no solution for the world and no need of one. The horror is horrible, the pain hurts, and at the same time, on a deeper level, all is well. Despite the fire that is raging in the movie, the screen remains undefiled. The world appears and disappears and awareness is not at war with anything. The heart of things is at peace.”
For the person undergoing suffering this might not seem to be the case. This is the challenge of exercising true compassion, bringing together as one the two laws expressed by Jesus and allowing all-embracing love to govern our reaction to others in their times of need.
SEEK THAT WHICH UNITES
To interact with others in this awareness is an essential law of human behaviour to which we may aspire. It also helps us to recognise the distinction to be made between pain and suffering: As expressed by Dr Francis Roles: While pain is an inevitable characteristic of all embodied beings with brains and nerve endings, yet suffering is a psychological characteristic which can be brought under control as Christ did with his last words on the cross. The incidental result of this is that the physical pain is greatly reduced if you do away with the suffering.
Events may appear to hide the love needed but nothing is separate; all is contained within this moment. Life challenges us in our apparent separation as emotions flow through us and we could easily fold in defeat. However the drama itself is for many the inspiration, the spark, that lights the way from which a new imperative to seek out that which unites may be found. Being with a person in need can itself be that inspiration.
So we see that a key to a wider recognition is to see the two directions, to love God and to love our neighbour as one. The message seems to be ‘do not pursue one and ignore the other.’ By recognising both, our world, otherwise centred on separation, can quickly enlarge to wholeness. From the stillness within, a light shines which is constant and unlimited. That light is never extinguished and, if allowed to spread to its full potential, illuminates everything. Everything is dependent on it. So from a different internal place we are able to see the world entirely in this new light. In this awareness impediments fall away.
Now we might see our fellow travellers in life, not as separate entities but as being of the same substance as ourselves. As we realise the commonality between the two commandments the quality of love spreads outwards. Once it flows it is not ours to direct or manipulate. Like the ripples on a pond, it spreads gently outwards, not stopping until it reaches and embraces all.
If we can realise this and allow this awareness to be shared by any, whatever the apparent need, we will perhaps have come close to enacting a life of compassion. Ken Wilber takes up this analogy:
When you are in this state of the spacious bliss of I AM-ness, and you are full to infinity, with no desires and no wants, allow a gentle, small, ripple of a thought to arise: ‘I vow to liberate all sentient beings into this free and open space.’ And with that a ripple of compassion arises out of this vast ocean of bliss. That compassion is literally composed of this infinite empty bliss; it is made of it, as waves are of the ocean. Compassion is infinite empty bliss in action. – Ken Wilber, The Simple Feeling of Being.
As suggested earlier, it is an observable fact that when somebody dies the wholeness remains unchanged. As the Isha Upanishad says: take perfect from perfect and the remainder is perfect. On the other hand when a child is born there is always unbounded love. These qualities are not measured out. They are of a different order from life’s story. After the major terrorist attack in New York in September 2001 there was a reading in St Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. It comes from Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and is about five people who died when a bridge collapsed over a gorge:
But soon we die, and all memory of those five will have left Earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough. All those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
This article first appeared in The Study Society’s magazine Being Issue 5
You beyond ‘you’
Breaking up with the Ego by Mooji
How is it that we come from pure awareness into the state of ego, which we mostly suffer? And how can we come out of it and return to our natural state of Being?
The sense of conscious presence – the natural, untaught feeling ‘I am, I exist’ – is the earliest expression arising from pure awareness. No one had to teach you that you exist; this sense of beingness or presence arises naturally inside sentient beings. The source of conscious presence is the Is-ness, or pure absolute awareness, which is the ground of all existence. It, the presence, needs a body in order to taste the diverse expressions of consciousness in its manifestation as life. It is even capable of experiencing the very sense of experiencing. Gradually, through the conditioning that comes from our parents and society, the unlimited Being comes to believe it is primarily the body-mind construct.
When the consciousness believes itself to be the body-mind, other forms of conditioning easily follow. We start to believe all sorts of things about ourselves based upon the ‘I am the body’ belief, such as, I am a man or woman, I am a mother, I am a doctor, I am 47 years old, I am British, I am successful, and so forth. But these are only garments of time worn by the timeless. Through all of this conditioning, consciousness takes itself to be what we call a ‘person’, a state of egoic identity. I call this the imagined self. Granted, the person is also a form of consciousness but it is a very limited and volatile form. It is a projection extending out from the sense of presence.
Consciousness is not functioning here in its full and true power, which it has exchanged for the role of a private or personal self – a fusion of identity, belief, habit and conditioning. But all of these transient characteristics are birthed from the womb which is the sense I Am. It, the sense I Am, is the natural and harmonious feeling of presence. In order to be free, the human being must re-discover the pure I Am presence without the ego-identity it acquires when it expresses as individuality. This is beautifully summarised in the statement by the great sage, Ramana Maharshi, who said, ‘The I removes the ‘I’, yet remains the I.’ This means the I Am presence frees itself from the ‘I-me person’ belief and thereafter abides in itself as the unmixed, indivisible presence.
Now, ultimately, consciousness knows and intends that all sentient forms of itself will believe themselves to be the body-conditioning for a while – after all, this is the play of māyā (illusion) also known as the leela or play of God. These sentient forms evolve through experiencing the diversity of life in its unfolding dance of interrelated opposites. Each unique expression will strive to achieve its imaginary goal, but gradually, as their dreams and aspirations fail to bring true and lasting fulfilment, they will be driven to find their original nature. The more one becomes conscious of one’s true nature, the less one falls prey to delusions or the play of illusions.
But be aware that as you are returning to your true nature, the old habits and tendencies that have not been functioning in harmony will come up to the surface and can bring the sense of resistance, turmoil, doubt and confusion to the recovering consciousness. Satsang creates an environment which encourages and facilitates the recognition of our true nature. In such an auspicious climate, the ego will be fighting for its very survival. It will feel as though it does not want to let you (the person) go, behaving sometimes as your seeming protector and other times as your worst enemy. It will do everything it can to distract you from the path to true and lasting freedom. Sometimes, it may manage to pull your attention into its web and you may, for a time, believe its cunningness and deceptions actually protect you. But the truth is that the ego’s tricks only work while you have the conviction that you are a person. The idea you have of yourself is suffering from ideas it creates about itself. The true Self is beyond the reach of suffering.
But just in case you feel you are under its spell or in its grip, try to actually identify the victim, who you assume to be yourself. Can the victim be recognised tangibly? Can it actually be perceived? If the victim can be perceived, there must be a greater perceiver in whose field of view the victim appears and is perceived. Such an observer cannot be caught inside the bubble of any scenario. Whatever is perceivable must be the variable and not the constant. Otherwise when the object of perception goes, the perceiver would also be gone. But it is the perceiver who effortlessly witnesses any apparent comings and goings. Reflect upon this.
Can we take one further step and invite this question: can the perceiver itself be perceived? And where is your true position in the light of this introspection? Don’t give these questions to your mind. What is important is to try to grasp them more than to produce an answer. There is more power in trying to assimilate the question than merely forming an intellectual conclusion. This must be solved experientially.
Just to recap: As you begin to look in this way, you will notice that you are naturally aware of thoughts, sensations and emotions, but there is a neutral space in which these phenomena appear and are seen.
Keep your attention on this neutral space. Be one with it. You can do this. Don’t go with what comes and goes in front of it. Instead notice that this space, which is the natural state, is not touched by any of these movements. From this space radiate a natural peace and harmony, a sense of total completeness. You are re-discovering the effortlessness and unicity of Is-ness – pure awareness.
While you are looking, you may also feel a force trying to pull your attention and bring you towards the position of a person. Why is there this pull? Well, this is because you are actually onto something profound. The ego-mind is losing its hold on you and it is fighting for survival. It will play every trick to get you to re-identify with the sense of being a person. Why would the intelligent consciousness go back into such a contracted state? Because though it is recovering its natural state as unmixed presence, it still carries the virus of ego inside it.
With the ego virus in play, it is as if we keep going back to our ex-partner, somehow forgetting the pains of that relationship. It’s like you end a bad relationship and then some time later the ex sends a text asking, ‘What are you up to? I’m in the area…any chance for a coffee?’ But instead of sending a text back saying, ‘No thanks! Not interested!’ you reply, ‘Black, two sugars?’ Then what do you think the ex’s next move is going to be? ‘I’m actually outside your door and guess what, it’s freezing out here…’
We are playing the same game inside our minds all the time. Something still wants to go back to the old familiar but failing ways. It feels easy – but only because of habit. Sometimes you don’t have the courage to admit, ‘The reason I am not transcending is that I keep going back to the ex.’ Gradually, through your earnestness for freedom, these ego-seeds will be burned without much fuss.
For a while, this seeming oscillation between personhood and presence will play out. When is it going to stop? It stops when you stop – meaning the true conscious presence naturally stops giving power to the imagined self. While the person remains unaware of its root as conscious presence, it is always going to be the underdog in the fight with its own self-projection. Ego doesn’t know how to stop. He will not leave you alone – it is you who must leave him alone. How? By following through the guidance you are offered. By the grace that brings you directly to God, or to a true teacher who has the wisdom and power to guide you home. These set you free.
The ones who attain freedom are they who transcend the field of illusions and delusions – the realm of ego. They are the prophets, saints and sages of this world.
They are, in fact, the You beyond ‘you’.
This article first appeared in The Study Society’s magazine Being Issue 4
Sitting in the Unresolved
The Joy of Meditation by Jeff Foster
Jeff Foster studied Astrophysics at Cambridge University. In his mid-twenties following depression and illness, he embarked on an intensive spiritual quest. This search led to a deep understanding of the root illusion behind suffering, and a love of the present moment. Author of several books, he writes with humour and compassion about nonduality and finding the sacred in the ordinary.
What you are doesn’t need to sort out this human mess, escape it, fix it, transform it, transcend it, or even get rid of it. Because what you are is totally in love with this imperfect humanity, just as the ocean is totally in love with all of its waves. And “being in love with” here just means “being inseparable from”. It is the essence of non-duality. The ocean of who you are, the vast open space of consciousness, the wide and un-limited capacity of awareness, the sweet intimate knowing of presence, actually is all the waves that appear in it – all the thoughts, images, sensations, sounds, feelings, smells, urges, impulses. Consciousness is inseparable from all that arises ‘in’ consciousness, and that is the very definition of love. Every thought, every sensation, every possible feeling – they are all children of consciousness, poetically speaking. They are all your family – they are all deeply familiar to you, sharing your blood, your essence.
Remember, it’s not one thing (the ocean) loving another thing (the waves) – they are not two, they could never be. All thoughts, sensations, feelings are already deeply allowed to be here, in what you are. They already have a place here, just as every wave already has a place in the ocean, without needing to be given that place. What you are, on the deepest level, has already said YES to this moment, exactly as it is. The questions can just be questions, the doubts can just be doubts, the fears can just be fears. Thoughts can just be thoughts, feelings can just be feelings, impulses can just be impulses. Consciousness allows it all. And so, the invitation, as always, is to rest in this very precious field of not-having-figured-it-all-out-yet. We just sit in that knowing. We sink into the mystery that is life itself. We rest in wonder, not knowing, not knowing what to do, or how to change things, or what is yet to come. And we start to wonder what “having figured it all out” would even mean, if that were even possible.
What you are – in this moment – does not need this moment to change or resolve itself, does it? It does not require uncertainty to change into certainty; for what you are is already holding uncertainty. Even uncertainty is embraced. All thoughts, sensations and feelings appearing right now are already being held and embraced in the vast, open, spacious, unbounded, unlimited room that you are. Nothing in the room of this moment needs to be ‘worked out’. Nothing needs to be fixed. Nothing needs to be purified, healed, released or transformed. This moment is already holding itself up, perfectly.
And what you are gently whispers, “Come, all of you frightened children, all of you neglected waves in the ocean of myself. Come, uncertainty, confusion, fear, doubt, longing, even despair. It’s okay. It’s safe to be here, in this room. There’s no need to fear me anymore; I’ve remembered who I am. I won’t swat you down again. I’m not trying to get rid of you. I know you are myself. I grant you your rightful place in me. I am vast.” What you are doesn’t need to get rid of doubt, or to transform doubt into certainty, because it doesn’t see doubt and certainty as opposites. The ocean doesn’t see any of its waves as opposites. There’s a wave of doubt, it’s just a wave. It’s just water. There’s a wave of uncertainty. It’s just a wave, it’s just water. They’re not opposites – they are equally water!
Essentially, they are the same, although they differ in appearance. There’s a wave of joy, that’s water, that’s consciousness. There’s a wave of sorrow, that’s water, that’s consciousness. Anger, fear, excitement, bliss, frustration, even despair – ultimately, it’s all just a dance of water, of conscious- ness. All these waves are water’s beloved children – beloved, even when they appear to misbehave. Beloved, always.
Who you are is like a perfect mother or father, the parents you always longed for but could never have in form. Your actual, real-life, human parents could never live up to this total, radical, unconditional embrace that is life itself. They could never love you in exactly the way you wanted. They would always love imperfectly; they were acting out their own wounds. No human is capable of loving unconditionally, in the way consciousness loves its waves unconditionally. It’s too much to ask of any person. It’s too much to expect from someone. When we unconsciously expect this love, and it’s not delivered, we feel disappointed, abandoned, even resentful. But the parent you always longed for is actually what you are. You always longed for yourself, you see. This total, unconditional allowing, this constant welcoming, can’t ever abandon you even in your darkest moments. Everything and everyone else can abandon you, apparently, but who you are cannot. Consciousness takes care of all its children unconditionally, even when they are frightened. All we’re really ever dealing with is frightened children. No evil, no negative, no sin, no darkness – just frightened children, looking for a home. Who will give them a home?
When everything falls apart and you feel totally lost and abandoned, what can’t abandon you, even in the midst of those feelings of total abandonment? Even when everything else has disappeared, what can’t leave you? It’s who you are. Even the feeling of abandonment, if that’s what’s arising, is welcome in what you are. Even when you feel totally abandoned, this is still here, this ocean of consciousness, allowing in the wave of abandonment. So what you are is never “the abandoned one”, even when there is a feeling of abandonment. And what you are is never “the lost one”, even when there’s a sense of being lost.
In fact, you are never “this one” or “that one”, you are the One – the one-without-an-opposite, the wide open capacity that is life itself. You are not “the sad one” or “the happy one”, “the enlightened one” or “the unenlightened one”, “the successful one” or “the failed one” – you are the undefinable, ever-present space that holds it all, mysterious, free. Even when there’s a very intense wave, a strong, violent wave – for example, a wave of fear or pain or sadness – the ocean that you are is still fully present. Even when there’s a sense of being totally lost, the wide open space in which the sense of being lost is allowed to arise, is not lost. You are the condition by which you can feel lost at all. You never leave yourself, for there cannot be two of you, one leaving, and the other left behind.
What’s present now? What’s been here since you were a little baby, and before? What will be present as you take your last breath? What’s present on the first breath and present on the last breath? What doesn’t know age? What doesn’t compare breaths? What doesn’t tell itself that it’s five years old, ten years old, fifty years old, eighty years old? What doesn’t know birth or death? There is only this breath. And this breath. What you are doesn’t tell itself “this is the first breath”. It doesn’t tell itself “this is the last breath”. There is only this breath. Each breath is brand new. Who you are never gets bored of breathing. The intelligence of the body is as fresh as it ever was. What is always at rest? What doesn’t need to under- stand? What doesn’t need to understand the concept of ‘rest?’ What never needs to know how to rest, and is at rest anyway?
And so, it’s safe. It’s always safe. It’s safe for all those unloved, un-met, unseen waves to crawl out of the depths, out of the darkness, out of the corners and holes and crevices of experience and come into the light of consciousness. Thoughts are allowed in, sensations are allowed in, feelings are allowed in, sounds are allowed in. All those waves that we used to call ‘dark’, or ‘evil’, or ‘negative’, or ‘dangerous’, or ‘sinful’, or even ‘unspiritual’ – fear, anger, boredom, doubt, confusion, frustration, helplessness – they are all finally allowed to be here, to rest, to breathe, to return Home, to be themselves. They are not enemies, they are appearances of you. They cannot hurt you, even if they hurt. They are welcome in this unlimited room.
The miracle of life is that this moment is already here – these thoughts, these sensations, these sounds have already arrived. This moment is already exactly as it is. The miracle is in this ‘already’. And, funnily enough, the ‘already’ is the last place the seeker would ever think to look for freedom, for peace, for rest. Because the seeker is time, and time has no interest in the ‘already’, which is prior to the upsurge of time. The seeker sees the ‘already’ as death, for the seeker needs a future to stay alive. This moment is the death of the seeker, and so it doesn’t interest the seeker very much. “As it is” is not particularly interesting for the dualistic mind. Nothing to grasp. Nothing to own. Nothing that can be ‘mine’.
We talk about people dying, about people losing their lives, but upon death, all that really happens is the falling away of anything that isn’t “already”, or at least the falling away of the illusion of anything that isn’t ‘already’. In other words, death is the falling away of the illusion of time, the illusion of the seeker separate from the sought, someone looking for something that isn’t already here, that dualistic split. It’s a return to deep rest – a wholeness that was never actually absent.
So we emerge out of this deep rest, the deep rest that we are, and we return to it. Did anything ever happen, actually? Everything begins with deep rest and ends with deep rest and in between there’s this amazing play of “looking for something” yet “trying to rest” and not quite knowing how! “Maybe one day I’ll rest”, the seeker hopes. But rest is only alive here and now. The only true rest is this moment. Why wait?
From deep rest to deep rest, and in the middle there’s this desperate and often exhausting seeking for something we cannot even name. Do we even know what we’re looking for? When will we find it? Were we ever separate from it? Do we really want what we think we want? Don’t we just long to rest, to rest from the exhausting search, to rest from trying to hold it all together? Sitting quietly, doing nothing, there is a whole cosmos of form and motion that emerges from you, dances its astonishing dance, and quietly dissolves back into you. Out of nowhere, out of the purest emptiness, here are feelings, sounds, thoughts, pictures, images, the story of a past and future, the memory of a childhood joy or sorrow, even the story of the creation of the universe, or the death of a universe, or the imagination of your own death, all arriving moment-by-moment.
What you are gives birth to thought, feelings, sadness, joy, excitement, bliss, confusion, despair, the most profound doubt – all of it. It’s infinitely fertile and creative, never exhausting itself. Maybe all of our suffering boils down to wanting some of life and not wanting the rest of it. We only want half of life, or less, and that is our misery. We only want some of the waves in the ocean – the happy waves, the nice waves, the positive waves, the good waves, the spiritual waves, the enlightened waves, the pure waves – what- ever those would be. But the ocean is all of its waves, and who can block half of life out? Who would want to? Don’t you long for all of life? Why would you block out what you have always secretly longed for?
Life constantly throws itself out of itself in an act of unspeakable creativity. And it gently whispers, “See, I give you all of this. I offer you all of this. Can’t you see what I have given you? Can’t you see what I continue to give?” And we say, “But I don’t just want what is given. I don’t just want what is already here. I want more. I want what is not here. I want all of this, and enlightenment, too.” And as life continues to offer everything, and we continue to ignore it in our pursuit of some future attainment or achievement or goal, it continues to whisper, very softly in the background, “But, dear seeker, this is the enlightenment you seek. It is already here. Why do you hold ‘enlightenment’ outside of yourself, in space and in time? Why do you look for it in states and experiences and all that is impermanent and passing? Why do you only want part of me, when I offer you my All? Why do you reject my constant gift?”
And we say, “Oh, but I am not worthy of it. Little old me, imperfect old me, stupid old me, I don’t deserve everything. I’m too limited. I’m too ignorant, I’m too young or too old, I’m too dumb, too unevolved, too unenlightened, too slow, too weak, too this or that.” We feel that we would not be able to hold all of life, if it was given. It would be too much for us. It would be undeserved. We feel unworthy of the kind of love that holds stars as they explode. And on our deathbeds we still ask, “Where is enlightenment? Where is that which I long for the most?”
And life replies, “Can’t you see that it’s been here all along? It was all of it. It was every breath you took. It was every sensation that surged through your body. It was every thought, every urge, every desire. It was every moment of doubt. It was there in the despair and in the bliss and even in the panic. It was not only hidden in one thing, it was there in everything. It was all the questions you asked and your hopes of an answer. It was there as you ran around the world, studying, learning, praying, chanting, meditating, hoping, building up masses of knowledge and insight, looking for something you were never going to find – because you were it already. It was everyone you ever met. It was mother, it was father, it was your imperfect relationship with them. It was doing your best. It was loving imperfectly. It was there when things were going well, and there when things fell apart. It was there when you were standing, and when you were on your knees, weeping. It was there in the success and the failure. It was there in the midst of the most profound disillusionment. It was dreaming of enlightenment, it was feeling that you were distant from it.”
And we ask, “But where was grace? How come I never received it? How come I was always waiting?” And life says, “But it was all grace, all of it, all the time. The joy, the pain, the bliss, and the boredom. It was there in the certainty and in the doubt. It was all grace, far beyond all your second-hand conceptions of grace.” And we say, “But I haven’t worked it all out yet! I don’t understand! I’m only a beginner!” And life replies, in silence, “But you don’t need to work it all out, my child. I never asked that of you. You don’t need to understand. I don’t need your conclusions, your cleverness. Just be here. That’s all that’s required of you. Just be here. Be with this. Be present in the midst of everything you see as being unresolved, incomplete, unsatsifying.”
And we say, “But I don’t know how. I don’t know how to live, and I don’t know how to die.” And life replies, “Shhh. You don’t need to know how to live or how to die. I’ll take care of that for you. Just rest. Rest in me. Just trust, and rest, always.” What if we just rest in the place where we haven’t worked it all out? Maybe we won’t ever work it all out, and maybe it doesn’t matter. Because maybe right here, in the midst of the unresolvedness, in the midst of the untied, loose ends of life, in the total lack of neatness, in the beautiful mess of experience, some- thing has already totally resolved itself. Perhaps it resolved itself a long time ago, and we are just catching up.
To the mind, meditation may be seen as “just sitting doing nothing”, but actually, that place is the place where everything resolves itself perfectly by remaining perfectly unresolved. Even if tomorrow never happens, and these questions and doubts never get answers, and these dreams never come true, and these plans never manifest – and they may and they may not – yes, even if tomorrow never comes, there’s still this. There’s being here. Do we need a future to be here, now? There’s always this. It’s your constant companion. It will never leave you or abandon you or deceive you. It cannot be destroyed, for it is here even in the midst of the experience of total destruction. The crucifixion can’t touch it. The highest spiritual attainment can’t touch it. It’s here when you open your eyes in the morning and it’s here when you go to bed at night. It’s your dearest, oldest friend. It’s the parent you never had. It’s the lover you always dreamed of. It’s yourself. Presence.
So forget about trying to love yourself; it’s hopeless. Forget about trying to accept yourself; it’s hopeless. Forget about trying to save yourself; it’s hopeless. In this place, there’s no need try to love yourself anymore. In a way that you’ll never be able to comprehend or put into words, you are already loved. Unconditionally loved. In the midst of your pain, your sadness, your doubt, your confusion, your lack of what you thought you needed, what you are is always here, embracing, allowing, holding it all in place.
Yes, the seeker is loved even in their failure to find what they’re looking for, just as the wave is already the ocean, even its total failure to reach the ocean. The wave struggles and struggles to reach the ocean, and it’s bound to fail, for it is already what it seeks but doesn’t realise that. The ocean holds its beloved wave, as the wave struggles to understand. There’s something so beautiful about this absolute failure of the seeking mechanism. The wave is bound to fail to reach the ocean. It doesn’t need to, and it can’t anyway, because it’s already That. Even in your failure to find what you were looking for, to find what you thought you needed, what you seek is already holding you. It holds you even as you fail totally. That’s the kind of love that is unimaginable, unspeakable, beyond reason. It’s a kind of fierce and crazy love that cannot be understood. I like what Nisargadatta Maharaj says: “Wisdom tells me that I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. Between the two my life flows.”
Wisdom, or clarity, is the recognition that you are the ocean; the vast, open space of awareness, or consciousness (or whatever word you want to use, for words are not important in this place), and that is a beautiful, profound and important realisation. But it doesn’t stop there. For there is always love – which is the recognition that this wide open space is actually inseparable from everything that appears; the emptiness that is none other than form. Awareness is radically inseparable from everything that arises in awareness. It’s not awareness of thoughts – awareness is thoughts. It’s not awareness of pain, pain is saturated with awareness, it is made of awareness, it is awareness, moving, remaining still. Every wave is made of the ocean, and so in the end you can’t even speak about the waves and the ocean. You can’t even speak about awareness and “everything that appears in awareness”. But perhaps it’s a useful, temporary language, to point to the deeper understanding that the recognition of wisdom, of clarity, is somehow incomplete and lonely without the recognition of love.
Really they’re the same thing, never divided. Heart and mind, nonduality and duality, the human and the divine, the absolute and the relative – however you want to conceptualise it – it points to the inescapable fact that every thought, every sensation, every feeling, however uncomfortable, however intense, however unexpected, is welcome in you. You are the capacity for it all. You are the room for the unloved flies. You are the home for the homeless. You are the giant ark that saves all the animals, two-by-two. It is this radical embrace which we have always sought, beyond all our ideas about awakening and enlightenment and trying to be free.
The recognition of the ocean is somehow incomplete without deeply honouring the arising and the dissolving of the waves. Spirituality cannot be separated from our exquisitely vulnerable humanity. Which means that awakening, rather than being an escape from the waves, or a disembodied transcendence of them, or a denial of them, is actually a total love of them, an inseparability from them. It is a wild love affair with the human mess, with the loose ends of things. It is the discovery of unspeakable grace within the unresolved mess of being human in this modern, ancient world.
So, in this place, our questions are left hanging in mid-air, and there are no conclusions; and our plans may or may not come to fruition, and our never- ending story is totally unresolved, and still, and still, there is this very alive, very still, very dependable, very peaceful space of deep rest in the midst of it all, and it is our true Home, and it is our Nature, and it never needs to be understood, yet it delights in all our attempts to understand…”
This article is an edited transcript of a talk given by Jeff Foster which was shared for publication in The Study Society’s magazine Being Issue 2
Today, there are no insignificant moments.
There are only constant invitations
To remember what you have always known
In your heart of hearts.
The Philosophy of Dr Francis Roles
One striking feature of the writings of Dr Roles over the years is the way he drew on all the great religious traditions of the world. The extent of his reading was quite extraordinary as was his ability to find the exact quotation needed to illustrate and clarify the point in question. He had the Gospels at his fingertips and the relevant reference always seemed to spring naturally to mind.
Through his contact with his greatest teacher, His Holiness (H.H.) Shantanand Saraswati, (Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, North India) he turned increasingly to the Vedic tradition of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and Shankara’s book The Crest Jewel of Wisdom. He also drew on the Old Testament, on Buddhism, in particular the Zen tradition, on Sufism, Tao, the Greek and Roman philosophers, especially Plato, and a vast range of Christian writers spanning two thousand years from St Paul to Basil Hume. His quotations were always illuminating, never merely ornamental, and it was remarkable how he could find parallels between thinkers from diverse traditions widely separated both in place and time. He seemed able to penetrate beneath all superficial distinctions to reach the fundamental truths at the heart of each.
During his first visit to India in 1962, Dr Roles asked the interpreter what the Shankaracharya’s religion was and was told ‘Sanatan’. He immediately followed this up by questioning H.H. closely, and was told that Sanatan means ‘the body of Eternal religion’ and Sanatan Dharma is the practice of Eternal religion – the religion of the Atman, the divine Self. In response to further questions he was told. ‘Every religion contains Sanatan Dharma ….it is the basis of all religions and their centre. There is no need for anybody to change his present religion.’ This must have come as something of a relief to the doctor who held the religion of his childhood in deep affection. He quoted Christ’s commandment ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind,’ adding, ‘That is the real Sanatan Dharma.’
Dr Roles saw Unity as the ultimate aim, not just unity within a person, but unity between the individual and the Universal Self. He wrote in 1968, ‘Our business is with Unity itself,’ quoting the words of Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita, ‘…he who serves Me and only Me, with unfaltering devotion, shall become One with the Eternal.’ Following up the theme of devotion, he explained that the Fourth Way (the Way of the Householder) encompasses the three traditional paths of Action, Love and Knowledge, as described in the Gita, and commented, ‘But the final union with Ultimate Truth takes place in the Heavenly Heart – the emotional part of the mind.’ (The expression ‘the Heavenly Heart’ is of course, drawn from the ancient Chinese text The Secret of the Golden Flower.)
He illustrated the vision of unity from various sources such as the neo-platonist philosopher Plotinus who wrote: ‘And the splendour is infinite…There each part always proceeds from the whole…by him whose sight is acute, it will be seen as a whole,’ and Porphyry, who said of Plotinus that the one end of his life was to enter into Union with ‘the God who has neither shape nor form’. He quoted from The Crest Jewel of Wisdom: ‘Liberation cannot be achieved except by the direct experience of the identity of the individual with the Universal Mind.’
The reference to direct experience is significant here, as something the doctor valued far above theoretical knowledge. In pursuing, non-dualism or Advaita, which he absorbed from the Shankaracharya, Dr Roles wrote, ‘there is no other self than the Atman, no other reality.’ He referred to the symbol of the wedding in the parables of Jesus and quoted from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas on the need for unity. In reply to the disciples’ question about entering the Kingdom Jesus answered, ‘When you can make the two one, and when you shall make the inner as the outer…then shall you enter.’ This concept of the unity between inner and outer lies behind the doctor’s interpretation of the Old Testament commandment, ‘Thou shall not make unto thyself any graven image’ as follows: ‘Don’t mistake the magnificent scenery of the Drama of Creation for the real thing…which is for the individual to understand and unite with the Mind of the Creator.’
This is just one instance of his ability to shed light on a familiar text by his own completely fresh interpretation. Another basic truth Dr Roles dwelt on was that embodied in Christ’s words, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’ He insisted that the true Self, the Atman lives in each one of us and all we have to do is uncover or discover it. He quoted the 1st century Stoic Epictetus as saying: ‘You are a distinct atom of the essence of God; and contain part of Him in yourself….You carry a God about with you, poor wretch and know nothing of I.’ Again and again he quoted from the Upanishads, ‘Your own Self lives in the hearts of all,’ and once more in a delightful image, ‘Like the butter hidden in milk, pure consciousness resides in every being.’ He passed on the Shankaracharya’s words on the nature of the Self: ‘Regard the unchanging Self as different from the changing body,’ and related this to the words of Nicodemus: ‘What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of Spirit is Spirit.’
For Dr Roles the way to the unchanging Self lay through the meditation which he envisaged on a universal scale. When the Shankaracharya said to him, ‘The Absolute brought the universe into being by means of a word or mantra,’ the doctor immediately quoted the opening lines of St. John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. H.H. nodded and smiled.Dr Roles often related the experience of meditation to some of the gospel parables. For example, he referred to the experience of the Prodigal Son as one we have all shared many times, even within a single half hour, it is only when we are at the end of our tether that we arise and go to the Father – and unexpectedly receive help. The parable of the Sower describes what happens from week to week in one’s own experience: ‘Sometimes one is by the wayside, sometimes a rock, sometimes among thorns, and sometimes one is quite definitely on good ground.’ In the short parables on the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls; who when he has found a pearl of great price goes and sells all that he has and buys that pearl.’ The doctor’s explanation was that ‘we have to give up everything else’ for short periods during every day.’ All these examples show how vividly Dr Roles could interpret familiar Gospel texts to illuminate our daily experience of meditation.
The parables of Jesus were always close to his heart. He explained the true meaning of the Resurrection as ‘a great possibility to be realised by anybody who wants it enough or for long enough.’ Once at a meeting just before Easter he recalled how he used to join his first teacher, the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky in the Russian Orthodox celebrations. He then asked everyone to stand and shout the Easter greeting ‘Christ is Risen!’ Anyone who was present that day will remember the deep emotion generated in the room.
In his meetings Dr Roles returned again and again to the Lord’s Prayer, which contains no reference to ‘I’. ‘Our Father’ is ‘pure Consciousness, unmanifested, unthinkable, indefinable.’ We are praying that the Unmanifested should manifest on our small earth, since truth can express itself only through human beings. The Name must constantly be made holy, then the Kingdom of love and truth and happiness will manifest and His Will be done in this world as it so clearly is in the world of the spiral nebulae. The middle section of the prayer moves on to the smaller scale of physical, subtle and causal worlds. Of course bread is not only on the physical level; in the Latin it is supersubstantial or super-sensory bread, the essential food of higher impressions which we are asking for this day, now, in the present moment. To forgive debts is to purify emotions, turn negative into positive, better still get rid of the causes of negative emotion and do it now, in this lifetime. Temptation refers to the attachment or identification which we pray to avoid; the evil from which we ask to be delivered is the ego’s way of stealing everything for itself. The end of the prayer returns to the threefold beginning with the use of the present tense (‘Thine is the Kingdom) making clear the eternal unchanging nature of the Father. This is a very brief summary of the doctor’s reflections on the prayer over many years.
Dr Roles quoted Lao-Tze on meditation leading to stillness, quiet and rest, and quite clearly he had meditation in mind in his frequent references to the anonymous 14th century devotional book The Cloud of Unknowing: ‘This work asks no long time…for it is the shortest work of all that men may imagine,’ and ‘Why pierceth it heaven, this little short prayer of one syllable?’ He was also fond of the 16th century mystic Jacob Boehme: ‘If you can cease from all your thinking and willing then you will hear the unspeakable words of God,’ to which he added the commentary, ‘we cannot hear ‘the Voice of the Silence, the soundless sound’ of the Self unless we stop thinking and talking so much.’ He quoted from The Crest Jewel of Wisdom, ‘There is no more excellent source of Joy than silence free from mind-images drinking in the joyful essence of the Self.’ and equated Sat-Chit-Ananda with the words of the psalmist, ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ adding ‘for in that lies the only true happiness.’ He related true happiness to the ‘well of water springing up into Everlasting Life’ of which Jesus spoke to the woman of Samaria at the well.
Dr Roles loved The Alchemy of Happiness by the Sufi mystic Al-Ghazzali, showing that the process of transforming the volatile mercury into silver refers to the stilling of the mind, while the melting of the silver means the melting of the heart. In the last meeting paper he wrote he referred to the Mandukya Upanishad (Mandukya meaning frog) which explains that in three jumps the frog scorched by the desert sun can reach the cool and quiet depths of the Self within. Practical as always, he said we could all start by making three little jumps – attentive actions, good thoughts and decrease in bad thoughts.
Attentive actions – Dr Roles constantly urged the practice of attention or wakefulness, citing Christ’s reproach to his sleeping disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. He spoke of the direct experience of Thomas a Kempis who wrote, ‘In everything attend to thyself, what thou art doing and what thou art saying; that thou mayest please Me alone.’ He quoted from the Buddihst Dhammapada, ‘Wakeful amid the heedless, keenly vigilant among those who are asleep, the wise man forges ahead,’ and on the subject of wakefulness he also cited the Mathnawi of Rumi, ‘Even so this world…is the sleeper’s dream; the sleeper fancies that it is really enduring.’ And he must have had the Mevlevi Turning in mind when he wrote, ‘Before we can do we must ‘Wake up and be’ whenever possible.’
On the same theme he turned again and again to the Philokalia (a collection of early writings of the Eastern Church) with its detailed analysis of neepsis, translated as wakefulness, vigilance or attentiveness. The 5th century saint Hesychius called attention the ‘unbroken silence of the heart, free from every thought,’ St Nicephorus wrote in the 8th century, ‘through attention, God comes close and reveals Himself to the mind,’ and two centuries later St Simeon describes the mind entering Divine Light where is ‘loses all thought of itself.’ Referring to extreme hardships undergone over the years to perfect the practice of continuous internal prayer, the doctor added, ‘We have a simpler method.’ Similarly he commented on one of his favourite Sufi stories, Attar’s Conference of the Birds, that though the journey to Self realisation should not be underrated, we now have the means of getting there without losing all our feathers in the process!
This is typical of the humour Dr Roles employed so brilliantly. He loved Zen stories for their economy and their penetrating insight but also because they are often so funny. A particular favourite of his was The Muddy Road:
“Two novices were travelling together along a muddy road in the pouring rain. Coming round a bend they came upon a lovely girl in a silk kimono unable to get across what was now a muddy stream. At once one said ‘Come on, girl,’ as, lifting her in his arms, he carried her over. The other did not speak again until that night when they reached the temple where they lodged. Then he could no longer restrain himself. ‘We monks don’t go near females,’ he said, ‘especially young and lovely ones. It’s dangerous. How could you?’ ‘I left the girl there,’ said his companion. ‘Are you still carrying her?”
Unquestionably, Dr Roles saw all real knowledge as one, whatever its source. When the Shankaracharya told the story of the man with the lantern in the dark night, the doctor added Christ’s words: ‘I am the Light of the world, he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the Light of Life.’ He related the Trinity to Sat-Chit-Ananda, while at the same time insisting on its unity and its mysterious nature, (‘not three incomprehensibles but one incomprehensible’). Whenever expounding the theory of triads he would turn to St Patrick’s prayer: ‘I bind myself today to a strong strength, to a calling on the Trinity. I believe in a Threeness with confession of a Oneness in the Creator of the world,’ and he suggested that we might use this prayer to remind ourselves ‘constantly of this wonderful Law of Three.’ And at the last Sunday meeting, looking at a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Old Testament Trinity, he remarked that the three figures are the three gunas, the central one being sattva. Here, as throughout his teaching life, Dr Roles had the insight to bring together concepts from different religious traditions and reveal them as one.
This article was written by Anne Garten, originally published in The Bridge vol. 14, under the title ‘Dr Roles and Religious Tradition’.
Tracing Leonard Cohen’s spiritual footprints
I HAVE TRIED IN MY WAY TO BE FREE
reflections on Leonard Cohen by Philip Marvin
Like a bird on a wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried, in my way,
To be free.
Those lines from the song ‘Bird on a Wire’ were written by Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen who died back in November 2016. His first album came out in 1967 when I was a very impressionable young teenager in the midst of the so-called ‘summer of love’ of that year.
The Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had come earlier and this was now the fulfilment of a new wave of youthful revolution that literally danced to a new beat as experimental bands such as Pink Floyd sprung up everywhere and the background beat of pop music of all kinds became the life blood of a new generation demanding change, any change, of the old established orders their parents had accepted as the norm.
LSD, ecstatic sunny summer concerts, Woodstock, young girls in beautiful flowing Indian dresses, love in the air, the contraceptive pill and the beginning of a sexual revolution with old taboos challenged and ignored; the fashion hub of the King’s Road in Chelsea, Carnaby Street in the West End, Hippies galore, flowers in your hair, Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch, Che Guevara T-shirts, models Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy and working class photographer made good, David Bailey. Such an exciting time if you were young, full of hope and wild expectation.
The rather dismal black and white post-war world seemed to be cracking up into a kaleidoscope of colour with a youth revolution challenging old certainties. Even the then Editor of the very traditional Times newspaper, William Rees-Mogg, was to be found on TV in lively and acrimonious debate with the pouting Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones (between the latter’s prison visits for drug-related episodes) and writing editorial leaders about him and the icono- clastic generation he represented.
Of course that ‘summer of love’ could not be sustained and, as the money men moved in, cynicism and disappointment began to prevail. The original spirit of hope, light, life and joyful expectation of a new era of peace and love that had sparked the wave in the first place, fast began to dim. Amidst this euphoric atmosphere of 1967 the unknown Leonard Cohen’s first album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” appeared, with the tanned face of a dark haired handsome man with piercing eyes, pronounced nose, in his mid thirties, staring out directly at you – with a hint of melancholy. Unlike his contemporaries, he looked smart, there was no long hair down to his shoulders, and the cover itself was framed in black and white – no sign of the wild Technicolor, transcendental brightness of the times.
When you first listened to his deep and somewhat limited register monotonal voice, you were very aware this was something different. Above all, unlike much of the contemporary scene, the words were rich, the poetry sometimes startlingly beautiful and the images conjured up unforgettable, the musical rhythms haunting. Religious themes, intertwined with sexual imagery and a deep reverence and love ran through it all. Yes it was melancholic and the reputation his work gained for being the perfect companion for “bedsit depressives” and “music to slit your wrists to” was at least superficially understandable! However Cohen himself described his work as “the life of the heart” and that description far better reflects the power of his music to move the heart, albeit much of the time from a base of deep sadness, lightened by a dry wit and wisdom.
When he died, aged 82, I was moved to write a small ‘philosophical’ piece based on four lines from one of his songs to friends within the Study Society and elsewhere:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering;
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
The search for perfection and completeness is natural. But our True Nature as pure presence is perfect and complete and neither comes nor goes. The ‘searcher’ emerges out of the apparent chaos of circumstances that make up the story of ‘my life’. But imperfection and incompleteness as experienced by the body/mind or ‘person’, the flaws, the mistakes, the misjudgements, the irrational desires, the frustrations, the anger, the criticism, the feeling of separation, the love turning to hate, the sense of despair, the tears within or without, the regrets, and so on and so on, are all expressions of the same Life force and limitless Being that I Am.
The unchanging embraces the changing, dances with it invisibly into eternity. There are many colours and tones but only one Light. The ‘cracks’ are perfect. In infinite Grace the ugliness, the pain, the terror, the anguish, the violence and the folly of the world drama we live out day to day can be experienced anew as doorways into the Heart. The Light always gets in whatever we may think. Nothing needs to change and all resistance and attempts at control interrupt the exquisite brush stroke of every sacred moment. We do not have to struggle to come up with a perfect offering and suffer the inevitable feelings of failure, of always falling short. The “falling short” is just another dream. Struggling against the current just reinforces the dream and the sheer immediacy of the Light is lost. The bells are ringing always. The cracks in the bells make the sound all the sweeter. Everything calls us Home.”
Cohen was no stranger to the advaita or non-dual perspective. In 1999 he travelled to India to meet a well-known non-dual teacher, Ramesh Balsekar. Cohen spent around a year in Bombay going almost daily to sit at Ramesh’s feet. There are transcriptions of some of their conversations where Cohen talks of the difficulties in his life, his writing and the “chattering of the mind” that afflicted him, “sometimes in degrees of intensity that make one gasp or cry out for help”. He says that what he seeks most of all is “peace”.
As music journalist Mick Brown commented soon after his death: “It is Cohen’s misfortune that he goes to his grave as ‘the godfather of gloom’. But the question he was constantly asking in his songs, poetry and fiction was ‘Who is this I?’ and what is this ‘I’ supposed to be doing here, in this mess of dashed hopes, broken hearts and certain mortality”.
As it happens, Cohen came from a distinguished family of Montreal Jews and his grandfather was a respected rabbi. As Brown pointed out, the legacy of Jewish teaching, lore – and melancholia – infused his work in ways that might not always have been obvious. During his life however, Cohen stretched his wings way beyond his strict, narrow Jewish roots. He experimented with LSD when he was quite young and living on the small Greek island of Hydra with his long term girlfriend and muse Marianne Ihlen after whom his famed song “So Long Marianne”, was named. “I took trip after trip”, he recalled, “sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God. Generally I ended up with a bad hangover”.
He also looked to Catholicism and even Scientology for answers. But by far the major influ- ence on him was Zen Buddhism. For 30 years he associated with a Zen monastery in California and for almost six years in the 1990s lived there on and off as an ordained monk, under the tutelage of a Japanese Roshi, or distinguished teacher, named Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, rising at 2.30am each morning to perform his daily duties and to meditate.
He later said his years there: “provided a space for me to kind of dance with the Lord that I couldn’t find in a lot of the other places I went to”. In his later years his search very much continued – he read deeply into the Zohar – the principal text of Jewish mysticism, Hindu philosophy and Buddhist texts. One of his most famous songs is “Hallelujah” which in Hebrew means “praise God”. He saw this as an affirmation of his faith in life “with enthusiasm, with emotion” rather than in any specific religious context. He stated about it:
“The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say; “Look, I don’t understand a f—— thing at all – ‘Hallelujah’! That’s the only moment we live here fully as human beings.”
His financial fortunes veered up and down – “I’ve never sold widely enough to be able to relax about money, he said, “I had two kids and their mother to support and my own life”. In later life he discovered that his long time manager had badly mismanaged his affairs resulting in the loss of millions of dollars from his retirement fund. This forced him for the first time in 15 years to launch a world tour in 2008 which along with other sell-outs that followed introduced him to a whole new generation of fans. Three new studio albums in 2012, 2014 and, just at the time of his death, in 2016 followed.
According to Brown, Cohen once wrote: “a man or woman lays their work at the foot of their beloved – we do everything for love.”The overarching theme of all of his work could be seen as love in disorder. Sexual passion and love intertwined often giving his songs the air of a confessional: “I have one single plank in my platform”, he stated in 1970, “women will set us free. Just keep on repeating that.” Song, women and wine had a “sacramental connection” for him and his old world charm, gravelly voice and well cut suits often topped in later years with a slanted 1940s gangster-type hat were a magnetic draw for his many female fans. His voice just got deeper and deeper – the decay in his voice actually suited him.
What was his effect on those of us who followed his career through 50 plus years? One music critic, Neil McCormick, summed it up well: “He was a musical spirit guide through the biggest issues of existence, singing about love, sex, family, mortality, the impossible questions of how to live a moral life in a seemingly indifferent and uncaring universe. He made music to nourish the soul. You listened to Cohen sing and you knew he was in the struggle with you.”
In terms of his private meetings with Cohen, McCormick added: “Small and dapper, he comported himself with humility, treating everyone in his path with kindness and respect, the waitress bringing tea or the journalist probing him with questions. There was a consistent twinkle behind his eyes, qualities of sensitivity and humour that added up to a lively engagement with the moment. When you had his attention, you felt his complete presence. And when he spoke, he weighed his words with all the care you might expect. He came over like a cross between a sage Old Testament prophet and a wry comedian.”
Cohen was certainly no saint and would have laughed at the very idea. But he did come across as a man of deep compassion who had journeyed into the very depths of darkness within and come back out with a kind of gloomy joy and dry wit that he communicated in many ways. On hearing of his record company’s delight that his song ‘First we take Manhattan’ had outsold all his others put together, he commented: “I’ve always been touched by the modesty of their interest in my work”.
There were many deep cracks in Cohen’s heart and mind, much pain and despair, but they did let the light in for many thousands of his fans. Each of us can point to similar cracks within. Embracing them rather than denying them or hiding from them seems to allow the radiance of our true being to come to the fore, bathing and healing all past hurt and disappointment in the indestructible and unmoving presence that sets anyone free.
Cohen would have appreciated the words of the French author and Nobel prize winner Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I found there was within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me there is something stronger – something better pushing right back.”
“I’m ready my Lord”, Cohen sang on the title track of what turned out to be his final album, You want it darker. Just before his own passing his own great love and muse Marianne Ihlen was on her death bed and he sent her a letter saying: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
The mark of the man was a courageous surrender. Out of his darkness came a shining light. Hallelujah!
Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.
– Mahatma Gandhi
Listen to article narrated by Philip Marvin
Self-remembering at Glastonbury Festival
Photo: Thomas Phillips
The Glastonbury Festival, the world’s largest green-field contemporary arts festival, is held over five days on a site covering 1100 acres, and is widely considered to be an excellent place to both lose and find yourself. Given our stated aim at The Study Society of helping people to understand the nature of their capital-I Identity through self-inquiry, meditation, sacred dance and other practices, we wondered whether it might not also be a good place to remember one’s Self, and so we sent our Managing Director, Thomas Phillips, off to investigate first hand: could it be that a festival with a reputation for new-age hedonism and self-indulgent, conspicuous consumption, could offer access to a level of spirituality that isn’t easy to come by in the day-to-day trenches of modern life? Enquiring minds want to know…
The first time I visited the Glastonbury Festival two decades ago I arrived after the sun had set and my initial impression was that it was much less a festival and more a fantastic, magical city sprung up in the midst of the Somerset countryside. As we approached my first glimpse was of a sea of lights in a darkened valley. The sound of countless bass lines from the site’s sound-system’s subwoofers blended seamlessly as they drifted out onto the night-time air and infused the darkness with a palpable presence of energy and possibility.
Over 200,000 people, including staff and performers, descend on the Eavis’s modest dairy farm for the festival. Over five days they will consume more than enough food to feed Coxey’s army. There are 514 food stalls on site, and 900 shops, over 40,000 bins, 5,000 toilets; and an astonishing 3,000,000 gallons of water get used. At roughly 30 megawatts of electricity, Glastonbury consumes more or less the same amount of energy as the city of Bath. It’s not your average campsite.
Glastonbury Festival has always stood out from every other music or arts festival the world over and it’s interesting to consider why, despite countless emulations, nearly 50 years on this remains the case. An obvious place to start is by looking at the line-up on the main stages. Despite paying artist fees significantly lower than those offered by other venues and festivals Glastonbury consistently attracts the crème-de-la-crème of performers both contemporary and legendary. Many of the acts to have appeared over the years are notable for being truly original, avant-garde, innovative: the sort of artists who upon first appearing strike an audience as being so fresh, so idiosyncratic, that they represent growth, development, evolution, change; artists exhibiting such a strong individuality that they spawn countless imitations, few of whom tend to achieve similar levels of success, being recognised as imitators rather than originators by a discerning public. One can argue contrarily about the progress of music and how every new development can be traced back along a lineage to uncover roots in what has come before, but every so often an individual, or group, comes along and somehow shatters the mould of what has been.
Over the years headline acts have included David Bowie, Dolly Parton, Peter Gabriel, Suzanne Vega, Rod Stewart, The Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, T Rex, Beyoncé, Paul McCartney… the list goes on: a veritable roll call of the biggest, most influential, and individual, acts of all time. This year particularly authentic acts included Lorde, Radiohead, The Jacksons, Dua Lipa, Stormzy, all of whom can be said to have broken new ground in individuality.
In many ways the festival is a site of consumerist frenzy and it is easy to feel a disheartening sense of the amplification of social ills when meandering around and taking in the waste and litter, bad behaviour, excess and general self-indulgent foolishness of it all. It’s a question of perspective though. If you start to look you’ll notice other things: myriad little sacrifices and kindnesses, people, in large numbers, paying attention to each other and to what’s around them, and, significantly, to themselves. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of opportunity to observe people stuck in their unconscious default sleepwalking rat-race mode, plodding from one stage to another, meeting their immediate needs and just drifting by on autopilot, perhaps drinking too much and falling out with friends or wandering lost and lonely as a cloud, but there is also a consistent high amount of care, shared amongst strangers, which care begins to look like the sort of freedom that is hard to obtain in daily life.
Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.
A curious detail that you gradually notice about the festival is that the only advertising to be found on-site, aside from that for a handful of recognised charities, is on the attendees and performers themselves: There is no corporate advertising, no huge branded stages or areas or shops. The litany of logos littering most other open-air type events are conspicuous by their absence; a seemingly small detail, but compared with the systematic linking of the images splayed around us to the worlds we inhabit, in the self referentially neurotic way we have all become comfortably numb to, Kate Moss strutting around in her Hunters as a lone vector of corporate advertising is actually something of a relief to see. This absence of late capitalism’s intrusive imagery is another marker of Glastonbury.
The festival offers an incredible range of experiential diversity – there really is something for everyone: a vast variety of different music stages and tents, theatre and dance and gymnastics, comedy and poetry, art installations and opportunities to participate in any number of creative activities, cinemas and clubs and bars and restaurants, the kid’s fields, the healing fields and their numerous practices and offerings, the green fields and their crafts.
In terms of the sheer number of people gathered with unity of purpose, the festival – whilst not on the same scale as papal visits or religious pilgrimages – does share some of the devotional fanaticism that drives people together in vast numbers, and Glastonbury offers spiritual support from a number of quarters. There’s a church for Christian worship and reflection, Buddhist meditation groups, Hindu groups, Taoist groups and a number of pagan groups. The Iona Community offer conversation and counselling as well as a space for Christian worship. The Hari Krishnas are on-site offering food and welfare to one and all. Then there’s the yoga, kirtan, meditation, acupuncture, mindfulness, gong baths, tarot, laughter workshops, healings … I could go on.
At a festival this size it’s no surprise that everywhere you go there are maps of the site with a red dot or large arrow and the caption: YOU ARE HERE. Though there are many here among us who will be feeling either orientationally challenged or in need of reassurance of a more fundamental, existential sort, I can’t help but feel that this motif neatly encapsulates what for a lot of people the festival is really about. Life in a post-industrialist late-capitalist society, especially if you live and work in a large city, often resembles a cage of sorts with bars built of work, commuting, paying bills, watching box sets, too much screen-time and inane social-media-babble. There are endlessly frustrating and exhausting petty demands interspersed with precious too little time or energy for friends and family and the things we all intuitively just know are actually the most fundamentally important bits of any life.
There’s no scarcity of research showing that as our living standards increase so do levels of depression and mental health problems. The amount of undistracted time we have for our Selves, to just Be, decreases. It may be a dull platitude but this classic inverse correlation is abundantly, manifestly present. Glastonbury, for many, offers an escape from the daily grind and it is in this space of escape that an opportunity to return to the Self, it seems to me, arises.
In 2016 I was at the festival, with my wife and six-year old daughter, working as a photographer for the charity I ran at that time – Small Steps Project. We would go to the festival each year and persuade performers to donate a pair of shoes they’d worn that we could then auction off to raise funds to provide humanitarian aid to children on inhabited rubbish dumps around the world. Over the course of the long weekend I covered the better part of 50 miles on foot criss-crossing the site from stage to stage to take photographs and collect shoes through verifiably the wettest and muddiest conditions on record. The experience was, surprisingly, a profoundly meditative one. I had to walk slowly – trudge would be an appropriate verb – head down, concentrating on the few feet of muddy earth ahead of me in order to keep my balance and avoid slipping, or worse still, becoming literally stuck-in-the-mud. It was an experience of intense and private concentration, but was also the kind of repetitive activity that allows your mind to quieten and obtain a sort of state of serene stillness not unlike that of the mindfulness of a long distance runner.
In devotional practices from prayer to meditation to turning to yoga the devotee is at one and the same time at a remove from reality and yet also closer. This is exactly the experience of many of the revellers at Glastonbury Festival who feel that they are escaping the “reality” of their lives and at the same time becoming much more connected with what “reality” is. The Self they experience at the festival is felt as truer than that which they experience in their daily lives.
Doctrines of advaita or non-duality are all well and good whilst functioning within an intellectual or spiritual framework, with aphoristic or allegorical glimpses of ultimate objective truth always simmering tantalisingly close to the surface. Practices such as meditation, retreats, or satsang and group work, offer a more practical route from without to within, but if you want to talk about actual literal embodiment of oneness – of feeling like some essential part of the self is connected with everything it apprehends; with all the beauty and horror of the world; with all those other energies and ‘other’ selves, then Glastonbury Festival is a pretty good place to encounter and interrogate those sorts of feelings.
If you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…
– David Foster Wallace
Ultimately, the benefits of the teaching of non-duality are that the tenets are eminently deployable in any given environment. It is certainly possible, easy even, to experience a high level of spirituality at Glastonbury, a spirituality present in the music and the crowds, in the noise and the dirt, in the surge of energy and outpouring of raw emotion, in the care of strangers, in the atmosphere in the campsites and all around, in the people and in the earth itself; perhaps all those ley lines really do have an impact. It is helped by a knowledge of the teaching but it is present in the very fabric of the festival because the festival represents a location in space and time where we can return to our Self and arrive at a place of Being, or pure experience, in which love and unity can be felt to be overwhelmingly present.
This article by Thomas Phillips first appeared in Issue Five of Being Magazine. Available to purchase from our online bookshop.
Photo: Sarah Soetaert
Photo: Thomas Phillips
The quiet dimension of being
Adyashanti is a spiritual teacher and author known for radical honesty. He invites us to stop, enquire and recognise what is true and liberating at the core of all existence. In this article he emphasises his belief that spirituality is limitless and natural to all human beings, including atheists such as Carl Sagan. Carl was an astronomer, philosopher, cosmologist, astrophysicist and astrobiologist, who inspired millions with his sense of wonderment and connection with the universe.
What we think of as spirituality is not limited to what we think spirituality is. Spirituality is innate to being. It’s to be involved in the enigma of being. It’s to crack that nut, to open up that mystery. I think so much of deeper spirituality begins when we finally have the maturity, whether it comes at five years old or ninety- five years old, when we have whatever it is that causes us to recognize how deeply and profoundly we are a mystery unto ourselves. You have to have a little gap in your constant judging and condemning of yourself to feel the mystery of yourself. You have to suspend judgment for a moment. It’s a very unique and pivotal point in someone’s life. This is the contemplative endeavour. It’s diving into the mystery of being.
Meditation, whether it’s done in a meditation hall or while you’re sitting in your garden, is actually entering experientially into that enigma of being – not just to think about it and philosophise about it, but to actually enter into it. It’s not very far to connect with the mystery of being. It’s right there under the surface. When I started to notice all of this in my twen- ties, it was a weird thing, because when you get involved with spirituality, you get all these ideas of what a spiritual person is, and I didn’t seem to fit the model. The model of a spiritual person didn’t seem to be a highly competitive athlete who would run over your grandmother to win the next race. That’s not in the sacred scriptures. Someone like that does not receive the deeper spiritual insights, you might think.
The nice thing is that when you’re young, sometimes you don’t even put spirituality in a category. It’s not spirituality, it’s just life. Sometimes life shows up in an odd way, and all of a sudden your experience of it is very different. Maybe you feel deeply connected, or you seem to disappear into nothingness, or you seem to have a moment of connection with God that’s unusually profound and touching and life changing. Or maybe you sink into some spontaneous samadhi where you lose all connection to your senses, and everything disappears, and you’re like a point of consciousness. There are many, many different ways that the deeper dimension of being shows up.
I think it’s useful to think of spirituality in the most natural possible terms. Spirituality is just natural to a human being. It’s even natural to atheists. If you could listen to scientist Carl Sagan in his mystical awe of the cosmos, it was like listening to a mystic half the time, in rapt awe of the beauty of existence. He was a scientific materialist, but that was his doorway into experience, connection, and awe. He was somebody who didn’t believe in God, but he had a deep experi- ence. Clearly his investigations brought him into something akin to a kind of religious or spiritual awe.
I mention naturalness because the sense of the naturalness of true nature or awakening to true nature is not just religious, and it’s not just spiritual. You can even have atheists who are deeply participating in a way of being that connects them to a greater dimen- sion of being. So clearly, this is something that’s innate in all of us. And if we would just go immedi- ately to whatever our felt sense of our own mystery of being is, just to dip for a moment underneath the evaluations, the ideas, and the judgments of being, it doesn’t take much attention – a moment, really – to connect with the sense of being this extraordinary, conscious mystery.
Of course, we don’t want to just leave it at that. There’s something deeper in us that wants more than simply to leave it all as a mystery. I’m suggesting that that’s the entry point. If you forget that entry point, you can do decades of meditation looking for some- thing that’s actually completely innate. And so in the old, universal teachings among the esoteric inner dimensions of most spiritualities, the suggestion is to just go into that place where everything is an unknown.
Open to the unknown. Experience the unknown. Just stop for a second. There’s so much about you that’s unknown to you, it’s mind-boggling. What is it that’s walking, living and breathing, wanting what you want and not wanting what you don’t want? What is it that wants God or awakening or enlightenment, or just a little more peace and happiness in a troubled life? Every time we say ‘I,’ what do we actually mean? We’re giving voice to something that’s immense, and the capabilities are astonishing.
This article originated from a talk given in Palo Alto, California, May 2019 and was shared for publication in The Study Society’s magazine Being Issue 6 (ePublications).
Adyashanti is the author of nine books and holds spiritual retreats in England and the USA. Website: adyashanti.org
Listen to Adyashanti article narrated by Margaret O’Keeffe
‘Reality is neither Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Advaita Vedanta, nor Buddhist. It is neither dualistic nor nondualistic, neither spiritual nor nonspiritual. We should come to know that there is more reality and sacredness in a blade of grass than in all of our thoughts and ideas about reality. When we perceive from an undivided consciousness, we will find the sacred in every expression of life’