Life Is Spiritual Practice

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Lao Tzu said, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Sound advice for any age. And to live this advice, is to live the life of a Sage.

I am living the life of a human striving to live the life advised by the Sage. It isn’t so easy for me to let things flow. Instead I make plans. All too often I make plans for my day ahead just to be thwarted by the unexpected. No matter how precisely I control my life, things happen. Mail isn’t delivered. Traffic makes me late. The line at the bank takes three times longer than I’d expected it would. My dog is sick and must go to the vet. I receive a call that someone close to me has died. The list goes on. Life happens and pushes my plans off the tracks. I think most of us experience life like this. Most of us make plans because making plans helps us to navigate the unknown. Making plans is easier than letting things flow. That’s because by nature, humans believe that if we let things flow we are even more likely to be thrown off the tracks, or even worse, killed.

Darwin capitalized on this fact, that which is fittest – survives. Through our evolution humans have adapted to be on the alert for dangerous surprises that could kill us. Human brains are prone to be cautious and ready for a bad situation, skeptical of new potentially dangerous situations, and attached to the beliefs of what has proven to keep them alive, in order to not get killed. The history of human civilization tells this story on repeat.

And yet we continue to make plans. It’s not that making plans is bad its more that making plans sets us up for disappointment when life has other plans for us. No matter how well any of us knows this we continue to make plans to mediate an implicit and often explicit fear of the unknown and react to life when our plans go awry. We make plans because the mind is fast, capable, and ultimately fallible. Most choices are made in an instant, without second thought or rationalization. Reaction follows when our idea of reality is confronted. Some react to life as victims of a merciless God’s meaningless whims. Others as dominators constantly striving to force their will upon the world. Reacting is the norm and responding a much uncharted territory. Reacting is a symptom of a weak mind.

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I think it is fair to say that we all do our best to not spend our lives in weak minded reactions, yet fear and reacting is the norm. With so many of us walking through life with long to-do lists and little time for anything else, it is no wonder the human population struggles with excess stress and anxiety overall. None of us help an already difficult situation by living busy lifestyles packed with stress and overwhelm, but we all do it. We have evolved to direct our lives in a way which keeps us alive but not in a way that mitigates our fear and reduces our stress.

This is why I continue to turn to my yoga mat. This is why I daily invite others to join me. Not because I want all the people I know to touch their forehead to the sole of their foot while balancing on their hands, but because yoga heals the reactionary mind and the serves its seeking curiosity. Yoga helps us get into the flow by teaching us how to quiet the fluctuations of the mind stuff. Responding, not reacting, is a result of awareness and mindfulness practice and is an example of a strong mind. Yoga trains the mind to be strong.

Weak mind reacts to life happening with fear. Fear of the unknown and the weak mind’s penchant to write stories of why, how, should have, etc. in that fear, is one of the minds common states, Vikalpa. In yoga philosophy the five mental modifications  are named in Yoga Sutra 1:6.

Pramana Viparyaya Vikalpa Nidra Smrtayah

“The five mental modifications are right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep, and memory.”

Writing theater dramas in the mind of situations from the past and how they should, or could have happened is an example of Vikalpa. Day dreaming, fantasizing about future events, or thinking that the elephant in the room does not exist are examples of Vikalpa. Vikalpa is delusional fantasizing and not life enhancing nor healthy for a human mind or spirit and must not be confused with the practice of Sankalpa - meditative visualization, which is life enhancing.  Vikalpa are thoughts and imaginings that are not connected to abiding awareness, rather they are fragmented and demanding to be knit into a valuable whole.

A weak mind learns to choose a response by first being challenged, then exercised, all while held to strict standards and nourished with kindness and love. To sincerely mitigate fear the weak mind must be confronted and its habitual reactive nature opposed. Without opposition toward the habits of the weak mind one cannot effectually move out of reaction and into response. Until a person learns they have a choice to respond to life rather than react they will experience life through the lens of their Vikalpas.

Vikalpas are trains of thought that can and do take our lives off the tracks, but they can also be worked with and resolved. One way to work with Vikalpas is to ask yourself while you are experiencing a Vikalpa, why you want to run away with the fantasy and story you are telling yourself? What is the motivation? What is the pay-off? Another practice is to engage in a dialogue with yourself in which you contemplate the usefulness of your fantasizing and storytelling. A third practice, which can begin the process of disengaging from the bound cycle of Vikalpa, is to ask yourself where the fantasies will lead to. These basic practices bring attention to the mindlessness and destructive nature of Vikalpa. They also bring attention to the weak minds anchors and provide insight into where the weak mind needs additional strengthening.

            Over time, and with effort the mind can be trained to look for the good before looking for that which will kill it. By turning your gaze at the dysfunctional behaviors of your mind you becomes attentive to them and they can no longer act out like criminals with no accountability. Following attention to the negative behaviors of the mind, the mind learns to choose a state of response when life happens, though it may have no choice of the circumstances of experience. This is the practice of the strong mind. A strong mind can experience stillness and peace amidst a torrential world swirling about it. A strong mind knows how to get into the flow of life and let reality be reality. A strong mind is at the heart of Spiritual practice.

Spiritual practice is not fulfilling the obligations of your dogma, it is opening to the flow and getting into life’s current. Spiritual practice is stillness. Spiritual practice is the trust that in yielding, you are receiving. Spiritual practice is a fearless faith that your prayers will always be answered. Spiritual practice is acceptance of all the gifts bestowed upon you in your short magical life, no matter how they present themselves. Spiritual practice is being happy you have what you have, all the time, no matter what it is. Spiritual practice is all abiding awareness of and reverence to the magnanimity and beneficence of the Divine. Life is spiritual practice. Peace is a strong mind’s reward.

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Peace comes through gentle persistence. A gentle and persistent practice of mental confrontation will teach the mind to be strong and respond with spaciousness. Like any muscle training the mind will, overtime, become more capable. Eventually revealing the mind of the sage, consciously surrendering to the current that it cannot control, from the heart, with unconditional love. For peace, surrender is the only practice and so the invitation is, to let life flow.

With Love, Always, In all ways, For Giving, In Joy,

Genevieve

Photos Courtesy: Sue Hunt, Sean Ratliff, and me.

 

 

Let Love Lead The Way

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Much of unconditioning the heart is unconditioning, or reconditioning the mind. While in many ways the heart is a far more intelligent organ, the mind gets to reside over most of the dominion of life. There are many reasons for this. The primary reason is that the mind is a major part of the system through which we understand this ongoing drama. We are educated from a young age to use the mind and it’s faculties to navigate this journey and to make our own impression upon it. All the while the journey through the lens of the heart is often little explored.

Frustrations of parenting and teaching create environments where emoting is stifled. Fears generated through experience of loss and grief and suffering generate environments much the same. Soft hearted language that ignores the painful realities of hurt, abandonment, cruelty, broken heartedness, and just plain old abuse turns the pragmatic and realistic off and away from the good vibrations of love, and who’s to blame them. When you have hurt, truly hurt, no “it’s all good” is going to change that reality. And is it all good?

Spiritual bypass is one of the greatest trappings of spiritual culture in the west. Broken hearts exist. Abuse is real and never warranted. Terrible things happen to innocents every day. The pain of the heart can be almost impossible to navigate when the mind is just a theatre of bad movies. Is it really all good? Is love really at the heart of all creation?

While the rhetoric of all being good may not actually cut it, similar rhetoric that espouses closing off the heart and shutting down the expansiveness of spirit has the same narrowing effect. For evidence of what lay at the heart of it all we can use the faculty of mind to it’s greatest capacity and analyze nature. Sure nature is volatile, destructive, without rhyme or reason. And simultaneously nature is collaborative, cooperative, seeking expansiveness and growth, creating always the best possible environment for life to not only survive but to thrive. And while energy exists in a manifest form it is permitted to exist, until, for whatever reason, it dissolves. This permission exists in nature without condition. No, you have to be a good plant to live here on the forest floor. No, you were a bad zebra and now you get eaten by this lion. Just circumstance, relationship, and Existance in an animate intelligent world.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer just over a year ago. Before her diagnosis I had many theories about cancer. At the heart of all these theories was a belief that there is always a linkable cause. Be it environmental, emotional, genetic, spiritual, mental, something was the reason that any individual human would have to endure such a trial of health and spirit. At her first oncologist appointment my mother espoused to her doctor all the things that she had done through her life to stay healthy, to avoid such a predicament, to keep her vehicle maintained so to speak. Without qualifying her statement in any way the doctor said point blank “cancer doesn’t discriminate.”

For me, upon hearing this wisdom I realized that I had built a false premise in my mind about the rules of the game. Whatever is rising or falling away, there may never be reason or rhyme. Nature is energy and energy wants to transform. There are no rules from a merciless God condemning specific individuals to suffering. Transformation does not discriminate. For whatever reason an environment changes and cells change with it. And just because an individual has to walk through the fire does not mean that love is not beating their heart as they muster the courage to step.

In order to feel love we have to be willing. We have to allow our minds to be willing to expand whatever belief structures that would first condemn us, into something more accepting of the mystery. The experience of pain is not without love, it is just with pain, discomfort, agitation, and the unknown. The beauty of the mystery is that it is a mystery. If we can separate ourselves from ideas of good and bad we can set the stage for experience, experience of multitudinous circumstance, for that is primarily what life is. If we can not try to force ourselves into belief structures that confine nature to limited intelligence we permit ourselves more room to be with nature as nature is, mysterious, powerful, elegant and messy, and surprisingly intelligent. When we recognize the mind for what it is and take the time to step away from its rules and into the spaciousness of our hearts we permit ourselves that much more room to know what beats us all, without condition, in the presence of all circumstances. When we uncondition our minds we uncondition our hearts.

As a side note, we all walked through the fire with my mother on her journey with cancer. It was many things from harrowing, to heartbreaking, and everything in between. She is on the green side of health again and for this we are all grateful. In the wake of this journey more than ever before I am reminded the love is at the heart of it all. To love ourselves in the company of our misfortunes is a great trial and great teacher. To love others in the company of their fear, anguish, frailty, and imperfections, is much the same. And to let oneself be loved by the unknown rather than condemned by it in the midst of such a journey is the great soother, peacemaker, and solace we all get to know if we choose.

With Love, always, in all ways, for giving, in joy,

Genevieve

With Love

            What’s the motive? Such a wonderful and often profound question to ask oneself or others. In any action, circumstance, desire, what propels it? If we want to truly love without conditions this question must be at the heart of our journey.

            Loving without condition is not loving without boundary or safeguards, but it is loving without motive to receive or change. In yoga this is known as the practice of Bhakti. Bhakti is loving the divine source for the sake of loving, and serving that source for the love of it. Not for the reward of spiritual enlightenment, assured prestige in the everlasting, or perfection in the human form. Rather Bhakti Yoga is pure and reverent arising from the purest state of awe.

            Every time we are loved without feeling bound to some obligation we are graced with the divine that is the nature of love. This is the heart of love. Love without obligation or bais, motive or reward. Love for the sake of love.

            When we approach loving for the sake of loving we are in the purity of motive that is the grace of Bhakti. The Narada Bhakti Sutra’s teach that in attaining the heart space of bhakti a person does become perfected, immortal, and content, but paradoxically this is not a result of selfish motive, because pure bhakti cannot arise from selfish means. So how does one get there?

           

NARADA BHAKTI SUTRA 77

TRANSLATION BY: WILLIAM K. MAHONY (EXQUISITE LOVE 2010)

Sukha-duhkhecca-labhadityakte kale pratiksamanae

Ksanarddham-api vyartham na neyam

Relinquishing happiness, dissatisfaction, self-centered willfulness, worldly gain, and so on, when there is attentive awareness in every moment, not even half an instant should be passed uselessly.

            In gaining awareness of our motives we can ultimately control our desires. The pursuit of which must be endured with every passing and fleeting moment. The reward of which is the luscious sweetness of the ambrosia of love, without condition, without motive, without desire for reward. From bhakti awareness arises the motive to serve in bhakti, to serve in love.

            Again, such love is not love without wisdom, without safekeeping of human body, without safekeeping of human needs. Such love is wise love. Such love is not idle, not waiting to be quaffed, for it is always drawn from and returned to an unlimited source.

With love, always, in all ways, for giving, in joy,

Genevieve