spirituality

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.

 

 

Selflessness & Selfishness

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Though being “a good person” is often coupled up with being selfless, being a good person is not synonymous with being selfless. Sure being selfless is a wonderful ideal to live up to, but being selfless without self-care can leave you with nothing, good person or not. Being selfless without self-care is just like not following through on the part of a flight attendants safety talk when you are told that if air pressure in the cabin is lost, to put your oxygen mask on before assisting the child you are traveling with. When I was a child I was appalled by this idea. I just could not comprehend why the child should not get cared for first. Of course now I understand that if the parent dies as a result of not putting their mask on first, they will be unable to perform their duties as a parent. Of course a child does not understand this and needs to be taught the reason for the importance of this kind of sequencing, which can be made into a lesson about responsibility and roles. In the same vein as teaching a child the value of responsibility and roles, is the value of teaching a child to not be selfish but rather to be generous and to know the principles of a wise discerning mind and a loving heart, i.e. to be a good person. However, many times in espousing the values of generosity and love we negate that there are times when being selfish is of service, to our children as well as to ourselves. Much like the analogy of putting on the oxygen mask, if we don’t care for ourselves first, all our idealistic actions are in many ways for naught. For instance what good is it to give money away if you cannot feed yourself? Or, what good is it to be kind to a person who has caused you great pain, if you cannot be kind to yourself as a result? Of course this kind of exploration of the value of self-care before selflessness can go on and on and on.

One must be clear that the purpose of such contemplation is not to negate the value of selflessness, but rather to clarify the role of the value of selfishness. When we take the time to contemplate where we can truly give selflessly without taking from ourselves something that is a necessary component in our ability to give selflessly, we are using great faculties of the mind. Such contemplations can then become tools of our witness function, enabling us to see beyond the concepts of selflessness and selfishness and into the desires motivating them. When selflessness is motivated by a desire for self-gratification is it in fact selfless? When selfishness is motivated by a desire for true generosity is it in fact selfish as we see it, in a negative light?

Knowing the ultimate aim enables clear action. If the aim is to be of service, than first being of service to self enables one to be fully of service to others. If the aim is to be loving and kind, then first being loving and kind to oneself enables the ability to be loving and kind to others. If the aim is to quiet the mindstuff than being selfish about maintaining peacefulness enables attainment of this goal.

Being a selfless person is an excellent ideal and goal to set for yourself. I know that I aim to do something selfless everyday. Sometimes, for me, the only thing I have to give that won’t take away from what I need to get through the day without falling apart is a warm smile. And because each day is different, and each moment of each day is different, what I have to give changes constantly. For any of us to truly give selflessly we have to check in just a regularly as we breath to know what will serve in any given moment. What will serve self, and what will serve others. This is where the value of selfishness resides, in the practice of self-witnessing and responding to the world accordingly.

With Love, Always, In All Ways, For Giving, In Joy,

Genevieve

Unraveling The Human Condition

  Who knows why the human condition is the way it is? It seems that no matter how many people contemplate, pontificate, philosophize, and analyze, it is still what it is. And much of the time what it is translates to challenging. In addition to the adversity we all face as humans experiencing life on planet Earth, we also have a shared experience of feeling alone or separate from one another on our paths to peace, and freedom from our suffering.

Many of the great spiritual practices all nod to this shared experience, and in many ways it is in dissolving this feeling of separateness that becomes the central focus of these practices. For in the spiritual realm there is ultimately no separation, and it is the individual journey to realizing this truth that is the aim of the spiritual path. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali the teaching that speaks to this aspect of our human condition, yoga sutra 1:4 “At other times (The Self) appears to assume the forms of the mental modifications” clarifies that it is our mental mind stuff, which formulates our perception of the feeling of separateness. This sutra simply states that ones perception of separation from the greater unifying consciousness (The Self) becomes that which one identifies themselves with. It is in learning to recognize that in our identifications with the experiences of our lives, or in the “I am” statements we make, that we create the impression of being alone. Therefor, in practicing self-awareness, or mindfulness, we can become attentive to the mind chatter that creates these experiences of separation and see them for what they are, self-imposed beliefs that are formed as thoughts. However, learning to identify these thoughts is not an easy task. This is why "the quieting of the mental modifications" has to be practiced, over and over. It is in our practice that we become more self-aware and more capable of dissolving the impressions of separation before they even arise.

It is the hope of a spiritual practitioner, much like a philosopher, and even a life scientist to garner more meaning in this often-confusing landscape of human experience. Who’s to say if this is the way to unravel the human condition and truly know peace? It is definitely one way, and of course there are as many ways as there are humans having experiences.

To knowing peace and joy, with love, always, in all ways, for giving,

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Genevieve