Thursday, November 26, 2009
Four days off. I still haven't wrapped my head around it. I'm continuing to work on the Book of Revelation, in case anyone was wondering. Finally made it to chapter five. Not exactly a breakneck speed, but I've been preoccupied with making a living, chasing gurus, and beating back my worldly desires. Hey, it's tough being me.
Yesterday I was at the part of Revelation (chapter four) where St. John describes the throne of God. He really takes his time with it, describing the throne in great detail. And for good reason - it must have been overwhelming to behold, what with the emerald rainbows, crowns of gold, sea of crystal, electrical storms, and high-speed internet. Clearly John was having a mystical experience, and whether it was the result of being 'taken up in the Spirit' or inadvertently ingesting some wayward psilocybin will forever remain a mystery. I don't differentiate between the two; I believe that his hallucinations were legitimate, regardless of their provenance.
So. About that throne. Symbolically, it's the seat of authority, and the place where God has chosen to park His power. It's the centerpiece of John's vision, and is surrounded by twenty-four lesser thrones, upon which are seated the elders with their respective crowns of gold. Which, btw, they later cast off, in deference to the unequaled power of God.
So there's your Christian throne thing. I'm also interested in the Islamic throne, since the Koran is very much a part of the piece that I'm working on. See, I'm cutting up the Koran, letter by letter, and reforming it into the Book of Revelation. And as it turns out, the throne figures prominently in their religion as well. The Arabic word for throne is al-Arsh, but it's also referred to as al-Kursi, often interpreted as "the heart". Interestingly, while the Christian God is firmly seated on his throne which in turn rests on a sea of glass, the Islamic God is located just above the throne, and His throne hovers just above the water. This hierarchy and detachment is symbolic of Allah's exclusive power and majesty, and speaks of His lack of need for anything, including furniture or a nappy.
There is a very famous verse in the Koran called Ayat al-Kursi, or the Throne Verse. It's considered to be the most excellent verse in the Koran because it mentions the names and attributes of Allah more than any other verse. It is therefore memorized and recited often, as it brings with it many blessings to the person who recognizes its power. It goes like this:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
Allah! There is no God but He,
the Living, the Self-subsisting, the Eternal.
No slumber can seize Him, nor sleep.
All things in heaven and earth are His.
Who could intercede in His presence without His permission?
He knows what appears in front of and behind His creatures.
Nor can they encompass any knowledge of Him except what he wills.
His throne extends over the heavens and the earth,
and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them,
for He is the Highest and Most Exalted.
Beautiful, huh? I love it. I'm going to incorporate the Ayat al-Kursi into my piece as an Islamic mandala, dead center in the text of Revelation. It's a nod to Islam, and the least I can do, since I'm sacrificing a Koran to create the Book of Revelation. But not to worry - soon I'll be cutting up a Bible to recreate the Koran. In the end, justice is always served.
Above: William Blake, The Four and Twenty Elders Casting Their Crowns Before the Divine Throne, c. 1805.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
I've been taking a hard look at desire. It's ridiculously seductive. Until you get a glimpse behind the curtain, that is. After that, it's just dry mechanics and hard wiring. At least that's what I'm trying to convince myself. I know that desire is a projection of my imagination and a construct of the mind; I know that it's a byproduct of deluded thinking and an award-winning diversionary tactic. I know that if I follow my desire to its root I'll come up with emptiness and more emptiness. And still I roll around in it like a dog on a dead fish.
The problem with desire is not the desire itself, but our need to attach a form to it. Longing without an object is difficult because it feels like a void, and the only thing we know to do with a void is fill it. From the time we ooze from the womb until the day we drop dead, we humans are all about filling holes. But at their root, those holes are nothing more than the hunger to return to That from which we came. So in a sense we're born with desire stamped into our DNA, and we spend our lives longing for reconnection. It's a nasty set-up, when you think about it. We're born with insatiable hunger, and we're supposed to be content? Sorta cruel, don't you think? Isn't it a bit like force-feeding Viagra to a eunuch? The only way to escape the clutches of desire is to see it for what it is: the longing to return to the Oneness whence we came. Once you really get that, you're free from the endless search for fulfillment.
I am so not there yet. My desire is attached to a specific form. I know that the form will not satiate my desire, and that I'm caught up in a magnificent illusion. And yet the desire persists, gains momentum, and snowballs into obscene proportions. Who came up with this plan, anyway? Does the Creator have a sadistic streak or what? Was it necessary to make things so difficult that we trip, fall, and inevitably suffer, over and over again? And what's more, that we do it willingly? Insanity, I tell you. Why would someone keep knocking on the same door, when she knows that no one's home? Clearly the sensible thing would be to move to another door and have a knock, but instead she keeps knocking louder and louder at the same door, knowing that it will never open up for her. Pure insanity.
It's the form that causes all the trouble. More specifically, it's the attachment to the form. It's possible, with great effort, to separate the desire from the form. My mind, with all its slippery maneuvering, knows full well that what it desires will not bring fulfillment. So it has the ability to make that separation, bless its heart. Where it has more trouble is in detaching from the form. It goes something like this:
I want cake.
Cake won't make you happy.
Give me cake.
Cake will make you feel crappy.
Must have cake.
Cake is a projection of your longing.
...and so on, ad nauseam, until cake enters mouth. The mind knows that cake isn't the answer, and that it's going to cause problems later, but it's so attached to the form (cake) that there's really no hope. There will be cake.
So the problem isn't the desire or the form, it's the attachment to the form. Which is just conditioning. Hey, we're spoiled Americans, we whine about everything, and we're used to getting what we want. You want cake? You go buy cake. Hell, you buy two cakes because you can't decide which flavor you want. We're very unfortunate in this sense. So it's a matter of rewiring the mind, and allowing a desire to go unfulfilled. What happens when we don't get what we want? Where does the desire go? It finds another form. Watch and see if it's not true. Desire form-hops until it finds a whopper of a desire which we cannot resist, the Big Gulp of all desires, and then we grab on for dear life and feast on the form. It's at once pathetic, hilarious, and tragic. Desire is what makes humans look very much like chimps.
So much for musing about desire and waxing about its seduction. I'll let you know if I figure any of this out, but don't hold your breath. Or maybe you should hold your breath, because I'm off to roll around in some more dead fish.
Above: Cake (detail). Oil on panel, 6' x 4'. 1998. I did a series of large oil paintings from photographs taken on my parents' wedding day. This was my favorite. Where else is desire so epitomized, as in the form of a wedding? The whole ceremony is an outward projection of the longing for reconnection with the divine.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Think of something that you've desired all your life. Not chocolate cake, not another pair of black boots, but something big; something that's been a significant preoccupation, a serious time-suck, and has always eluded your grasp. Okay, now what if that flame of desire was extinguished? What if you were suddenly aware that the desire was either gone, or had diminished to the point where it had no allure?
That's what's going on for me. One of my most cherished desires has gone completely flaccid. Very odd, and completely disorienting. I'm not sure what to do with myself. I'm so accustomed to co-existing with this desire that I have to keep reminding myself that it's gone. I still can't feature what my life is going to be like without it. I hate to admit this, but without my desires, I'm not even sure who I am. Can I really be so shallow? Have I really been defining myself by what I want? Gad - how pathetic is that? But after looking at this from every angle, that's exactly what I come up with: I am the product of my passions. No wonder my life has been one disappointment after another. The moment a goal is realized, the emptiness opens a little wider. I'd imagine that wealthy and wildly successful people must have a rough time, since their emptiness opens up so much wider than the rest of ours.
Clearly, the big problem with desire is that as soon as we get what we want, we immediately want something else. Desire infers that we are incomplete, and that our fulfillment rests in something that we don't have. A tension is created when we desire, and it generally increases until the desire is met. Then there is the brief moment of satisfaction, and then we either want more of the same, or something else entirely. Desire turns us into flaming narcissists. Like gorged ticks, we become addicted to the pleasure of satiation. It's a terrible way to live, when you think about it.
Osho says that every desire, whether fulfilled or denied, is a door to hell. He recommends that we watch the process of desire closely, and see where it leads us. Once we see and experience desire as misery, we'll be free of it. It simply ripens, drops, withers, and rots. How cool is that? Oh, to be freed from bondage to the things that make us miserable. Sign me up! Take my desires, every last one of them, and the horse they rode in on.
If only it was so easy. And what about the desire for enlightenment? A few weeks ago I told Big Daddy (no, not God - the guru Nithyananda) that I wanted to Self-realize in this lifetime, and he told me that I would. How can he be so sure? I mean, doesn't the fact that I desire it sort of preclude my getting it? The desire acts as a catapult, hurling my enlightenment off into the future, forever out of reach. The only place that awakening can happen is here, in this future-less and desire-free moment.
Well, one life-long, heart-felt, radically-cherished desire crossed off my list; 7,347 to go. What would it be like to desire nothing? To be so ensconced in the experience of the present moment that you completely forget to desire anything? Desire yanks us out of the present, which is the place where everything happens, and promises happiness in a future event. So we spend a lifetime accumulating events and objects, completely missing the present moment from which they emanated. Omg! You mean to tell me that desire is nothing more than a detour? It's like we pull right up to the present moment, idle at the gate for a moment, then drive off because we think we've got the wrong address. Just think of the empires that have been built upon this simple error! Capitalism is what happens when a bunch of people get off at the wrong exit.
The presence of desire is an indicator that we're about to come into a greater Presence. The stronger the desire, the more profound the Presence. If we can find the wherewithal to deny the desire and remain alert, the gate will open to us. What gate, you ask? I think it must be the gate to the present moment. So does this mean that if I do a U-turn and follow my desires back to their point of origin, I'll come face to face with the present moment, the ground zero of being, and the threshold to the divine? It's worth a shot.
Above: Before I started doing the text drawings, I was painting abstract gates. This one is Gate 508, mixed media on paper, 2008.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
In my last post I gave an account of my meeting with a guru. His name is Nithyananda, and he's an enlightened Master from the south of India. The post, as well as the encounter, reeked with cynicism toward this guru-guy, as I was mildly put off by the marketing and general fanfare that accompanied his teaching and darshan, or energy transmission. In short, while I'm skeptical of the guru tradition and its flawed system of transmission, I tried to keep an open mind to whatever wisdom and energy that Nithyananda may have had for me.
A week later, I'm deeply humbled to report that he has touched me in a profound way. It would be premature for me to define the subtle shifts and realizations of the last week. When I've tried to do so, they've evaporated into a fine mist, and I've sometimes wondered if it's all in my mind. But that's the interesting thing - the shifts are decidedly not in my mind, thus my difficulty in pinpointing them. They're also not in the form of experiences, like some of the energetic movements that can happen when there's some big stuff happening internally. No, this is none of that.
So all I can say is what it's not. It's not dramatic, I don't look any different, and I didn't even have a particularly good week. Lots of work-related crap that I had to deal with, and some other life hassles that kept me running and irritable. But it didn't matter. Whatever Nithyananda's gift was, it wasn't affected in any way by my external life experiences. Clarity - pure clarity. That's the best I can do for now.
The highlight of my week was when I realized that I don't have to stop being cynical. In fact, I don't have to stop being anything. Whatever, whoever I am, with my mountains of flaws and rolling hills of imperfection, is totally acceptable. Not that I'd ever stop trying to improve myself, but it doesn't matter whether I do or not. Whatever I am - good, bad, or ugly - is completely irrelevant, so I'm going to be getting rid of a few shelves of self-improvement books. The fact that I'm supremely cynical of Nithyananda and his shtick doesn't matter: he still touched me deeply. Am I planning to become a devotee? Heck no. Will I go see him again? Nah, I'm good. I don't have much need for a guru. I just got very lucky and was at the right place at the right time to receive something from him, but if I now started chasing him around the world, I'd have missed the point.
See, that is the point. It's not the guru who touches us, it's the energy behind the guru. It wasn't Jesus who touched so many lives, it was the energy, or holy spirit, that came through Jesus. It wasn't Siddhartha Gautama who showed people the way, but the energy which he embodied as the Buddha. Why do people miss this? All these great teachers are avatars, or people through whom the energy of God has descended. And for what purpose? So that we can worship them? Well, if you want to, but you'll have missed the point. The successful guru is the one who instills in us the wisdom that we don't need a guru. The corrupt guru is the one who encourages (or demands) dependence on him/her for enlightenment.
So no, I'm not all doe-eyed over Nithyananda. I doubt I'll even watch his videos, even though there are hundreds of free recordings on YouTube. I'm grateful for my physical contact with him, and grateful too for the cynical mind that questions his authority. Without it I'd undoubtedly find myself in spiritual traction, like a cosmic junkie trying to get another fix of his energy. One of the points where Nithya and I disagree is where he repeatedly tells his followers to turn off their minds and to trust in the process which he initiates. I don't believe that it's necessary to turn off the mind; in fact, I don't recommend it. The mind is all too often seen as the enemy, when in fact it can be the grounding element in our spiritual seeking. If not for my mind, I'd be head over heels in love with Nithya. I'd have spent every last dollar on his books and overpriced necklaces last weekend. And instead of drinking coffee and writing on my blog this morning, I'd be packing my bags to move to his ashram in India. So God bless my mind, and the cynicism that oozes therein.
I told you that I was going to be posting some of Nithya's teachings, but I don't feel like it. Just go to Rodney Stevens' blog, and you'll find all the nuggets of clarity that you can digest. The wisdom that I received from Nithyananda is the fact that I don't need anything, including him, to awaken into pure consciousness.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
I spent all of yesterday and yesternight with Paramahamsa Nithyananda, the enlightened Master, inspirational teacher, and beloved guru. Some friends invited me to join them, a most generous gesture, and an opportunity which I'd never otherwise have had the fortune to experience, mostly because it requires a fortune to experience it. But for the fact that they paid for my ticket, I'd have had to pass. But I'm pleased to report that meeting a guru is now something I can cross off my must-do list. I still haven't completely digested the experience, as it was twelve hours of intense meditation and teaching. So you might say that it's still unfolding for me, and only time will determine whether there are any fruits to bear from the encounter.
Of course I've been teased endlessly for going to see Swamiji, or for "doing" the guru, as it was so delicately put. Why is it that as soon as you mention the word guru, people think of sex? It's pretty sad that the timeless tradition of teacher/student has been reduced to the sexual cliche. All my friends - and I mean every last one of them - seemed to think that I was going to be drugged with opium, dragged into Nithyananda's den, seduced and ravished within an inch of my life, then given laced Kool-Aid to revive me. I'm a little disappointed to report that nothing unseemly happened. Nithyananda and the boys were perfect gentlemen and consummate businessmen, and besides, I'm not much into turbans. No, someone would have had to tie me down and lobotomize me before I entered his 'inner circle', or he mine.
Having clarified my position on gurus and copulation, I'll now offer my impressions of the man and the experience. Nithyananda is from the south of India, therefore his sensibilities are quite different than ours in the West. The showmanship, the affected facial expressions, and the much-rehearsed spontaneity was cloying for my New England-bred taste. You may remember that I was raised Methodist, and Methodists do not clap. Methodists do not emote either; in fact, there is absolutely no need for a box of Kleenex to be within one hundred yards of a Methodist church. Methodists do not shriek nonverbal epithets, nor do they hum loudly like insects, and Methodists definitely do not shake from head to toe in the effort to awaken their kundalini. We were invited to do all of the above and more at Nithyananda's day-long course, and at times its tenor was positively Pentecostal, minus the "amen's" and "hallelujah's".
Nithyananda (the man, not the God) is a truly magnetic figure. It's not difficult to understand why people are so drawn to him. I was prepared not to like him; I had my cynical comments lined up and was ready to pounce at the first opportunity. His theatrics are indeed off-putting if you're coming at him cold, that is, without the adulation. But I gotta tell you, this guy has an undeniable presence. (Note the lower-case "p"). There's no mistaking it when he's in the room. He has charisma, charm, intelligence, supreme wit, confidence, and he's cute as a button. What's not to like? He speaks with authority, and if he'd gone into sales and marketing (which, in a sense, he did), he'd have made a bundle. Honestly? I sorta fell in love with the guy. He has a way of speaking to a crowd that's so personal, it seems like he's talking to you. And he wisely leaves all the marketing to his devotees, so as not to taint the essence of his message, I'm sure.
And trust me, there was some egregious marketing going on. Lots of stuff for sale, which could be either signed, wiped, or slapped by Nithyananda at the end of the day. Necklaces, books, CDs, and sign-up sheets for long retreats, both here and abroad, which guaranteed Realization. There were many speakers who testified about these books and retreats, and masterful persuasion techniques which lubricated many a wallet. I found this to be mildly repulsive. But, as I said, Nithyananda had no part in it; he wasn't even present during these testimonials, nor did he take part in any exchange of currency that I noted. A wise move on his part, and one which I respect. He's unquestionably the driving force behind the machine, yet gives the impression of being far removed from the fuel that keeps it running.
But my observations thus far miss the point. Hey, enlightened blokes have to pay the bills just like the rest of us, huh? To dwell on his profits would be small-minded of me, when clearly Nithyananda's got a lot more goin' on than immeasurable wealth. His teachings are based in nonduality, and are mostly sound, from what I could tell. (I had a problem with some of his teachings, but more on that in a minute). He inspires and ignites, and at various times during the day I felt openings at my heart and solar plexus. Not exactly the goods for a ripping testimonial, but I'm working on beefing it up a little. Most significant for me was the overwhelming sense of being "in love", without an object on which to place my surging emotions. Clearly, this would be the moment when the devotee would drape her affections on the guru, but I'm far too cynical for that. So my open-hearted love remained object free, a nondescript blob of tender awareness that ached with love for most anything that crossed my path. A throbbing blob of love isn't exactly what I had in mind when I signed up, but it's a respectable door prize, and hopefully the precursor to greater openings.
The teachings that I had trouble with were straight-up evangelical Christianity with an orange turban plopped on its head. The fact that it was Halloween was convenient, but it didn't fool ol' Madge. It goes like this: everything that happens to us is our responsibility. I accept that, but I bristle at the thin distinction between responsibility and blame. What is the difference? Where do we draw the dividing line? Nithyananda stated unequivocally that if you are ill, you are responsible for your illness. Is that not the same as saying that you are to blame for your illness? It's prickly territory, and I sure wouldn't want to be the one to tell a parent that their infant daughter is responsible for her terminal illness. According to Nithyananda and his evangelical counterparts, all of our malignant misfortunes are manifestations of our spiritual shortcomings, and it's our responsibility to change those things which burden our lives. [Upload audio of fingers on chalkboard]. Please note that I'm not throwing Nithya overboard for these rank observations; I simply do my Pavlovian squirm and move on. But duly noted the fact that Christian evangelicals do not have a corner on the market when it comes to blanket statements of responsibility, guilt, and redemption.
At the end of the evening there was a long, blindfolded meditation. (I cynically noted that its length was proportionate to the number of books sold. We'd been told earlier in the day that any books purchased should be left on a back table, where they 'd be signed by Nithya, and could be picked up at the end of the day. Which, I noted, meant that he'd have to sign them at a time when we were engrossed in another activity. After all, it's not very comely to see one's beloved guru sweating in the corner like a trained chimp, dashing off his coveted autograph in well over a hundred books. I wasn't sure how they'd pull this off, but my guess was that it would take place during the final meditation session. I was correct. I did some quick math when I should've been meditating, and came up with a fifty minute meditation. It was forty-seven minutes). When the meditation was complete (and the books signed), we were instructed to remove our blindfolds, open our eyes, and receive our darshan. This was the climax of the evening, when the Master physically touches his disciples and passes his energy on to them (known in Sanskrit as shaktipat). He also asks us to express our deepest desire, and, if the testimonials were correct, that desire would be fulfilled. Guaranteed. Now, I don't know what other people asked for, but I knew what I wanted. No, not a Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock; I wanted enlightenment. And if it's true that physical contact with an enlightened Master can activate awakening, then I wasn't about to miss the rare opportunity. So I stood in the long line with everyone else and awaited my darshan, making a great effort to whitewash my cynicism, which clings to me like stains to a tub. Did he smell my cynicism when I asked for enlightenment? Did its foul odor taint my request? Could he tell that I wasn't a devotee, and that he'd never see my mug again? Hard to tell, but he was kind, hugged me, assured me that "it" would happen, and I was sent on my merry, unenlightened way.
This morning I feel silly and disappointed. Actually, I feel silly because I'm disappointed. Did I really hope to arrive back here in Bushwick in the form of Pure Consciousness? Apparently so. Looks like I'd better get that rent check in the mail. But hey - for the record, I just want to say that Nithyananda's great. I like him. I don't doubt that he's an enlightened, Self-realized Master, whatever that is. He's a powerful guru-dude, and except for a few points where we disagree, I have respect for him and his comrades. I'm honored to have been in his Presence (note the capital "P"), and humbled to have been touched by a guru. But even more touching, and deeply humbling as well, is the fact that two great people, friends for whom I have profound respect and gratitude, wanted to share this experience with me and invited me as their guest. Makes my heart all gooey just to think of it, and if my floating blob of love ever decides to come in for a landing, it will be on the two of them.
Thus endeth this long-ass monologue of Madge-ananda, the unenlightened and guru-less devotee from the wilds of Bushwick. In the next few days I'll be posting some excerpts from Nithyananda's teachings, just to show how profound they are, and to counterbalance the cynicism that undoubtedly oozes from the present post. Happy November, y'all.