“Ecstasy, or letting go of your hold on life, is paradoxically the Way of life, the Source of Life, an enlivening Source of life-practice.”
—Adi Da Samraj, Always Enact Fidelity To Me
There’s plenty to fear about aging—grizzly medical procedures, heinous nursing homes, those walkers with the tennis balls on the legs. But long before all of that, I fear turning into a zombie. That is, I fear my thinking getting stiff, predictable, rigid and repetitious.
Avoiding (or undoing) mental calcification is a crucial part of Spiritual practice. In his classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki tells us that, “The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.” Similarly, Jesus said that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
When I was thirteen or so, I was captivated by the Spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, who wrote and spoke eloquently about the need to think in pristine, unconditioned ways.
“It is only when the mind is free from the old that it meets everything anew, and in that there is joy.”
“We carry about us the burden of what thousands of people have said and the memories of all our misfortunes. To abandon all that is to be alone, and the mind that is alone is not only innocent but young — not in time or age, but young, innocent, alive at whatever age — and only such a mind can see that which is truth and that which is not measurable by words.”
Here’s the first Krishnamurti book to blow me out of my THC-drenched, adolescent mind.
Stuff you can do
So how do we keep our thinking free, new and spontaneous? Or get it that way if it’s gotten old and boring? Let us count the ways.
Conventional ways to avoid mental rigidity
Conventional advice tells us to avoid mental ossification by introducing lots of new behaviors and experiences into our lives. Travel to exotic places. Try new things. Take up new hobbies – oil painting, violin, Salsa dancing. Learn a new language. Deliberately break up your routines and habits. Read widely. Meet new people. Take up juggling or a life of crime.
Another conventional—but often irreplaceable—way to break up our stiff mental programs can be therapy. Buried trauma creates tremendous rigidity in our thinking and feeling. And, in my opinion, most people have way more buried trauma than they’re aware of.
A third conventional way to break up our inner tape-loops is through the body. Mental fossilization is always expressed physically—in our tissues and movement patterns. Look at how freely children think. Then look at how freely they move. It’s not a coincidence. As Advanced Rolfer Jeffrey Maitland, PhD puts it:
“…our defenses are structured as conflicted spatializations. These muscular and neural fixations become our habitual ways of being…they can become all but cemented into place…[causing us to] become machine-like and maddeningly predictable in many situations.”
—Spacious Body, Jeffrey Maitland
So you can add more pliancy to your thinking by getting Rolfed. Experiment, too, with movement practices that open and free the body—Natural Movement (MovNat), Feldenkraise, Tai Chi, yoga, Brazilian Jiujitsu.
A forth conventional approach is to examine our beliefs and life-stories. These narratives can lock us into all sorts of lifeless, repetitious patterns. (This, too can come from undigested trauma.) Much mental agility can be gained by simply inspecting our core beliefs, life-stories and tacit presumptions about things. Byron Katie’s work can be helpful for this.
The non-conventional way: The ecstasy of transcending mind and thought
Adi Da says that our thinking gets arthritic over time simply because we are so identified with the mind. Consequently, we just accumulate more and more of it. As the years go by, experience builds up like layers of plaque over our true nature—the timeless radiance of pure, mindless Being. We become constipated with mind, freighted with the fossils of past experience that we never learned how to release.
No human being is new. All human beings are patterns of mostly unconscious memory (or pattern itself). The body itself is memory, for memory is not merely in the mind. All the forms that exist are conditioned by previous influences.
—Adi Da Samraj
So get into what is not mind, pattern, body, time and memory. The real secret (the non-conventional one) to keeping our thinking wild, is to spend as much time as we can in the free space of luminous mindlessness!
“Real and intense practice can and must be done at any age. Otherwise, you accumulate destiny and become fixed in it. As the years pass, you become more and more rigidified in your social-personality pattern, which you have manufactured by repetitions for decades.
“Ecstasy, right practice, requires that you go beyond that. You cannot afford to let it rigidify. You cannot afford to allow patterns to become fixed. Real ego-transcending practice is an enlivening process…
“That pattern is a persona, a character, a role…To be that pattern is non-ecstasy. To go beyond it is ecstasy. And doing so is a moment-to-moment matter. Otherwise, the pattern of your own ‘self’-contraction simply tightens around you, and eventually turns you into a corpse.
—Adi Da Samraj, Always Enact Fidelity To Me
I know a lot of you Zen folks don’t like words like ecstasy. They sound ostentatious and Makyo-ish to you guys. I was a Zen Buddhist for years. I get it. So forget about garish words like ecstasy and instead just consider the “mindless spontaneity”—the lack of mental rigidity—suggested by countless Zen exchanges like this one, from The Blue Cliff Record:
Zen master Chung Kuo-shih calls upon his attendant. The attendant appears and the master says, “Thank you for coming, but I don’t need you now.” A little later, the same thing happens. The text reports:
“Since the attendant was a veteran monk, the second call was fresh and new and so was the third call. He never became dulled by repetition because he was no longer oriented to sequence. Every impulse from the vernal universe was of interest to him.”
Chung Kuo-shih’s seemingly purposeless calls to his attendant continue thus for eighteen years (!), until his attendant’s enlightenment! How can we become “no longer oriented to sequence?” How can we “never become dulled by repetition?” How can we “let go of our hold on life?”
William James said, “Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.” But by living more and more in the mindless depths of being, we can stay ever “in the plastic state.”
You know who else really gets this stuff? David Bowie, that’s who really gets this stuff. “Things that happened in the past only happened in your mind, only in your mind. Forget your mind and you’ll be free…” (I know he didn’t write the song, but he brought it to life and imbued it forever with his most magnificent Bowie-ness.)
So hurl yourself into your meditation or prayer or visionary practice. Tumble into mindlessness as often and as deeply as you can. If your meditation or prayer practice is not moving you in this direction, why isn’t it? As the great poet Rilke told us, live in the question: How does the mind become or stay fresh, spontaneous, and new? There are worst questions to hang out with.
Incase you’ve not gotten enough music on this post, here’s Van Morrison singing to us about how he will never grow so old again:
You know one fine thing you could do to work against your mental rigidity? Why, you could subscribe to my email list! That’s what! I mean, how often do you sign up for Open Hand email lists? Amiright?
“Un-Happiness is a retardation of the eliminative exercise….”
—Adi Da Samraj
For decades I thought I was not an “accumulator,” because I love getting rid of stuff—clothes, books, furniture, kitchen utensils. It drives my wife a little batty. There are trips out to IKEA to buy something like a new end-table because I threw out a perfectly good one that had been sitting harmlessly in our basement storage room.
But in recent years I’ve had to face the fact that I accumulate all kinds of shit. I hoard, for example, “insights” into my head. Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh compares collecting insights to collecting pebbles in our pants pockets. Before we know it, he says, we are weighted down with pounds of bulging pebbles. Word.
Also, I am constipated with baroque concepts of what psycho-spiritual growth is, what it looks like, how “it all” works, how it must and must not proceed, in what order, and where I stand in that tangled conceptual jungle. These “knowings”—the accretions of too much thinking and reading—clog up my psyche like vast landfills.
“Un-happiness is the self-contraction itself, retention, the inability to release, to let go, to be continuous with the present moment of existence. The self-contraction [the ego] is the self-toxifying motive. It backs up all the forces of life…”
And according to Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart:
“Everything is meant to be lost, that the soul may stand in unhampered nothingness.”
Here is Steve Martin demonstrating the inability to release and let go.
Adi Da points out that although this allergy to release is inherent to the ego, it is also culturally reinforced. We are trained to live and think as consumers. All advertisers know the axiom of the Western psyche: “What’s in it for me? What do I get?”:
“[In conventional society] You are not supposed to think of yourself as an eliminative character. You are supposed to think of yourself as an acquisitive character—someone who acquires things, the consumer always stuffing itself, filling itself, consoling itself…
“The entire ‘Westernized’ society—which is basically the world-society today—is based on the consumer psychology, not the eliminative psychology of free being.”
This acquisitive mindset characterizes much ordinary religion, too.
“Conventional religion is just another consumer product for un-Happy people who cannot release and let go of things, and who (because they are in a self-toxified state physically, psychically, and altogether) need to console themselves with illusions. Conventional religion is a plastic hamburger for the mind…It is just a support for a living being that cannot be free, that cannot release itself.”
Here’s a man who plainly has not been a good eliminator for most of his life but who now seems to be getting the hang of it.
Stuff To Do
* List your accumulations. Brainstorm everything you think you might collect, acquire, own, curate, hoard and hold on to, including within the dusty museum of your mind. Write about them in a free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness way. Simply explore. Bring in some gentle awareness.
* Get into pooping. The physical, elemental aspect of elimination is not nothing. It can impact and inform your whole psyche. Do a round of colonics. Eat way more raw plant foods and fermented foods. Do an herbal colon cleanse. Make sure you’re having at least three bowel movements a day. Again, Adi Da:
“In order to be free…you must (among other things) somehow come to terms with the fact that you (as the body-mind) are an eliminative character, and you must begin to live as such. Get amused with it. Get strong with it. Somehow you must feel right with the idea that you are an eliminator. You must feel it as an expression of your strength, your freedom, your purity.”
“…(in your un-Happiness) you do not find others attractive as eliminators. You find others attractive as accumulators, or owners. This attitude has become the design of human consciousness everywhere, and human beings have become consumers and owners—associated with attributes, clinging to forms, substances, states, imageries. You release nothing and you are not free.”
“The body is a food bag, a food sheath, a big balloon, a vessel. It needs to communicate substances to itself to regenerate its cellular existence, but when it accumulates it goes out of balance. It must eliminate, most basically.”
(It’s not for nothing that Bertrand Russell said that the ultimate secret to happiness was two regular bowel movements per day.)
* Purge physical stuff. If you are the type who accumulates material things, do a purge of your home. For that, there’s no more inspiring a book than The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (though the author seems a bit on the OCD-ish side about getting rid of stuff). But try not to piss off your spouse. None of us need any extra trips to IKEA.
* Feel and enjoy your exhalations. Get into them, emotionally. Yes, receive fully, with each inhalation, but allow and enjoy the small, mini-death-relinquishment of your exhalations. Notice how the exhalation feels more like surrender.
Lastly, you could release your fear of getting super awesome emails by subscribing to my email list. I’ll send you new posts as they go up, plus—occasionally—other cool stuff, which, to be honest, I’ve not thought up yet. But I will.
Have you ever had the hunch that our (North American) obsession with “washboard abs” and “six pack abs” is demented? ‘Turns out you’re right. Spiritually speaking, the belly—rather than being smushed back and shrunken behind a tight, narrow plate of tissue that feels like corrugated steel—should be vital, potent, and full. Alive with presence, awareness, feeling, and power.
The belly area—especially the region just below and behind your navel—is called the Tan Tien in China and the Hara in Japan, and, in these cultures,it is a big deal. That’s why images of the Buddha portray Him with a full, round belly. Adi Da says,
“A truly spiritual individual is very strong. Traditionally, in Japan and certain other places, the vital center is valued and protected. Wherever you want to pinpoint its center, in the navel, or just below, the vital area is that entire region of the body extending from the solar plexus, or even the heart and lungs, down to the anus. It should be strong, not weak. There should be force there.”
To feel ourselves—our essence, our awareness, our sense of self—centered in the belly, is to be grounded in a much more spontaneous, intuitive, instinctual mode of being. Many Eastern systems of spirituality and development teach that an over-emphasis on the verbal, discursive intellect (ala most of us Westerners) “over heats” the mind and head. What you want, ideally, is a “cool,” quiet head and a great “fire in the belly.”
“The generalised pathology of individuals in Western culture is an exclusive identification with their own head and upper body awareness—resulting in an incapacity to ground their self-awareness in their lower body, and centre it in the hara.”
—Head, Heart and Hara, Peter Wilberg
In Japan, when a person has cultivated a deep, rooted presence in the lower-belly region of the Hara, they say that he or she “has Hara.” And,
“He who has Hara can be prepared for anything and everything, even for death, and keep calm in any situation…With Hara the world looks different, it is as it is, always different from what one wants it to be and yet always in harmony. Self-will causes suffering. Suffering denotes deviation from the Great Unity and reveals the truth of the Whole. The ordinary eye does not see this—the Hara sense apprehends it, and only when will, feeling and intellect are ‘comprehended’ in Hara do they cease to resist what is, and instead, through it, serve the ‘way’ in which all things are contained. To discover that way, to recognize it and thereafter never to lose it is tantamount to genuine striving for Hara.”
—Hara: The Vital Center of Man, Karlfried Graf Durekheim
Graf Durekheim goes on to say that, “…in Hara there is a supernatural force which makes possible extraordinary natural achievement in the world.” And: “The practice of Hara is based on an insight into the region where Man’s deeper possibilities and powers have their roots, and consequently where, in the practice of any art, the physical centre of gravity should be.”
In his book, Tan Tien Chi Kung, the great qigong master, Mantak Chia, concurs: “We can use the gut as a brain and allow the head brain to rest. Why is this important? Because the head brain is a ‘monkey mind,’ riddled with doubt, shame, guilt, and suspicion. It is always thinking, planning, or worrying…We should train the upper mind to be relaxed and to just observe when we do not need it to be involved in specific mental activity…When the upper brain is resting, brain repair and maintenance occur, and new brain cells can grow. This is the reason Taoism insists that we train the feeling and awareness brain in the gut…”
So yes, centering our awareness in our Hara or Tan Tien or lower belly is a good, grounding practice. Cultivating strength, force, heat, energy there is a wise thing to do. These practices create health, calmness and equanimity; they quiet the mind.
But opening the belly can go far beyond that. In the esoteric Traditions of the East, it is understood that, when the being is radically opened to the Spirit Force, it can fill and open the “vital” so dramatically that actual, physical changes happen. The belly region actually gets huge and Buddha-like! Swami Nityananda, revered by millions in India, is a fine example.
Adi Da Samraj says, “Look at Swami Nityananda—He severed heads all His life. Look at His belly—He is no mere celibate! He happened not to indulge in the sex act, but only because celibacy was His quality, not because He was incapable of sex or had some sort of moral preference not to have sex. No, he was stiff with life, Full of life, so much so that His belly became huge with Spiritual Force…”
Here are some more. If you’ve grown up in the West and/or are just sceptical about certain unfamiliar spiritual possibilities, you’ll probably think these are just a bunch of fat guys who eat too much and need to do go to Crossfit. Maybe. But maybe not. See if you can intuitively feel, just by looking at them, that these cats might have something else entirely going on. The first is Neem Karoli Baba (the Guru of Ram Das and musician Krishna Das). You can’t actually see His belly in this photo (I couldn’t find one in which you could), but you can imagine it pretty easily.
And here is Swami Rudrinanda.
And a photo of a very young Adi Da Samraj in India:
So how do our tummies get unhappy—constricted, knotted, clenched? Adi Da says it is a symptom of what He calls “vital shock.” Vital shock is, “…the awakening of Consciousness Itself into apparent identification with the form of life…Birth is that shock, not merely the original physical event that may be remembered, but every moment’s cognition of being alive”—alive as an apparently separate, discreet, dying entity.
In other words, when the Infinite Field of Consciousness identifies Itself with a separate body and mind, it creates contraction throughout the whole being. This is the ego, which Adi Da calls the “self-contraction.” And we feel it most profoundly in “the vital.”
“This vital center is like the shutter of a camera. Like the shutter in a camera, it curls in on itself in order to close, or else it unfurls in order to open. It is like your hand. If you clench your fist and hold it together as tightly as you can, it begins to become painful. Just so, this vital center is alive, sentient,and when it contracts, like your hand, it causes a sensation. It causes not only a physical sensation, but also many other reflections in life and consciousness. Therefore, when this contraction occurs in the vital, you not only get a cramp in the stomach, but you have a whole life of suffering.”
“Every aspect of vital existence is controlled by this image, this state, this vital shock…what people are suffering is not their peculiar life-patterns, or strategies, in themselves, but this original shock, in the form of a primary reaction, this contraction…”
—Adi Da Samraj
The self-contraction—the chronic activity of doing egoity, of being the separate-self-sense—inherently contracts the entire vital region of the body. And, “Every person seeks by every means to be relieved of his or her suffering, but the suffering cannot be relieved, this contraction cannot be uncoiled, without the ‘me’, which is its center, dissolving.” And that, of course, is the work of our Spiritual practice. He says, “Real spiritual life involves the undermining of the whole point of view of vital shock.”
“When the contraction unwinds, conductivity replaces obstruction…As long as this compulsive contraction, or shock, exists, there is no conductivity. There is only obstruction, or limitation and constriction, of the flow of life.”
Stuff to do
1) Simply put your awareness in your belly-region as often as you can remember to do it. Martial art legend Peter Ralston describes this in his book, Zen Body-Being:
“Our usual tendency is to continually hold our awareness too high up, closer to the head…In locating the body’s center, an instant unification takes place…It’s useful to center your attention in the mid-section to increase your sense of body presence…but ‘centering’ isn’t something mystical, as some like to hold it. It is simply locating the place in the body that is middle to the mass. Physically sensing the area of the lower abdomen should do it.”
2) Unwind the knots in your belly through direct, physical manipulation. Ideally, get yourself some bodywork, like Maya Abdominal Massage, Chi Nei Tsang or Rolfing. But, failing that, you can also do a lot of good work on yourself. The book to read is Unwinding the Belly.
Or, here’s another cool approach:
3) Belly breathing. Throughout your day, whenever you think about it, breathe slowly and fully, into and out of your belly. Feel your breaths 3-dimensionally, too—expanding and relaxing your low back, the sides of your body, and so on.
4) Practice qigong (aka chi kung). My acupuncturist once told me to do this practice every night: put my feet in hot water, then, while standing there (I used a big metal pot, but a few inches of hot water in the bathtub would work, too) in the hot water, imagine a big ball of fire growing in my lower belly (Tan Tien or Hara). (There was some specific number I was supposed to count up to while imagining the fire-ball growing, and a different number to count down to while imagining it shrinking, but I can’t remember that part.) Manta Chia guides us to “smile into” the belly, as a practice.
5) Practice simply relaxing your belly. Soften the whole area. Allow yourself to feel there. Adi Da instructs us to relax and soften the entire “frontal line” of the body, to allow the ever-descending, incarnating life force to circulate down the whole front of the body.
Lastly, think how your belly will relax and unwind knowing that you will not miss a single jolly post of Spirit Mojo! This you can do by subscribing! Also, while you’re at it, if you know someone who has a belly, why not send them this post! Their tummy will thank you.
Do you ever try to look or act “spiritual?” When I was a little kid my family got involved in Transcendental Meditation. And right after we meditated we’d all act cartoonishly “blissed out” and mellow. Like we’d had frontal lobotomies. What made this especially comical (and head-explodingly ironic) is that our family was a war zone of alcoholic dysfunction and abuse; all of us were swimming in shame, pain, terror, and loathing. But there we were, floating out of our bedrooms, after having just done our little 20 minutes of TM, with these fake, daffy, beatific expressions of sublime peacefulness on our faces.
When I got into a Zen community at age 15 there was a different way to look and act spiritual – or more specifically, Zenny. To look and act Zenny you tried to appear really “present” and “mindful.” This usually amounted to moving and talking at a glacial pace, performing simple physical movements with geological slowness. You opened a book like you were defusing a bomb, lifted a cup of tea like it was filled with nitro glycerine.
Last anecdote: A guy recently freaked out on me because of my love of MMA (Mixed Martial Art). How, he demanded to know, could a man who professes to be so engaged in spiritual practice enjoy watching something as grotesquely unspiritual and barbaric as MMA?
Most of us who are “into spirituality” have a bunch of images and preconceptions in our heads about what’s spiritual and what’s not. And we often find ourselves trying to look, speak, and behave in accordance with those images and preconceptions – trying to appear (to others or just to ourselves) like they’re true of us. This undermines our actual practice. It also makes us full of shit.
Spiritual qualities either show up spontaneously or they’re bullshit
The truth is that when qualities we think of as spiritual genuinely manifest in a person, they show up spontaneously, mindlessly, unselfconsciously. Those sorts of so-called spiritual qualities are either free, native expressions, without our even noticing, or they’re not. So if you ask me, it’s best to just dump all those rose-tinted, sandalwood-besotted, Japanese-shakuhachi-flute accompanied (or Native American flute accompanied), or sitar-accompanied ideals.
About spiritual ideals
But – you say – aren’t ideals good? Don’t ideals of, say, selflessness, compassion, mindfulness, inner-peace, and so on help to make them manifest? What about “as a man think thinketh?” What about “act as if?”
So here’s what I think about spiritual ideals: They’re fine as long as, 1) You don’t pretend, to yourself or to others, that they’re true of you when they’re not (the “act as if” principle is not supposed to be delusional…you are supposed to know that you are acting as if). 2) You don’t beat yourself up for not living up to them; contrary to popular opinion, beating yourself up for not living up to an ideal does not actually propel you toward that ideal. 3) You hold your ideals very loosely indeed, for the simple reason that, most of the time, our spiritual ideals are infinitely more tiny, lifeless, desiccated, and boring than the real gifts of spiritual life, and if we fixate too rigidly on the waxy ideals we’ve cooked up, we can shut out the real gifts.
“Acting” spiritual comes from shame
The bottom line is that, if you’re “acting” or “looking” spiritual, it’s because of shame. You do not accept the person you are without those traits, qualities, or characteristics. And as the platitude goes, “If you’re not whole without it, you’re not whole with it.” You’re not willing to just be where you’re at, for real – the unmindful, lustful, greedy, agitated, worrying, uncompassionate (or whatever…pick your poison) person you actually, plain old, factually are, right now, right here, today.
My first antidote to shame-based idealism: Henry Miller
The first time I tasted exuberant liberation from my own constricting spiritual ideals was when I was 16 and discovered Henry Miller. He had countless qualities that healed and awakened new dimensions in me—his gusto, his robust joy, his insatiable appetite for life, his wildness. But the very first thing that swept me off my feet was his unapologetic, lusty, arms-thrown-wide embrace of his own imperfections. His lust, his selfishness, his lying, his cruelty, his laziness, his cowardice – it was all, to Miller, beautiful divine nonsense. It was all to be celebrated. The first book that I read, Tropic of Cancer, is filled with sentiments like: “I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts, nor my actions,” that were like nectar to my 16 year old self. He was revolutionary for me, sandblasting big, crusty gobs of spiritual perfectionism off of my soul.
Adi Da Samraj: What do you care what’s true of you?
Adi Da Samraj exhorts His devotees to a ruthless honesty and a reckless indifference to the harshest truths of ourselves, of where we’re really at.
“One of the things you should notice about Me, from reading the History of My ‘Sadhana Years’, is that I never cared one whit what was ‘wrong’ with the body-mind. I did not have the slightest inclination to dissociate Myself or protect Myself from whatever I might notice, whatever might be the case…
“So you should be. Why should you care what the particular impediments of your own egoic design are, and what its contents are? Why should you be hiding about any of that?…Why should you care one whit about what your ego-patterning contains…? As My devotee, you should have no such concerns whatsoever.”
—Adi Da Samraj, My ‘Bright’ Form, pp. 453-454
He drives home the same point on an old audio cassette (!) called Practice In Your Vulnerable Heart, addressing how reluctant we are to reveal our true, unflattering (un-“spiritual”) dimensions,
“…all because everything’s so precious to you, you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to confess it, you don’t want to upset the boat, you don’t want to deal with it, you don’t want to notice anything about it, you don’t want to take responsibility for it…”
Adi Da goes on to discuss the serious devotee, one who deeply intuits the Greater Reality, the Divine Reality. “Such a one,” He says, “can be profoundly liberal with consideration, able and willing to investigate anything, confess anything…What do you care what’s true of you? What obnoxiousness, what stupidity, what foulness, what crazyness? What do you care? It’s true in any case! So why should you be concerned about what the content is?”
Then, my favorite turn in this delicious Talk, is where He equates the willingness to see and own our hidden flaws with adventurousness! He confronts the group He’s talking to with their self-protectiveness, pointing out that they are, “…not really willing to be truly vulnerable and go beyond. You have no adventure in you!”
Still crazy after all these years
It can be harder to accept our multifarious species of egoic ugliness when we’ve been at spiritual life for many years – maybe even decades. The voice in our head goes: “You’ve been doing all this meditating, praying, chanting, service, and studying for three (or however many) freaking decades and look at you, screaming psychotically at that driver (or holding onto this petty grudge, or judging that whole group of people, or ogling the body parts of that person, or binge watching reality TV, or struggling with anxiety, codependency, depression, OCD, or an addiction, yada, yada, yada).”
When that voice is yammering in your head, do like this: first, be open to the possibility that maybe you really have been going about your practice in some fundamentally wrong way. Know that even if that’s true, even after decades, it’s still not some terrible catastrophe. Spiritual life is largely a process of precisely such humbling, deconstructing realizations – not a preening progression of ever-increasing victories. Back to square one, back to the old drawing board, is the shit! That’s where it’s at! Even if you’re 90 years old!
If you think THIS is bad, you should see me if I had NOT been doing spiritual practice!
Plus, it’s often the case that, no matter how fucked up and unspiritual you may seem (or actually be), it’s quite possible that you would’ve been a gazillion times worst if you had not been doing your practice. For example, if I scream like a psycho at someone’s shitty driving, does that invalidate my spirituality? It might. From the conventional, popular perspective it’s certainly not a stellar advertisement for it. But, from my point of view, given the nuclear trainwreck of my childhood, I’m just lucky to not be living in a dumpster having heated arguments with rats. It’s all relative, baby.
You may need a new scale
Here’s another thought: if you’ve been practicing for years and years, and you think you should be, “further along the path” than you are, it may be because you’ve been programmed by Western, pop, consumer spirituality, which has taught you that advancement in spiritual practice is – or should be – a quick, easy, trifling thing—“Enlightenment from a weekend workshop,” and all that unmitigated horseshit. Real spiritual life is an infinitely more profound ordeal than most Westerners suspect. Few American seekers have even the remotest idea of the epic odyssey of authentic spiritual transformation.
The traditions that churn out awakened people like hot cakes – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, etc. – understand that reincarnation is simply how things work. Hence the great journey of liberation goes on lifetime after lifetime. From that wide perspective, your “grand 30 years of practice” is nothing! A drop in the bucket. Why else do you think Zen (and Adidam) have you take eternal vows? So be patient. Take the long view. Chill out. Sure, maybe you’re a steaming hot mess, but you’re probably purifying karmas of being a mass murderer or a member of a boy band in some past life.
A cosmic enema: Purification is an orgy of humility
It’s also quite possible that you’ve gotten more crazy, dickish, unloving, and dysfunctional since you began your spiritual practice. If so, congratulations! Because, my friends, spiritual practice done right purifies like a motherfucker.
Purification doesn’t mean that our Baroque neuroses and insecurities magically vanish. Quite the contrary. It means that all that stuff comes bubbling up into your face and spilling all over the damn place in our lives. Latent, once-dormant monsters of kookiness get roused from their slumbers. Very messy. Very unbecoming. In the talk, The Divine Does the Yoga (My “Bright” Sight, pp.34-35ish), Adi Da refers to the purification process as a “cosmic enema!” He also says,
“People imagine that, as soon as you contact the Guru, things all of a sudden become sweet and ’groovy’, and you are just smiling all the time…No—stuff immediately starts coming up within and without, at every level of your psycho-physical life.”
And this can certainly be equally true of NON-Guru-related spiritual practices. So the non-ideal traits that are horrifying you might well be signs that your practice is working exquisitely!
Or it could also be that you’re finally just seeing stuff that’s always been there, but you had blind spots the size of Idaho. (I am most definitely scheming a whole post on the topic of purification…big topic!)
And remember, if you berate yourself for falling short of a bunch of saintly, cartoonish ideals, your non-acceptance will act as a major blinder, making it almost impossible to see and take responsibility for these ostensibly unsavory parts of yourself. So welcome the crazy! Embrace that shit, like Henry Miller!
Stuff to do
1) Make a list of all the traits, qualities, and characteristics you think a “spiritual” person should embody. Visualize yourself acting out the exact opposite of all of them. Notice, in your day-to-day life, when you actually do act out the opposite of them. Then pretend that you dig the hell out of that person you’re visualizing (or being). Make believe that you adore that person (act as if!). Extra credit: deliberately act out some of those unspiritual traits in real life (if you can do that without hurting anyone). Excellent medicine!
Remember when George Costanza did the opposite of everything he would normally do? This is like that, but you do the opposite of everything a “spiritual” person would do. You might learn more from a week of this than you would from 10 years of trying to act spiritual.
2) When you see yourself falling short of some sort of quasi-spiritual ideal – you catch yourself being mean, or losing your temper, or binging on TV or pizza, or watching clips of MMA icon Nate Diaz on YouTube – use it. That is, instead of saying, “Dammit, I fucked up. Tomorrow I’m not going to fail like this. I’m going to turn over a new leaf and live up to how a spiritual person should be,” just soften and accept the humility your “unspiritual” behavior gives you.
Adi Da often spoke of how spiritual life is—always and constantly—a process of losing face, in ever more squirmy, uncomfortable, mortifying ways. Allow that humility to open you, to tenderize you, to make you more available, porous, teachable; to put you in touch with your totally embarrassing but strangely delectable need for grace.
3) View your images of what’s spiritual and what’s not spiritual with grave suspicion. There are good reasons that countless great spiritual masters – including Adi Da Samraj – worked ceaselessly to demolish people’s fixed preconceptions about spirituality and virtue. That’s what the Crazy Wise Masters were all about. Zen masters, Tibetan Drukpas, Sufi mystics, Taoist sages, Christian fools, all of them took atomic sledgehammers to people’s pious, righteous, dualistic images and beliefs about spirituality. They did this because we all tend to cling – our egos tend to cling – to those images and certainties so that we can stay in control—so that our egos can stay in control. Those images are our egos’ idolatrous teddy bears.
And, ironically enough, we use them – these images and ideals – to avoid the formless, mad, ontological freefall of real dissolution in God. If the conceptual mind doesn’t know what “spiritual” is, then we are forced to surrender into the wild silence and mysteries of the heart. That surrender, that dissolution in Radiant Consciousness, is the only place from which true virtue, true saintly ways of being, flower and shine. And apparently, we won’t even notice when that’s happening.
4) Sometimes it can be good to try to oppose or discipline some of our nastiness, craziness, and neuroses. If you’re into McDonald’s food or Internet porn or people in octagonal cages trying to cause grievous bodily harm to each other while a stadium full of drunken, douchey bros scream for blood, you stop doing that thing, or try to stop. In Adidam we call this counter-egoic action.
The crucial point when it comes to counter egoic action is to know why you’re doing it. In Adidam we do it because (or at least were supposed to do it because) by “working against the grain” of our tendencies and patterns, our self understanding deepens and this, in turn, allows us to turn to the Guru more fully.
The idea is that our every little outbreak of nastiness, kookiness, addiction, and neuroses comes from a place in our being where we are withholding from the God Light, a place where we are contracting from the bliss of Being, a place where we are clinging to unhappiness. It’s so useful to become sensitized to these unhappy rituals and patterns, to find out what we’re really up to. To excavate the clench of egoic pain beneath all our little crazinesses. So we take on various counter egoicdisciplines to magnify our practice.
But that is a radically different thing than taking them on arbitrarily to be a “good boy” or a “good girl,” to live up to some generalized image or ideal. It’s a radically different thing than trying to look or act spiritual, virtuous, or saintly in the eyes of others, or even just in the eyes of the inner-critic in our own heads.
While there are easily 10,000 disciplines I could try to take on, disciplines that might make me look more Dalai Lama-ish, that would be idiotic. Instead, in Adidam, we try to be highly targeted, picking those targeted, heat-seeking disciplines that are most leveraged, that give us the most bang for our buck, that most push us up against our edge. The ones that really make us squirm.
For example, being much more emotionally vulnerable with my wife, and not dramatizing with her the “mood of you don’t love me,” but, instead, assuming the adult responsibility of being love. Or like not indulging in my lifelong addiction to alter my mood by filling my head with future-hope images (my favorite drug). Or like not complaining, or in any way dramatizing the disposition of victim, or self-pity. Those kinds of disciplines are challenging af. They get at the heart of some real shit. They press me up against my limits, hard. But quitting silly, dumbass MMA? Not so much. It would please that critical guy, I guess, but it wouldn’t do much else. So if you think taking on some counter egoic disciplines might deepen your practice—but without playing the game of trying to look spiritual, together, whatever—give it a try.
Lastly, just think how unspiritual it will make you look to subscribe to another time-wasting blog online, like, say, this one! Feel the burn of humility! Mmmmm. So yummy.
Also, consider the excellent procrastinating you could accomplish by leaving a comment! (Spiritual people don’t procrastinate, right?) Do you ever find yourself “acting” spiritual? Or beating yourself up for not living up to some sort of quasi-spiritual ideal? Leave a comment and let the world know! Or at least the ten people who read this blog. You’ll feel better (that is not a legally binding claim).
Are you a self-inflator or a self-deflator? Do you tend to think you’re better or worst than other people? I know. The “appropriate” part of your brain says, “Oh, well, I’m neither inferior nor superior, because in our essence we’re all equal. In fact, we’re all one.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. I’m not talking to that part of your brain. I’m talking to your Cro-Magnon brain. Your drooling, uncouth “id.” So what do you think? As you walk around, in your day-to-day life, do you tend to feel superior or inferior to others? Are you Sterling Archer or Cyril Figgis?
I know it can be more convoluted than that. For example, deep down inside, self-inflating types feel soul-curdlingly inferior. Self-inflating is—notoriously—a compensation. Psych 101. Conversely, if you do a little excavating, you find that self-deflating types secretly feel superior to others, in weasley, furtive ways. Or something. I don’t know. It’s like the layers of an onion, but a deeply fucked up, MC Escher-ish onion. Like the Upanishads say, “This maya is epically FUBAR” (actually, if you want to get nitpicky, it says, “This maya cannot be comprehended”).
For most of us, some degree of inferiority and superiority phase chaotically in and out. When I was a teenager I heard the Zen priest Reb Anderson give a talk at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center about how everyone goes through cycles of “puffing up” and “leaking out.” He said that the more puffed up we get, the more likely we are to have a dramatic deflation, a sudden “popping” of our personal balloon of self-imagery.
Nevertheless, for most people, one of those tendencies—either inferiority or superiority—does seem to predominate. Sometimes these tendencies even manifest bodily. In Rolfing Structural Integration, they teach that the inflated character often has a broader, bigger chest, because their ribcage is “inspiration fixed,” puffed up, locked in the gesture of inhalation, shoulders molded into a pulled-back asana. They frequently have high, fixed arches in their feet, too. In Rolfing parlance, they, “can’t get down to earth.”
Conversely, deflated character-types tend to have more collapsed ribcages, fixed perpetually in the gesture of exhalation. They frequently have lower or non-existent arches. They “can’t get up off the earth.”
Adi Da says that it makes not the slightest difference which one you are. They’re both bullshit. They’re both—according not just to Adi Da but to many teachers and teachings—the gaudy ephemera of a subjective persona that in no way actually exists. They’re both the doofus somersaults of a self-enchanted mirage. The glorious-or-horrific “me” I parade around as all day just isn’t a thing.
“[Some have] an idealized sense of [themselves.] Others are chronically double-minded, or full of doubt, and obsessed with failure. In other words, some individuals feel superior, and others feel inferior, and some alternate between the two. Whatever your characteristic strategy of reluctance, it is not [the practice.] [The practice]…has nothing to do with an idealized self-image or with self-doubt. All of that is to be relinquished and not felt to be important by one who is given over to [the practice.]”
—Adi Da Samraj
Nevertheless, it is useful to know which one you tend toward. Not in hopes of fixing the damn thing. It’s just a homely piece of basic self-understanding. It simply gives you some basic discrimination and clarity about the distortions you tend to introduce into your practice. Having this bit of knowledge about yourself is like that phrase on your car’s side-view mirror that says, “objects are closer than they appear”—it helps you make adjustments and allowances for your silly antics. It supplies a bracing sense of suspicion toward your own perceptions and interpretations.
Knowing this about yourself is also deliciously humbling and that’s always excellent for spiritual practice because it makes you teachable. Lastly, your little dog-and-pony act—“I’m so lowly” or “I’m so amazing,” either one—becomes an endless source of amusement and hilarity at parties. You could turn it into an outstanding drinking game.
Here, in one 4-second clip, Kramer captures the essence of the inferior, self-deprecatory type.
On the other hand, the self-inflating, superior type can receive even the most humbling “reality feedback” in life and somehow still remain inflated and in denial. Just like the Black Knight.
Stuff To Do
As I suggested above, the game here is merely to get clear about which tendency you most embody. Here are some ways to do that.
1) Throw yourself into community. Or, if you already practice in community, engage with it more closely and energetically. I already wrote a post about this. Really observe how people interact with you and the effect you have on them. Notice if you feel better or worst than people.
2) Take this simple quiz: Is the whole topic of this post not that interesting to you? Does it kind of make you shrug? Can’t see the point? Not concerned about it? You, my friend, are the self-inflatey, superior type! No charge. You’re welcome.
Here’s what I’m getting at. The inferiority tendency hurts more, so it automatically inspires you to want to transcend it. Or integrate it. Or for fuck’s sake do something with it. On the other hand, walking around subtly (or even not-subtly) feeling better than everyone else feels (or sure seems to feel) pretty awesome. So neither is “better” than the other—they’re both just arbitrary plasticene shapes smooshed into the clay—but the self-deprecating tendency is in this sense “better:” self-inflating, superior-types have zero motivation to do anything about their pattern, or even to notice that they’re trapped in a pattern, because it feels (superficially) great.
3) Harkening back to my Rolfing descriptions, above, of how the superior, inflated type and the inferior, deflated character-types can manifest bodily, play with these breathing options:
If you’re the deflated, inferior, collapsed type, experiment with emphasizing the inhalation side of your breaths. Feel that more. “Get into” that more. Your type (my type, fyi), needs more inspiration. Literally.
If you’re the inflated, superior type (and you’ve miraculously realized that it’s a pattern that holds you back in your practice), explore emphasizing the exhalation side of your breathing. Really let yourself fully release and let go with each breath.
Do good things for Spirit Mojo!
Of course, both types will benefit exponentially by urgently heeding my usual calls of action, to wit: 1) Subscribe to this blog! Use the handy button at the top right of the page! Yay! 2) Connect to Spirit Mojo on Facebook. 3) Comment below! So many exclamation points…