J2PMonday: Who goes first?

When I explain my beliefs about healing yourself as the primary vehicle of healing the world, I regularly encounter naysayers who believe absolutely in offering service and see self-healing as selfish.  I’ve never quite understood why one has to exclude the other.

There’s an ancient schism in Buddhism between those who believe all must be enlightened before “you” become enlightened — in other words that you must help to bring everyone before you get there yourself– and those who believe in an individual path of enlightenment.  I say, maybe we need both.  Even more, maybe we need to find a way to wed the two.

I kind of like the series of paths to enlightenment in yogic thinking, in which there are various ways to reach enlightenment.  It’s open to each person to feel which one draws them and to follow the path that best suits.  The paths include practices for both self-healing and service.  I believe every spiritual path can lead to healing and/or enlightenment.

I used to do a lot of volunteer work and as I feel better I consider doing it again.  I also held various jobs in the “public interest” sector and I like doing work that feels good.  But in those positions, both volunteer and paid, I was often disturbed by the motivations, the negative feelings and the arrogant presumptions of “rightness” that permeated.

As I moved along a spiritual path, I began to feel that sometimes it doesn’t help to jump in based on my UNenlightened assumption about what’s best for someone else.  Or that I may do more harm than good if I show up from a place of anger.

I evaluate any agency or program from a viewpoint of whether they seem to be operating from love, listening to the wishes of those they’re helping and creating their plans from the heart instead of the head.

I don’t believe you have to be enlightened to help, but I do think it’s worth stopping and considering.  Taking a moment to look inward and listen to your heart.

I also think it’s perfectly possible to volunteer for a great place and at the same time keep on healing yourself.  I absolutely believe the more you heal yourself the more you heal the world.  I also believe you can absolutely both serve others in some way AND heal yourself.  Why does one have to be first or better or “the right way”?

See previous posts for more on healing self and world:

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Singing Chants and Lovingkindness

By Michel Royon on Wikimedia

Sunday was the 20th day of Deva Premal and Miten’s 21 Day Meditation series and I was a little behind.  So when it was time to do my Sunday peace prayer I also wanted to do the meditation that would catch me up and have me ready for the big Gayatri day on Monday.

I’ve really loved this 21 days of chanting but the 20th entry disappointed me a little.  Instead of openly singing the chant they had written a song that expressed the sentiments of the chant.  I listened for quite a while before realizing there was a chorus of the chant going on so subtly in the background that I didn’t realize it was happening.  I’ve loved singing the chants and they have opened my heart and gotten my energy flowing so just lying there listening to this song didn’t do it for me.

I have the chant, Om Kama Pujitayei Namaha, on their Mantras for Precarious Times so I chanted with that before getting to metta.  The chant brought me to saying the lovingkindness chant from such a lovely, open space, I may sing one of those chants before I chant for peace every time.

The last couple of months has brought a variety of challenges that have asked me to do some practice or another regularly– sometimes I’ve been doing two or three at once and having to get in several things.  I’ve been loving the way it has kept me immersed and moving and opening.  That included one of Deepak’s 21 day meditation series.  I’ve done 4 or 5 of his series now and enjoyed them but none for me have compared with the extraordinary experience of singing these chants with Deva.

The culmination was a an invitation to the world to join in Gayatri on the 21st day.  Suggested times were 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.  I was slightly late for the 7 p.m. time but got in soon enough to overlap with people who started on time.  I felt such power from the chant and the sense of energy connecting around the world that I played the chant on a repeating loop softly in the background for the rest of the evening.

I’ve been listening to Deva’s chants for a few years now but, not knowing the words to most of them, I didn’t sing along.  The chants have such power that you can keep a track or a CD repeating and the energy in a room starts shifting.  So I’ve felt their power but still it came as a surprise to sing the chants and feel their power surge through me.  I’m hooked!

Pondering my philosophy

A while back I wrote a post in which I discussed the many variations in spiritual paths and concluded that it’s a good idea to decide what principles you believe, especially if you’ve chosen to follow more than one path. At the time I was becoming aware that my eclectic path—from New Age to Huna to Buddhism to Hopi with a big vein of yoga and dollops of Sufi, Taoism and more—had left me confused and that the choice I advocated was one I needed to make.

More recently it came into clearer focus. I realized that in a lot of ways I’ve been just been spinning in place since I started studying Buddhism 14 years ago. Up until then I followed the New Age philosophy that “you create your own reality” and then I became interested in Huna, which, on the surface, is probably the closest tradition to New Age—at least as taught by the few teachers who write about Huna. The core belief that what you think (believe) creates reality means that if you change your thoughts you change your life. Currently this idea is discussed more as the Law of Attraction.

Teachings on this path encourage you to create and affirm visions of what you want in order to have the life you wish. Buddhism (among others) advises that you should not want anything—or that’s how it always seems to me. Desires and attachments, according to this thinking, lead to suffering and the way to end suffering is to end desire and attachment. I know lots of people think that all paths are the same, but, while I see that they all lead to the same place, I find they are often contradictory in their theories of how to get there.

I have long thought that the main thing about any path that leads to success in connecting with your divine nature is the depth of your belief in that path. Because I believe that thoughts create reality, I also think that sincere belief in any path and its precepts leads to God. But following two paths with contradictory beliefs left me without one coherent framework to follow. Hence the spinning.

When I first saw that I’d been going in circles around these conflicting ideas I started trying to resolve it. But for a long time I just alternated between creating a vision of the reality I want and then beating myself up for wanting anything. In the meantime I kept up with practices from meditation to pranayama to chi gung and let my mind contemplate the various principles in the background.

I have a mind that naturally synthesizes so I decided to let it all whirl gently without worrying about it. In recent weeks it’s finally coming together—that’s its own post. If you, like many of us, are dabbling among paths—some Eckhart Tolle here, some Thich Nhat Hanh there, a little Native American saging and weekly yoga classes for instance—you may have some log jams of thinking. It’s worth separating out the various logs to make sure you don’t have opposing concepts running in the background. If your subconscious is confused in the midst of conflicting principles then your practices may not succeed. Personally I think the hardest part is creating your own blend in a way that’s consistent.

Posted for ABC Wednesday – today it’s “P”.


Meditation

Several people lately have asked me for suggestions about quieting and/or focusing the mind. My main suggestion is meditation but there’s more than one sort and I think you have to figure out what works best for you. Every tradition I’ve encountered offers some form of meditation as part of the journey to higher consciousness. Lots of teachers make claims that the particular form of meditation they practice is the one and only way to “truly” meditate. Any time I encounter a teacher who makes such a claim I roll my eyes and never go back. So if you want someone to tell you there’s only one right way to meditate you’ll probably find my approach too eclectic; there are plenty of other teachers out there who’ll be happy to dictate everything you need to do to be “correct”.

One form of meditation that’s found in a number of traditions is mindfulness (which often has other names). The basic idea is to try to empty your mind of all thoughts and sit in the silence. A number of types involve some sort of focus on breath and there are also variations that involve such things as staring at a flame or counting backward from five to one and having to start over every time a thought intrudes, etc. Some forms have very specific requirements as to exactly how you must sit while meditating and some even add details like being wrapped in a shawl or sitting on a particular type of cushion.

In the early years of my journey I was way too antsy for those kinds of focused meditations. At the time the only other form of meditation I knew was guided, so I only practiced guided meditations. Over the years I learned chants and moving practices and mantra meditation and the more I came to understand mindfulness the more I felt that all of those techniques can be used as mindfulness practices.

The main point of mindfulness is to spend time with a quiet mind and to learn to hold that quiet space wherever you go and whatever you do. If you chant and concentrate only on the chant, then you have to learn to keep other thoughts out and stay focused on the chant (the words of the chant generally will have some energetic effect on you also). If you do a walking meditation or practice something like chi gung, you need to keep your mind quiet so that you can stay focused on the movement. Guided meditation requires that you quiet your mind to stay in step with the instructions. To me all of these techniques join the specific mindfulness meditations in helping you to quiet your mind; in a way you’re meditating on the chant or on the movement or on the guided words. Personally I think the universe has provided a wide array of options so that everyone can figure out which type suits best.

A quiet place is the usual recommendation for meditation and, up to a point, I agree. Particularly when you’re new, it’s hard enough to get your wild mind to settle down without having a bunch of distractions. But the ultimate point of all the meditating is to create a state of calm and a quiet mind that is so much who you are that you are calm and quiet in the middle of the Chicago Loop at 5:00 pm. or on the floor of the stock exchange, etc. So I get a kick out of it when people complain about street noise or other distractions when attending a meditation. After all, isn’t that why you’re meditating—to be able to hold the quiet space even when life is busy or noisy? I think of it as a chance to practice being mindful in ordinary life.

Eventually I started practicing vipassana (the Theravadan Buddhist form of mindfulness meditation) successfully. It has never become my preferred form but I think that the years of guided meditation, yoga, chi gung and chanting served to quiet my mind and calm me down enough to be able to “sit vipassana”. If you’ve had trouble meditating, I suggest that you try a different type and if necessary keep trying until you find one that feels good to you.

This post is for ABC Wednesday and today it’s “M”.

To have a self or a no self, that is the question

Kat Atkin dancing in Philly

When I began this journey I was deeply unhappy. I didn’t recognize for many years HOW deeply, but I knew at the time that I was miserable and I had no tools to be anything else. I began the journey as a personal quest to get out of depression and find some measure of happiness. The tools my therapist used—meditation, visualization, past life exploration—had the earmarks of spirituality but for me they were just the means to the end. My new beliefs about thoughts and reality and energy came as a great relief because the world finally made sense to me but none of that sank in as being part of a spiritual path.

After Nine Gates I understood the journey more and more as a spiritual one but my goals still had more to do with exorcizing the past and living a healthier and happier life. When my path led me to Buddhism (see About Leigh for more) I really loved the practices and the eloquence of the Eightfold Path as an expression of the basic tenets of spiritual life. But I’ve never felt like a Buddhist; enough of a New Ager to believe that I get to decide what I want and also not inclined to aim for either enlightenment or achieving “No Self”.

Minute scrutiny of the past and the accompanying release of lots of old stuff eventually led me to see a child who started off as a big personality that was loud and extroverted and wild. I emerged in a family who saw all those qualities as things to be eradicated and I capitulated, withdrawing deeply into myself and eventually creating body armor of muscles that kept that wild girl buried out of sight and out of my mind.

It took me a long time to see that much of my disinterest in getting to No Self is because I haven’t gotten to be My Self. I get that some Buddhists would probably say that’s just my mind wanting to control.*  Could be I’ll agree one day. But for now I can’t detach from a Self I’ve never gotten to be. I want to get to live for a while as that loud, wild girl who got buried before she really lived.

*There’s a lot I agree with about detachment — see the Skye Blaine post below.