City of Angels, Land of Demons
Giving a presentation on humility and non-attachment in Los Angeles is a little like giving a lecture on diabetes at a See’s candy shop. The information is valuable, but how ready is the audience to hear the good news?
I presented a talk earlier this month at a large, yoga-type gathering. The topic: one of Tantra’s most beloved texts, the Devi Mahatmyam. Its central messages of illusion, attachment and surrender echo those offered by Sri Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, and the sage Vasistha inVasistha's Yoga:
We erroneously attach contentment to Prakriti, the changing world, rather than Purusa, our unchanging essence
This illusory mental habit causes suffering
When we remember the illusion and surrender the ego, suffering gives way to liberation
So, presenting these principles in Los Angeles – land of fame and infamy, aspiring yoga rock stars and soul-selling sponsorships – could not have been more perfectly juxtaposed. A local magazine showcased LA’s "biggest influencers" as billion dollar real estate brokers, renowned plastic surgeons and young, innovative bartenders, aka Prakriti. Misguided attachment undergirds so many social customs, like being 'looked through' to someone potentially more interesting behind me, or comparing notes while waiting in line at the sag paneer food truck. At one point, while I relaxed and chatted with a colleague, another celebrated yoga teacher literally had to step over our feet to find her place in front of the camera. Welcome to the hidden underbelly of ATY (All Things Yoga), LA style.
Naturally, I found myself headed down the fruitless pathway of insecurity and self-righteousness (two names for the same thing), a trajectory that is neither glamorous nor satisfying. But before the mind really got rolling, an embarrassingly simple truth revealed itself: we are all seeking something, some sort of union. In fact, we all have our Botox and our cocktail, whatever the individualized permutations. At the root of those surface desires we share an existential hunger for closeness to Spirit that transcends social status, profession, mood or karma. This was poignantly illustrated when a young girl living in Burkina Fasso recently wrote, “I pray that God blesses you.” It is so clear that underneath all the stuff -- or the utter absence of stuff -- our individual hearts collectively yearn for the same union, the same homecoming toward Self.
If I believe that the spiritual journey persists beyond and within all outward projections (and I do), why do I so easily see divinity embodied in a poor child from an impoverished village, but project greed and superficiality into a common social situation when it triggers my own insecurities? That, says the Devi Mahatmyam, is the power of illusion. Illusion (based on conditioning, karma, whatever) keeps us from seeing clearly, from seeing the Divine everywhere. The truth is, divine nature can only be obscured if we allow it to be, thus ensuring our own suffering. Seeing the illusion vaporizes it, producing a mind state that transcends changing external factors. Outward appearances may reflect poverty, affluence, social niceties, uncomfortable behavior, emotional wounds or psychological brilliance. None of it particularly counts, because none of it is ultimate truth. If we stop assigning value to appearances (or, more accurately, to our reactions to appearances), we see the perceptions for what they are – reflections of the changing, material world, not the abiding reality.
That is why we practice, or cultivate sadhana, be it asana or meditation or study with a teacher.Sadhana – regular practice, without break, over a long period of time – eventually forces the deeply held patterns of the mind to the surface, where they can be recognized, uprooted and redirected. Sadhana punctures the grand illusion of separateness, one insidious attachment at a time, and offers a glimpse of the more peaceful internal state. The freedom within us is waiting, if we only remember the illusion that we swim in. It's like watching a movie in a big-scale theater; the moment we step out for popcorn we remember that what is playing on the screen is an artificial production of reality.
Through consistent practice – reading inspirational texts, developing routine in one’s life, practicing asana, meditation, mantra, or devotion – we refine the energy of the mind to see more oneness and less division. We see ourselves and others simply as alternative manifestations of the same consciousness, not as individuals in competition or comparison with one another.
There is no way around personal effort and discipline on this path. Concepts may be grasped and even taught, but oh how quickly the mind is ready to revert to its old habits of criticism, e.g. "that's so rude, she stepped right on top of us." The trench work of translating theory into practice can only be cultivated within, right alongside all those internal preferences and external influences. And so we keep trying, facing one informative experience after another. It may seem tedious or boring at times, but have you ever considered the alternative? Without investing in the process self-reflection and growth, we inadvertently succumb to whatever the world shoves in front of us, whatever will bring temporary pleasure. Namast-ini, anyone??
Sadgurunath Maharaj Kijay!