Jivamukti Focus Of the Month: September

WHAT IS THE USE?

 

shariram surupam tatha va kalatram yashashcharu chitram dhanam merutulyam
manashchenna lagnam guroranghri-padme tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim tatah kim

Even if you have good looks, a beautiful lover, great fame and mountains of money, if you are unable to bow at your teacher’s lotus feet—What is the use? What is the use? What is the use? What is the use?

Shri Adi Shankaracharya from Guru Ashtakam

Thousands of years ago, as a way to encourage his students to realize how precious their lives were, the Buddha invited them to imagine a vast and deep ocean with a golden life preserver floating on its surface. The Buddha then asked, “How rare would it be for a turtle living at the bottom of the ocean to peek her head for a breath through the middle of the golden life preserver just at the right moment?” In unison, the students answered, “Indeed, it would be very rare.”

Life is that rare and precious. It is so rare and precious that we wouldn’t want to waste it. This invitation to not let our lives go to waste is what this verse from the “Guru Ashtakam” is calling for. When chanting this verse, we embrace worldly life and the desires that accompany our human birth: a healthy body, a loving partner, heaps of money to cover our rent or mortgage and do the things we enjoy, a successful career, respect in our social circles, knowledge that is not only book-based but experience-based as well. This prayer gives us the permission to recognize and accept all of that without judgment or harshness, but it also comes with a warning.

If we always keep ourselves busy, acquiring and attaining all that comes and goes without being genuinely open to learn, to practice and to transform ourselves, what is the use of all we have acquired? Without our minds intent on “uplifting the lives of others,” as my dear teacher Sharon Gannon would say, and without allowing ourselves to be overcome with humility, devotion and a feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves—a lineage or a community to cherish and celebrate—then what is the use of all we have attained? What is the use—tatah kim?

We all lead very hectic lives. It can often feel like we are wandering aimlessly without a focus or purpose. The Sanskrit word samsara describes this feeling. It means “same agitation” lifetime after lifetime (sam means “same,” sara “agitation”). It’s a feeling of being stuck at the bottom of the ocean, in the lower realms of existence, not being able to see where we’re going. It is said that humility and devotion are like the two oars of the boat of sadhana (conscious spiritual practice) that takes the student across the ocean of samsara.

Humility requires accepting that everything is in flux, that the things we acquire and attain come and go. Hence, humility allows us to embrace impermanence and to remain open to the inevitability of change. Humility cuts through our resistance and our crazy urge to remain in a protected bubble where we get only what we want, where life unfolds only on our terms. Humility softens us to the point where we can move with fluidity and show up for life and its unpredictability. Humility grants us the openness and courage to move in a direction that feels purposeful.

Moving in a purposeful direction, we inevitably begin to feel a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. The English word humility is derived from the Latinhumus, which means “earth, ground, soil.” When we place our forehead on the earth, on the floor in front of an altar, at the feet of a teacher, when we bow to the circumstances of our life, we humbly offer something of ourselves and acknowledge our longing “to be”—to be an instrument, to be of use, to be part of a community of men and women who honor the earth, celebrate life and have devoted their lives to practice and share methods that will stop us from wandering aimlessly in search of things that will never feel like enough—the perfect body, the perfect lover, the perfect career, the perfect house, the perfect investment.

A guru is anything that removes (ru in Sanskrit) this common misunderstanding (gualso translates as “misknowing” or “ignorance”). When we devote ourselves to recognizing that our life experiences—the birth of a child, the loss of a job—can clear away our confusion, can be our guru, we become struck by the poignant clarity of how precious and rare the life we share with every sentient being is.

The practices of Yoga are designed to nurture humility by encouraging us to cultivate kindness, compassion, connection and receptivity no matter what is going on in our lives. Through practice, our devotion to all that is guiding us to stay on course and to remain open will naturally arise from within, reinforcing our understanding that a life well lived is a life that puts us in touch with something larger than ourselves and allows us to get out of our own way. This very notion can shatter the limited and fixed view of ourselves, of others and of the world. Such a life is rare and precious. Such a life will indeed never feel wasted.

—Rima Rani Rabbath

August JivamuktiFOM

Shri Krishnah sharanam mama
I take refuge in the all-attractive Lord who is the true identity of all being.

Sharanam means refuge. This beautiful initiation mantra from the Pushtimarg tradition in India invites us to seek refuge, particularly when we are driven by strong emotions. Anger, hate and fear close us off to love and compassion. Seeking refuge means having the capacity to step back and to use particular tools or techniques—in this case, the repetition of mantra—to protect us from reacting immediately. Instead, we engage the mind with something calming, which buys us time and gets us back in touch with our true essence: boundless love and compassion, Krishna. Resolving a situation from this place yields much more constructive results. It means responding instead of reacting. It gives us the ability to stop cycles of violence and the escalation of conflict. Even if the other party refuses to cooperate or feels threatened, taking refuge in the mantra cleanses our heart and spirit, and moves us from separateness toward oneness.

Mantra transcends the calculating intellect and awakens a feeling of love and sweetness, gradually melting away the hard walls we have built around our hearts. The vibration of the Sanskrit language has a profound, transformative effect on a cellular level. Yogi Bhajan describes how chanting mantra affects our electromagnetic field and brain patterns, the master glands and even the stability of the blood. Mantra can totally remake our psyche. Asana and meditation practices have similar effects, inducing a mental focus and an energetic shift that become stronger than habitual, conditioned, reactive behavior.

Every major spiritual tradition agrees that love and compassion are the most important qualities for sustaining and protecting life. Each tradition has a figure who embodies perfection in love and compassion. In the Hindu/yogic tradition it is Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. He is often depicted as a child whose disarming qualities inspire us to love without inhibition. In Buddhism it is the supreme bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara, who made a great vow to assist sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has helped every one of them achieve nirvana. His mantra is Om mani padme hum, meaning that, in the same way that the lotus flower grows out of the mud, compassion is often deeply understood through great suffering and huge spiritual challenges. In Christianity the iconic figure is Jesus, whose story holds many parallels to Krishna’s. Krishna was born in a prison, Jesus in a stable, and both had to spend much of their lives in exile. Through the practice of sincerely contemplating these divine, enlightened beings, we do our very best to awaken their luminosity inside us, and to tailor our lives according to their examples.

Sister Chan Khong, a Buddhist nun ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh, endured unimaginable suffering during the war in Vietnam and has become one of the most outstanding living embodiments of compassion in our times. Although she had a degree in biology, her main mission was always to feed the hungry and the poor. What makes her service even more powerful is that she has had to serve anonymously, under a false identity, so as not to put the recipients of her aid in danger. Many times she risked her own life, dodging bullets and bombs while riding her bike through the streets of Saigon. One day, after a bombing, the streets were littered with dead bodies, and the government did not clean them up. The community of monks, nuns and peace workers took it upon themselves to remove the bodies and give them a proper burial. They could accomplish this extremely difficult task only by seeking refuge in the breath and in mantra. When boat people started drifting ashore in neighboring Southeast Asian countries, those governments ordered them pushed back out to sea, where they would eventually drown. For Chan Khong the first priority was saving lives, and in order to circumvent senseless rules and inhumane practices, disguises had to be used, laws had to be challenged in nonviolent ways and violations of human rights had to be reported to the international press. She was exiled from Vietnam, separated from family and friends and expelled from countries that did not want their cruelty exposed to the world. Sometimes she would be overwhelmed by strong emotions and start sobbing uncontrollably, until she remembered to take refuge in her breath. She and her sangha practiced walking meditation to learn the art of calming their feelings before taking action. From this practice came the ability to understand and have compassion for the people committing atrocities.

Compassion is a big word that is often trivialized. Most of us have been conditioned to be selective about our compassion. We may be able to express some degree of compassion to our family and friends but are unconcerned about those who live on the other side of the world, don’t look like us, or speak a different language. Chan Khong describes returning to Paris after being expelled from Singapore and being appalled to see people eating, drinking, laughing and enjoying life in cafes. Did they not know that their fellow human beings were drowning at sea? Through the practices of Yoga we learn that compassion does not discriminate. As PeTA founder Ingrid Newkirk says, "Some people seem to think that our compassion is a limited commodity, like a cake with only a few slices."

—Yogeswari