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Archive for December, 2012

Dark Night Of the Soul

Light is seen in the depth of darkness, not in the depth of bright light. The winter solstice is here–the shortest day and the longest night when the sun appears to have receded from the world. In the depths of darkness and cold, often hunger, before our modern conveniences, the yearning for light and warmth was great (literally, figuratively, as well as spiritually). The poem “Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, holds special meaning.  Traditional yogis will see in it the message of the tantras.

The following translation from Spanish is posted here with permission from Ivan M. Granger the author of Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey and the editor of the Poetry Chaikhana website www.poetry-chaikhana.com

Dark Night

by John of the Cross

English version by Ivan M. Granger
Original Language Spanish

(Songs of the soul delighted at having reached the high state of perfection, the union with God, by way of spiritual negation.)

On a darkened night,
Anxious, by love inflamed,
— O happy chance! —
Unnoticed, I took flight,
My house at last at peace and quiet.

Safe, disguised by the night,
By the secret ladder I took flight,
— O happy chance! —
Cloaked by darkness, I scaled the height,
My house at last at peace and quiet.

On that blessed night,
In secret, and seen by none,
None in sight,
I saw with no other guide or light,
But the one burning in my heart bright.

This guide, this light,
Brighter than the midday sun,
Led me to the waiting One
I knew so well — my delight!
To a place with none in sight.

O night! O guide!
O night more loving than the dawn!
O night that joined
The lover with the Beloved;
Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!

Upon my flowered breast,
For him alone kept fair,
There he slept,
There I caressed,
There the cedars gave us air.

I drank the turret’s cool air,
Spreading playfully his hair.
And his hand, so serene,
Cut my throat. Drained
Of senses, I dropped unaware.

Lost to myself and yet remaining,
Inclined so only the Beloved I spy.
All has ceased, all rests,
Even my cares, even I;
Lost among the lilies, there I die.

Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This is one of my favorite poems by the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. It touches on so many important metaphors of sacred poetry: darkness, light, a secret ladder, the heart, the joining of lover and Beloved, silence, and death of the little self. Let’s take a look at just a few of these themes…

Although mystics often experience the Divine as a radiant, all permeating light, sometimes God is described in terms of night or darkness.

On a darkened night…

Night is the great Mystery, the unknown. Darkness is the place of secrets. It is the time of sleep, rest, peace. We drop all of our activities and turn inward.

Because nighttime is associated with sleep and, by analogy, death, it can also represent the time when the ego sleeps and most easily can “die” or fade away. The ego is less in charge at night, less demanding that its every desire be instantly met. The busy mind is less active, more likely to be at rest.

Night is the time when lovers meet, when the soul meets its Divine Beloved.

Darkness, like God, envelops everything in its embrace. It is in the darkness of night that all things become one, losing their individuality as they disappear into that mystery. Nighttime is the time of nondual awareness, when dichotomies and artificial notions of separation fade.

John of the Cross is particularly known for speaking of “the dark night of the soul.” This is not so much a reference to the experience of the Divine as mentioned above, but a preliminary state. Prior to experiences of union, the soul loses its orientation, where worldly distractions seem pointless, but the blissful fulfillment of divine union hasn’t yet been experienced. This can be a period of confusion, being “anxious,” a period of intense spiritual thirst, and a feeling of blindness that is the equivalent of trying to find one’s way in the dark. But that too can be an important stage of the journey that indicates the nearness of the sacred goal, not its distance.

Yet in this “blessed night,” John of the Cross discovers light. This is not just any light but an overpowering radiance, “Brighter than the midday sun.”

For genuine mystics, light is not a mere concept or metaphor; it is directly experienced. This light is perceived as being a living radiance that permeates everything, everywhere, always. This light is immediately understood to be the true source of all things, the foundation on which the physicality of the material world is built.

The sense of boundaries and separation, long taken for granted by the mind as the fundamental nature of existence, suddenly seems illusory, for this light shines through all people and things. It has no edges, and the light of one is the light of another.

This light is recognized as your own Self, while simultaneously being the Self of all others. Since this light is you and, at the same time, it radiates within all, the question arises: How can there be separation? conflict? loss?

This is how John proceeds so boldly from the experience of light to union, the sacred marriage, “Transformed, the lover into the Beloved drawn!”

And what about death? Why does he startle us by shifting from the ecstasy of union to death? “And his hand, so serene, / Cut my throat. / Drained of senses, I dropped unaware.”

Without understanding of this imagery, it can sound as if every mystic and saint has some strange death wish.

In deep ecstasy, the sense of individuality, the sense of “I” thins and can completely disappear. Though you may still walk and breathe and talk, there is no “you” performing these actions. The separate identity, the ego, disappears, to be replaced by a vast, borderless sense of Self. Suddenly, who you have always thought yourself to be vanishes and, in its place, stands a radiant being whose boundaries are no longer perceived in terms of flesh or space.

Lost to myself and yet remaining,
Inclined so only the Beloved I spy.

It is this experience, this complete shedding of the limited ego, that is the death so eagerly sought by mystics throughout time.

All has ceased, all rests,
Even my cares, even I;
Lost among the lilies, there I die.

 

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“MEDITATION and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. The world’s greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration…. ” is the introduction to “The Power of Concentration” by Maria Konnikova published in The New York Times on December 15, 2012.

Many of us believe that concentration is the inevitable by-product of meditation and the heart of meditation is mindfulness or awareness. When we practice, we are training our mind to be aware of itself–we are mindful of the activities of the mind. We do not force the mind to be quiet but it becomes quiet. We do not dismiss distractions but we acknowledge them and then guide the attention back to the breath or feeling or sensation, whatever we have been told to use as an anchor. And the distractions learn to remain in the background and not take over the control of the mind. In this way, we learn to observe the present and do not constantly remain entangled in the past and the hypothetical future. Concentration is awareness or mindfulness of what is now.

This is the process through which meditation enhances stress-free learning. Two reviewers of the guided meditation CD Being in Flow: Meditations for Peace, Insight, Clarity, and Focus wrote about their personal experiences in using the CD: enhanced productivity, greater creativity and innovative abilities, better ability to solve math problems and piano playing.

The New York Times article supports the reviewers’ experiences with studies and here is a brief summary.

  • The article cites improvements on measure of cognitive and vital functions in adults.
  • In a University of Wisconsin 2011 study, researchers demonstrated that meditation caused a shift in frontal brain activity toward positive emotional states for better emotional regulation (I have called this greater emotional fitness and immunity in my classes).
  • With mindfulness, “attentional flightiness”, associated with multi-tasking seems to disappear and there is improved concentration.
  • Mindfulness has positive behavioral as well as physical effects as it improves connectivity inside our brain’s attention networks.
  • The practices even affect the brain’s default network. There is greater and more consistent access to information regarding internal states and there is better ability to monitor the surrounding environment.
  • A 2012 Ohio State University study found that older adults who scored higher on mindfulness scales, the two areas (information processing hubs) that showed increased brain connectivity were the areas known to be “pathophysiological” sites for Alzheimer’s disease. So meditation may potentially help those areas of the brain stay healthier.
  • By strengthening areas of the brain most prone to cognitive decline, meditation and mindfulness (terms used differently by various groups) may have a prophylactic effect on the mind-body.

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The Prophet

The end-of-a-calendar year seems to trigger the same effect as end of life–a time of reflection, sometimes postmortem of life lived or “premortem”, depending on the point of view. Suitably, the book recommended here is also an end–the ship has arrived after 12 years to carry away Almustafa, “the chosen and the beloved”, from the fictitious land of Orphalese back to the place of his birth. He watches the ship sail in with joy. But it soon turns to sadness as “who can depart from his pain and aloneness without regret?” Time and again, I have seen in teaching over all these years our inability to let go of our pain, of what tortures and torments us. In fact, there is a strong attachment, clinging, to the pain.

There are those who see within us more than we are able to see. With borrowed sight, we travel to spaces within and begin to develop our own vision. And we have traveled a bit with some on this blog–the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn (Walking Meditation), universal thinker of Indian origin Krishnamurti (Book of Life), and now we flow with Kahlil Gibran and The Prophet. Gibran was an American from Lebanon. He wrote 17 books, nine in Arabic and eight in English. Of all these, The Prophet, written in English is the most popular with people and panned by critics. In fact, the popularity of the book, over nine million copies sold, has vaulted Gibran to being the third most popular poet.

Just like the rhythms of music, the lyrical cadence of prose poetry has certain rhythms that deeply affects us. This book contains 26 prose poems on major themes that punctuate the sentence of life from birth to death–love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, pain,  religion, and death. The words take on biblical as well as sufi tones. They clearly guided Gibran’s thinking in a strong way and he was a Maronite Christian who also absorbed the Sufi philosophy.

I am glad that when stumbling upon this book many years ago, I had not read any of the critics. There was little curiosity at that time of the author. So the book was read without any prejudice, solely focused on the content and its ripples on the mind pond.  The imaginary prophet Almustafa descends the hill, after sighting the ship,  to return to the town of Orphalese–and the people beseech him him to stay. The day of parting is the day of gathering. Almitra, a “seeress”, asks him to “give us of your truth” and begins with love.  One of the most popular passages is Children. But enough said about the book to minimize the influence of this review.

For me, the book is best read privately, like the other recommended books. How does the mind receive the words? How does it ripple with the thoughts gently thrown in?

After reading the review of the book in the New Yorker, “Prophet Motive: The Kahlil Gibran Phenomenon “by Joan Acocella (gives a good biography of Gibran), several waves went through the mind.

Does the review suddenly change the meaning of the book?

How much does the author’s life affect our subsequent reactions? Many great authors (painters, musicians, mathematicians) had troubled lives.

To what extent is our thinking shepherded by critics and pundits? Do we passively allow our minds and lives to be molded by a few–what we read, view, eat, our political thoughts, our social behavior, our reactions, our judgments?

When we instinctively put labels, there are immediate mental programs associated with those labels that kick in. So how free and independent is our thinking process?

Are any of our thoughts free and our own? Or are we passive recipients, spoon-fed from birth, with no active independent thinking that is free of prejudice, bias, judgement–all highly limiting?

How do we read, see, hear, taste, smell, feel, think, act, live?

This is the year-end postmortem or premortem–a meditation on the mind.

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The Book of Life: Daily Meditations with Krishnamurti

With each generation’s discovery of something old, the old becomes the new. Isn’t that so with matters of wisdom? Wisdom is not always clean-cut and simple, until we get it. Nor is every passage in The Book of Life: Daily Meditations with Krishnamurti. What the writing does do is question the reader’s every thought, not allowing any assumptions or passive learning.

There is really just one book truly worth reading and that is the book of each of our lives—the book through which all other books come into being. The Book of Life makes readers “students of life.”

The book is divided in 12 chapters for each month of the year. Each chapter has passages on four themes ranging from listening, learning, desire, passion, marriage, intelligence, conditioning, dependence, violence, fear, attachment, happiness, grief, hurt, sorrow, to the mind and religion. In all, there are 48 themes. It all begins with listening.

It is quite amazing that this Indian-born writer and speaker, Jiddu Krishnamurti (born May 11, 1985 died February 17, 1986), was described as being a dim-witted boy with a vacant expression. Krishnamurti spoke passionately and eloquently on philosophical and spiritual matters, the mind, human relationships, meditation, and the need for revolution in the thinking process of human beings to bring a positive change in society. A true revolution of transformation comes from within, from individual thinking, and not from external factors. He is not the only speaker to suggest that.

Once the reader becomes familiar with Krishnamurti’s writing, the author’s words and voice may echo in Eckhart Tolle’s work. Many other modern day speakers have been influenced by Krishnamurti. Readers can make their own direct connection.

For the recently uploaded full review, visit http://www.mahasriyoga.com/bookreviews/BookOfLife.html.

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Walking Meditation

Meditation does not have to be complicated. The Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh is characteristically simple, insightful, and to-the-point in Walking Meditation. If sitting still in one place is challenging, try walking meditation.  There are five progressive guided meditations on the CD.

The book tells the reader upfront what meditation can do:

To meditate is to learn to stop–to stop being carried away by our regrets about the past, our anger or despair in the present, or our worries about the future. By practicing the art of stopping, we can enter the present moment and be nourished by beauty and wonder of life in and around us: the smell of flowers, the warmth of sunshine, the color of the sky. To practice mindfulness is to begin to realize that we have a choice–to stop and rest, or run, to be angry or happy. Once we choose to stop, everything will be OK.

For a recently uploaded full review, visit http://www.mahasriyoga.com/bookreviews/WalkingMeditation.html.

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A New York Times article “Living With a Sound You Can’t Turn Off’ by Jane E. Brody, December 3, 2012 made me think of Deanne and the Satyananda-based Yoga Nidras she has practiced over the years.

The constant loud humming in her ears drives Deanne to despair. Loud sounds leave her shaking for days. Deanne is in her 70s and she suffers from tinnitus, the subject of Jane Brody’s article and her affliction as well. Deanne though is in the 3 percent for whom this condition is debilitating. She fits the description in the paper given by Dr. Rilana F. F. Cima, a psychologist and researcher in the Netherlands:

“Patients say the sound is driving them crazy,” Dr. Cima said. “Their negative reaction to not wanting to hear it creates daily life impairment.” She said patients would do almost anything to avoid hearing the sound in their heads and the feelings of fear and anxiety that result.

Tinnitus is a chronic noise that seems to come from the person’s head. It’s intensity, pitch, and volume can vary.  Some experience it as a constant ringing sound that is the most obvious when it is quiet and there are no other distractions.

There seems to be no cure. Deanne has tried hearing aids and masking devices that produce white noise. Even after repeated adjustments over an extended period of time, they really do not help.  Reading this article was like listening to her story over the past few years. In the Times article, Dr. Cima says that when patients respond poorly to the masking device, they are often told they haven’t used it long or consistently enough.

Now Dr. Cima and her Dutch team have  successfully developed and tested a three-month treatment “based on cognitive behavioral therapy and relies on principles of exposure therapy long proven effective to treat phobias.”  The team enrolled 492 patients with varying degrees of tinnitus. Here is a short description:

The Dutch treatment relies solely on psychological techniques. Following an education session about tinnitus and lessons in deep relaxation, patients are gradually exposed to an external source of the very ringing they hear in their heads. After 10 or 12 sessions, they become habituated to it and no longer find it threatening.

This is also how Satyananda-based Yoga Nidra works–I do not know Dr. Cima’s specific treatment that can be replicated and was published in The Lancet (a British medical journal) last Spring. The abstract does not give any details of the program. This particular type of Yoga Nidra may also be seen as a very effective form of cognitive behavioral therapy. Deanne has been practicing Yoga Nidra for several years and it is this guided meditation that gives her any sense of relief and peace from the constant noise. During the practice, she is not aware of the sounds in her head and they do not elicit strong negative reactions. The stress and physical tension that accompany the fear (due to lack of sleep) and anxiety regarding the noise also melt away. However, the Yoga Nidra we practice in the senior class is not specific to tinnitus and the calming effect wears out for Deanne whose condition is more complex because of multiple health issues. Playing soft music in the background helps her as well. Deanne still has to avoid loud construction noise, vacuum cleaners, and jazz concerts, but at least there is something she can turn to for some sense of quiet peace, a quiet she craves.

For anyone curious about Satyananda-based Yoga Nidras, www.mahasriyoga.com/meditation has free audio tracks.

 

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And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.” 
And he said: 
Your children are not your children. 
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. 
They come through you but not from you, 
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. 
You may give them your love but not your thoughts. 
For they have their own thoughts. 
You may house their bodies but not their souls, 
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. 
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. 
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. 
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. 
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. 
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; 
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Source: The Prophet, Children, Chapter IV Khalil Gibran (also spelled as Kahlil Gibran)

This morning’s e-mail brought this poem from Medha Deshpande. It is a familiar poem to many of us but each reading strikes as new. Poems and passages are part of reflective meditation.

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