Saturday, March 30, 2013

Where I've Been and Where I Am

Journal Entry, Birthday, Grass Valley, March  2013

I took a birthday drive through the tangles of the North California hills and back roads this morning in perfect spring weather. After a year out here, I think my de-urbanization is nearly complete.

I spent my twenties piling things on, learning how to make things more complicated, compounding everything, amassing skills, going places, dating people, making as many friends as possible; It’s amazing to realize that all the effort you put in sometimes works against your best interests.

I used to wake up startled in my bed when falling asleep with the feeling of aging alone in a concrete box and the realization that everything I’d built was an illusion. In these moments, somewhere between sleep and awareness, I achieved a separation from my sense of self--a grander perspective than the colored lens of hopes, dreams, memories, and collected likes and dislikes through which I usually viewed my life. Suddenly and briefly, I could see beyond the walls of my personality, through to the stark figure of some more eternal part of myself; I saw that nothing can travel with us through the grinding wheels of time and space that push us through lifetimes. Over a long enough period, everything dissipates, even the memories and stories we use to construct our ideas of who we are. 
When these mental constructs have been stripped away, what is left?

On witnessing that nameless thing there in the dark, I identified it as a well of deep, cavernous fear that must be avoided at all costs--if I was to keep believing in the myth of my life. Only now, after allowing that myth to disintegrate, do I recognize that very thing as a vital and more authentic part of myself—something so ancient and eternal that it can hardly be claimed as me or mine—the one element in this life that stands beyond the scope of change, visible only when everything else goes dark. So here I am now in the wilderness, disconnected from friends, family, the movements of the world; I’ve turned off the outside lights. 

I hope to never again underestimate the value of simplicity. Out here in the country with the rocks and trees, tractors and horses, I often have flashbacks from my childhood--every moment seems to bring me closer to a remembrance of something I forgot very long ago. This is what nature does to you. Everything about the way it operates confirms a deep, innate order, and it rubs off on you; you begin to return to your natural order, otherwise known as your dharma. On relinquishing oneself to the innate harmony of this living, breathing balance, one is left with the undeniable realization that the secret to happiness is perhaps not as elusive as we tend to think. Not to be found in the addendums, auxiliaries and comforts, true happiness lies in the paring down, in peeling back the layers and resting in what is found there. 

The great yogis, of course, knew this secret, and simple living is a fundamental and integral aspect of yogic sadhana. Patanjali outlines some of these practices in the Yoga Sutras as aparigraha (non-accumulation) saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity) and most importantly Pratyahara, or the purposeful withdrawing of one’s senses into the self. The idea is to reduce the number of objects for the mind to be absorbed by so it can turn inward; to bolster the mental filtration system until every mental impression, breath, taste, sight and sound allowed to cross the threshold of awareness are completely pure (sattvic) and serve to enhance one’s energy and draw the rays of the mind into a focused state. This focused state, possible only through cultivated simplicity, is the yogic definition of happiness.

Out here, the locals somehow know these secrets intuitively, though for me they were long-coming and hard-won. With suspicion, they avoid the distraction of cities, eat fresh local food, drink pure, clean water from the ground, form communities, focus on the essentials, and watch in sorrow as the rest of us fabricate a collective story of separation, alienation, and the vast environmental destruction that is the macrocosmic result of many generations of wrong living and wrong thinking. 

My feeling is that greater awareness of how to live is a lesson learned from the natural world. If you listen, there’s no mistaking what’s being communicated in places like these, where a lack of traffic fails to drown out the signal. The curve of every tree branch is full of foreboding, every animal telling of what’s to come if we continue down the path we’re on, every blade of grass attempting to point us in a new direction. Those who live with the land, under the illumination of the moon, privy to the conversations of plants and insects, will hear these warnings whispered incessantly in their sleep and come to understand these truths on a deep, irrevocable level. There’s a feeling of being on a precipice here with everything at stake.

In these gold rush towns where once we stood on the frontier of our version of civilization, the first generation here to bore down on stolen land, we dug out homes in the wild, imposing a new kind of order--an impossibly vertical structure of domination and subjugation that divorced itself from the ground it stood on. This structure still stands today—a propped up civilization dangerously-perched like a rootless plastic tree. Many generations later, it’s begun to bear karmic fruit. As in the past, we’re poised on an edge, but this time from the towering heights of our own enterprises. The weight of our actions will carry us to the ground. 

To prepare for this fall, many of us have dismounted from our plastic trees. Externally and internally, we’ve climbed down from our edifices, getting as close to the earth as possible. We’ve leveled ourselves with the creatures around us. In yoga this is sometimes called the purification of the ego. It doesn’t mean becoming humble, it means becoming one. Once the work is done of peeling back the distractions and the extraneous layers of the personality that conceal the true Self, what is found there is deeply connected to every living, breathing thing. We are not related in some way to everything around us, but are in essence every thing around us. From the food that we eat and water we drink to the mental impressions we take in from birth that interlace to form the fabric of our identities, we are products of the world, as the world is a product of us.

So as we continue to struggle in this last ditch effort to rescue our planet, it is important to remember that we’re working to cure a disease that began in the individual and worked its way out into the surrounding world. While we must work aggressively on all levels to fight the manifestation of this disease, if we fail to also attack its cause, we allow a situation to persist that serves as a breeding ground for a metamorphosed version of the same future beast. On a fundamental level, the problem of global environmental catastrophe is a problem of individual disconnect. Its etiology is the alienation of the individual—a situation that arises through misidentification with the ego, and its pathology includes competition, the will to power, a lack of empathy or compassion, unrepentant greed, and ultimately cruelty and violence.

The element of the mind that rationalizes the immediate gratification of desires, failing to consider the long-term effects of its actions on others, is the ego. These desires, cultivated in the Petri dish of a misguided collective value system, grow unchecked into corporate greed which, coupled with a healthy dose of imperialism, has led us  where we are today: deforested, distended with toxins, choked in crude oil, beached on a great garbage gyre, and slow-cooking in the oven of our own irresponsibility.

In a country like the United States where individualism is the highest value, our egos are the uncontested leaders of the personality; they dictate the metapatterns that become our lives. The goal of our lives is to better ourselves--often regardless of collateral damage. We’ve forfeited any sense of community and strive endlessly for validation, name fame and personal gain. This is the respected and customary way to live. We build boxes around ourselves called personalities made up of collections of things we promote and reject, aggregate concepts of what we are and what we are not which serve to differentiate, and over the years they become rigid with age. The walls of the personality become less porous, certain things, people and ideas are kept out, and we become frozen in a limited version of the self that cannot see beyond the walls it has drawn into place. From this place of limited perspective it is easy to remain ignorant of the suffering we’ve caused to those outside our bubbles of awareness. This is why great evil can propagate in the world despite the fact that human beings are empathic and in general wish each other no harm. The problems of the world boil down to the singular problem of disconnect.

So how can we begin to heal? Everyone has heard it emphasized that global change must start individually, but what does this mean practically? Well, it means there is no way out unless we learn to see beyond the limited perspective of the personality. 

On a practical, mundane level, it means we need to learn how to distinguish between the tendencies in ourselves that feed the sickness, and those that create a healthy living alternative. We need to turn our eyes inward and be willing to take long, hard, uncomfortable looks at our own motivations—every single day. As a daily practice, we need to examine the motive of every action we take to avoid self-delusion. We need to ask ourselves constantly, does this action spring from the desires of the ego (whose function is separation), or from the sense of compassion and unity that we are trying to build into the future

If we want to reach a state from which we continue to act again and again with compassion, a realistic perspective that sees the world as it actually is—connected in every way—we must raise ourselves beyond the confines of our personalities and learn to abandon differentiation in service of sameness. 

This means we forfeit the limiting stories we tell ourselves of who we are, what we want and who we want to be, and instead take action immediately to serve others, realizing that we are in fact part and parcel of everything alive. This lesson is of course nothing new, it's found embedded in the teachings of all the major ethical systems of the world, but there's never been a more crucial time to carry it out. The ego will never cease. It cannot be killed. But it can be put into service. Through serving others we can put the reins of the personality back in the hands of the higher Self. This is the true path to heroism. It is not through becoming a Superman, but through becoming an invisible man.

I do not believe that redemption of the human race is possible without personal awakening. The second coming of Christ will not save you, nor will the 10th avatar of Vishnu, flying saucers, benevolent aliens, technological development, or any of a host of popular psychedelics. These provide metaphors for the process that must unfold in the individual whereby she comes to realize and embody the heroic nature of the true Self.

In every situation life offers us we have the choice of asking, “How can I help?” or “How can I help myself?” One brings you in sync with the heartbeat of the universe, the other sends negative ripples out through the lives of more people than it is ever possible to count. It’s really that simple. Until we transcend our limited versions of our selves, which are by nature in conflict, how can we hope to be in tune with the planet, which is a holistically-integrated, harmonious collaborative system?

Perhaps if I’ve lived in any way how I learned to through the teachings of Yoga, when the planet returns to equilibrium and we’re swallowed back into the wild, you might find yourself unable to determine where I end and the blackberry bushes begin. The tangles of the brush around the pond will appear as the very shape of the shapeless paramatma, the low hang of the moon the cloth it hides behind, the slithering snakes my prana, the insects my thoughts, the water my mind, the passing of time my very body. 

One more year around the sun.