Opening words: “The root of human suffering is a sense of alienation from the natural order of the universe.” Turned around, it might read: “To feel better, find a way of coming into rhythm with the natural world.”
I was born lucky. Or so I believed. I was born to wonderful, loving parents. I was middle class, healthy, reasonably intelligent and good looking, and American. But the real entitlement, as I soon discovered, was that I had had the great good fortune to have been born Catholic! Once I learned that mine was the one and only TRUE PATH TO GOD, and that all others were misguided and probably denied the heaven for which I and my fellow “luckys” were destined, you can see how easily I felt blessed….and superior!. (Of course, the only “others” in my childhood were white Protestants!)
I really didn’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on this good luck. I was too busy being a boy. And in the context of boyhood, religion was mostly an annoyance which got in the way of playing. I remember no instances of feeling “spiritual” that had any connection with my church. I suppose I stayed with it because I believed there could be a part of life which didn’t change; sort of a “rock” that would always be there. I was married in the church, and we baptized and raised our children as Catholics for a few years and then just drifted away out of indifference….became “fallen away Catholics!”
Then about 30 years ago I had an experience which shook my life. The event seemed innocuous, even silly at first, but it triggered in me a panic response which rapidly tuned into a state of anxiety. At first the anxiety had the focus of a recurring event, but it then became generalized and my fear of it set in motion an almost permanent state which I’d never experienced before. I was afraid of everything, and anxiety became my constant companion. As it became clear that it wasn’t going to leave quickly, I soon met its partner….depression. My life had literally fallen apart. And because I had never needed help before, I had no history of asking and no idea where to turn. I had already burned the bridge of my inherited religion, and there was no way I could go back to pretending it was still valid for me.
Looking back on that time, it seems clear that I was intrigued but not particularly troubled by the deeper questions of life for my first 35 years. But when I fell apart and fell into despair, these questions literally demanded my attention:
“Is this all there is?”
“What meaning has my life?”
“What’s the point of all this?”
“Why am I unable to find meaning or joy when everyone else appears so happy and together? Why was I happy before, and now all I see is darkness?”
So began, not with great relish, but closer to being dragged kicking and screaming, my great life adventure…my spiritual journey. Of course, I didn’t know that it was a journey. I was just looking for some relief from the daily suffering. And for God’s sake, I hoped it would be simple…. And quick! It wasn’t.
From my vantage point today, it seems strange that I felt I needed to do it alone. I suppose that it was my fear of disclosing my inner state. I was so invested in being perceived as “together” or “cool” that I didn’t dare risk it. Since this was the beginning of the explosion of the self-help industry and I had already begun dabbling in it, I began my assault on bookstores and libraries, looking for answers. I liked a lot of what I read, and some of it even salved my pain for short periods. Looking back, I suppose I was looking for THE ANSWER that would eliminate my suffering.
Eventually, with time and finally seeking help, the anxiety diminished and left. Unfortunately, it forgot its partner! Depression stayed, but not all the time. I would go through periods of it for anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. In between I would feel fine, and then with no apparent provocation I’d drop into the pit again. The lack of a sponsoring event always puzzled me. Indeed, frequently in times and events of my strongest choosing, I’d be deepest in depression. This pattern stayed with me for over 20 years. During that time, my search for relief never stopped and it took me into many different arenas. I searched bookstores, churches, ashrams, retreat centers and peoples’ homes. Along the way I discovered centering prayer, many forms of meditation, wholotropic breathwork, The Work of Byron Katie, Conversations With God, The Power of Now, various channelers of non-physical beings, Unitarian Universalism, Unity Church, The Church of Religious Science, the Tao te Ching, Hinduism, Buddhism, transpersonal psychology, shamanic journeying, the Avatar Materials, and yoga. In short, I embarked on a journey into what’s called New Age. Early on, I grasped at each new discovery as a “cure” …. until it wasn’t. What it was, every piece, was just that; a piece of a pattern which was gradually revealing itself to me. And gradually on the journey, my energy changed from a desperate search for relief to a search driven by curiosity, wonder and excitement. I discovered a world markedly different from the one I grew up in.
Just a few more words about depression. Mine was difficult but manageable for almost 20 years but then it began to change. The bouts became longer, more frequent, and went deeper. It was only then that I decided to try medication, and the results were immediate and spectacular. So, why did I wait so long? I’ve asked myself that question many times. Probably a part of me still saw depression as something of a character flaw that I could overcome with effort. But the main reason was that it was informing a very special journey and I was afraid the journey would wilt without the depression to push it. I had begun to discover the enormous power of meditative self observation, and I had even learned to transform the depression in moments by using IT as the focus of meditation. I just got tired of the effort.
About ten years ago I discovered the practice of yoga and the Kripalu ashram in Massachusetts. This school of yoga is essentially a “meditation in motion,” so it’s one where the postures come out of the energy of meditation and focus on breath. Almost immediately I sensed that I wanted to teach, so I spent a month in residency and became a yoga teacher. I taught first in local churches including this one and eventually rehabbed a barn I own into The Yoga Loft, which has become (mainly through the efforts of Pat Glover and Jan Hutslar) a center for many programs and workshops. For these past twenty years, my practice and teaching of yoga, meditation and work with the breath have been the heart of my journey.
Along the way, I began to notice that I was more drawn to the questions which had no answer that those that did. (No wonder I “failed” as an engineer and as a Catholic!) Those questions started with the existential ones stated earlier and gradually settled on more specific ones having to do with suffering and joy…the immediacy of my human experience. Here are some of my discoveries. Together, I suppose they represent much of my understanding of what is meant by the phrase “New Age.” I don’t make any claim for their uniqueness nor do I present them as the Truth. They just represent my understanding of life SO FAR. Most of them are actually contradictions of what I grew up with.
By the word “spiritual”, I simply mean that part of ourselves which is not defined by the physical body which withers and dies, nor the busy mind with its incessant stories…the “something more” … the “something deeper” that we all at least occasionally sense intuitively. I sense this as my essential nature; that I am a spiritual being having a human experience. So a spiritual perspective is not one reserved for a certain day of the week or time of the day, but one of which I’m aware whenever I remember. I don’t find this part of me (or place in me) with my rational mind. I find it in my stillness, and the intuition which flows from this stillness. I KNOW it by FEELING it.
Here are some of what I discovered while resting in my own stillness:
GOD is the name we give to the intelligent energy which informs the universe. Indeed, without it there would be no form, no thing. So IT is the essence of every tree, rabbit, cloud, stone and galaxy… and of you and me. My deepest longing is to experience this as my truth… to know it on a feeling level. Becoming still, I can observe and feel the rhythms of the universe… from the beating of my heart to the cycles of each day, the seasons, and the regular repetitive movements of the galaxies.
We are all individualized expressions of God. What we deeply long for is what the world most needs from us: authentic self expression. “The glory of God is the human being, fully alive!”
When I suffer (anxiety, anger, fear, loneliness, etc.) it seldom has as its cause the person or event to which I attribute it. The root of my pain is almost always caused by the interpretation…the THOUGHT which I have about it. And I have the freedom…indeed the POWER to change a thought. I like to take the perspective that I am a HOST to my thoughts. That puts me in charge, and I like that!
When I become still, I can become aware of a part of myself which isn’t involved with or identified with my thought. There is a part of me which can OBSERVE the thought. I call it my WITNESS. It is my IDENTIFICATION with my thought and its truthfulness which causes my pain. THOUGHT DETERMINES EXPERIENCE. The most powerful form of thought is BELIEF.
I and I alone am RESPONSIBLE for my experience. You are responsible for yours. No one else can make me angry, lonely or happy without my cooperation. If I believe I can make you happy or unhappy, I do us both a disservice. This is in no way saying that I don’t CARE about you and your happiness, just that it’s foolish for me to take responsibility for it.
God is all there is. And God is GOOD. So when I observe deeply enough I see that life is unfolding perfectly. Everything that comes into my life is there for my growth in the direction of the experience of God. “The root of human suffering is a sense of alienation from the natural order of the universe.”
Happiness is not a matter of acquiring things, people or stature. It is the result of life choices we’ve made, very much including the choice to BE happy.
Everything which comes into physical existence dies. This is the Buddha’s great lesson on impermanence. A great deal of human suffering comes from our unwillingness to accept this gracefully.
Here’s how I decide whether something is part of my path: it brings me joy. Or, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss.”
There is in place in the universe the law of circularity. We call it “What goes around comes around. It’s like life is a huge conveyor belt, constantly returning that which we send out. You feel judged? Means you’re judging someone. You feel unloved? Means you’re not loving. You feel you don’t have enough money? Means you’re not generous. This at first seemed harsh but eventually I began to see the innate freedom in it. When I feel unloved, I don’t have to run out and beg someone to love me. I just have to open my heartand set in motion the conveyor belt of love. The universe is a perfect mirror for me. Here is one of the consequences of this: If one of your characteristics annoys me it’s probably one of MINE which I don’t like and might wish to look at.
I can be happy or I can be right, but I probably can’t be both. By way of illustration, I’d like to share a story that happened during the first year of our marriage. I had developed a practice of occasionally surprising Freda with a single rose. Of course, I did it when I was feeling particularly good about her. Then one day I left for work in a snit about something that had left us “on the outs” with each other. A rose was the farthest thing from my mind. In fact, my mind was very busy planning all the powerfully convincing things I was going to say to her to show her that I was RIGHT and she was wrong. But on my way home as I passed the florist, I had the oddest notion. I just found myself curious about how it would feel to do it DIFFERENTLY…. To bring a rose home on this unhappy day. When I arrived home and walked in and Freda saw the flower, she smiled and came willingly into my arms. Wala! THIS was what I wanted. In that magic moment it became crystal clear to me that what I REALLY wanted was to be happy (indeed, to be in love), not to be right.
I’d love to report that I learned this lesson once and for all at that moment, but alas….I’m still learning it!
Karl Hammerschlag: “We think what we’ve always thought, say what we’ve said, do what we’ve done so we can go where we’ve been, feel what we’ve felt and live as we’ve lived. This is not the heroic journey. Try something different.”
So, these are some of my understandings of how it is…for now! Since I don’t perceive any of it as the Truth, and I’m not invested in being RIGHT about any of it, I would welcome your comments, your perceptions, or your questions. Thank you for your kind attention.