When you walk even one little step on the spiritual path, you may come up against a basic problem: You uncover, lurking in your inner shadows, the truth that you don't really like life, nor do you like the creator of life.
You might be big on worshipping, chant and pray every day, meditate, read sacred or inspiring texts and indeed aspire to a holy and saintly life, but actually like life, now that's a different matter. Most of us do not. Most of us regard life not as a gift but as a burden.
Don't worry, you are not alone. This condition is so prevalent in the current age that that it is almost universal. We are most of us profoundly disconnected from authentic sources of joy. Indeed so disconnected we have become, that we have created an entire industry of things that will supposedly give us the joy we lack - anything from snowboarding, luxury cars, endless sex, money making, all the way down the scale to drug addiction to numb the pain of being alive. It all breeds a pervasive vibration in the atmosphere like a contagious virus, that says "bah, life isn't worth much anyway."
This sourness grips cultures across the globe. It breaks out as mass acts of anger, cruel acts of revenge, demonisation of "the other" outside your ethnic group, cynicism in advertising, politics, hypocrisy in food production and the mass industrial slaughter of animals, and a dreadful disregard for maintaining the beauty of the earth or the beauty of simple courtesy to others. It also manifests as fear of an avenging or sour deity.
For example, one of the saddest sights I have seen in my life was the mounds of human waste, plastic trash, and nameless detritus strewn around the streets of Vrindavan, one of the most sacred places in the world. It's all down to that "If life is so disappointing and painful, why bother?" No one thought to clean up the home of Lord Krishna and the Gopis even when arriving in droves in their best clothes. No one in the government allocated money to clean such places up and provide proper sanitation facilities.
This is not the way it is supposed to be, not the way it could be. We all know this. It's not rocket science, or some arcane spiritual truth. We all instinctively have this feeling that we as a species have taken a wrong turn somewhere; that we can and should be doing much better. There's an inner alarm bell we all hear.
Basic GoodnessSo lets talk about how life actually could and should be lived. And to do that, we first will look at the creation myths of the Hopi Indians in America, who claim to be the oldest humans on the planet, the first humans. They mention we were created with a link to the creator through at least four sacred pathways - the top of the head, the throat and the heart and solar plexus. Their words and explanations about this are very similar to Vedic and Tantric teachings on the Chakras. The Hopis call the Sahasrara the Kopavi, or soft spot/open door through which the human receives life and communicates with the creator.
In Hopi thought, what has gone wrong with us is the dominance of the mind - which was created as a subtle instrument to enable us to do the will of the creator, but which instead has come to dominate human lives and convince humans that the will of the creator is such a nebulous thing, why not follow the will and inclinations of the mind? It is like being commanded by a mischievous monkey who has stolen the real king's robes but does not have a clue about how to really rule.
Under the rule of the mind, all sorts of bizarre notions arise - such as the notion that our needs are way more important than anyone else's - and all manner of odd ways to find joy are sanctioned and sought after. The mind will ride us to our grave. It doesn't care, it just wants to grab as much as it can as fast as it can. And woe betide anyone who stands in its way!
When the rule of the mind is overthrown, then a truer picture emerges.
The other morning I had finished a morning meditation on an otherwise ordinary Saturday. I opened the curtains to the meditation room, and looked out on to the gritty urban landscape below - basically row upon row of old but charmless houses on the outskirts of London. Not an inspiring sight at the best of times.
But then and there a conviction arose, a deep sense of truth, that not only was the world wherever I looked charged with the imminent presence of the Divine, but also that life, that our simple human life, was basically good, it always was and always would be. Life was and is absolutely saturated in joy, whatever we do, whatever fate deals us.
This conviction was not of the mind. No: it was a sensing of an entire range of harmonies with a different set of sensory equipment, as if they had been downloaded by an unknown process into my brain while I meditated. It was a deeply felt unveiling of something which is actually utterly and completely obvious - and yet hiding in plain sight.
All sorts of simple analogies easily explain what was in fact an overwhelming reinforcement of the sacredness of life. Indeed, that moment, as I gazed out at the buildings and sky, the sun burst out of a cloud in that glorious way an early morning sun can do. and there was the image: clouds cover the sun, but the sun remains the sun. It will always shine. The nature of the sun is to shine, to give, to connect. Thus it is with God and man.
PlayfulnessYou get a wonderful sense of this basic goodness, this joyfulness, in the early ministry of Jesus before politics and enemies intervened so cruelly. There he is, right from the beginning, enjoying suppers with the wrong end of society, changing water into wine, playing with crowds of young children, giving fabulous illustrations of the love that God has for us, and joy of what has been translated as "the kingdom". He lived in a culture with its own explanations of how evil entered the world - but nevertheless, that joy he inspired still comes across centuries later, despite all the mess the religion that came after made of things.
And who was more playful that Paramahansa Ramakrishna? He teased his young disciples, and even teased his wife. His words were faithfully reported, and it's always warming to see how he mixed this lightness and playfulness (much of which I'm sure is lost in translation - and his enshrinement after his death as an object of elevated worship) with the serious business of teaching and inspiring.
My own Guru Sri Sri Sri Shivabalayogi also had a lighter, mischievous side which you can see on you tube somewhere - of him throwing snowballs on a trip up to Badrinath (he had great aim) and impersonating a customs offer dressed incongruously in an official hat, stick and jacket - and loin cloth.
And what about the Italian Catholic saint Philip Neri? Once someone came to see this great saint, expecting a forbidding personality seated in constant prayer. Where did he actually find him? Walking down the street with a ragged procession of children, kicking a football!
The Mother, Mata Lalita Devi, is also all playfulness. In fact this concept of playing, which we supposedly abandon when we grow up, in fact contains something vibrant, alive, supple. If you do not play in life, chances are you miss out a simple connection with the goodness of life. I'm not talking about playing Candy Crush on your mobile phone, but play that engages a joyful relationship with the fluid movements of life. If you are blessed with young children, you will know exactly what I mean. Kids are in the moment, and they are always ready to engage in play.
Give me laughter, smiles, joy. It's there wherever you look. Miserable, self-obsessed people convinced of their own permanent misfortune, now they are hard to reach. When we forget to smile at a sunny day, we are in trouble.
God's plan for youIn every religion, there is always talk about this mysterious thing called "God's plan". Now, if we are overwhelmed by the world, it is easy to think that this plan is basically a brief document setting out God's reasons for punishing you or getting at you in some coolly malign way. But do you think this is really the case? Why not walk on the sunny side and admit that the plan might actually be different? There's a great song by Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana called "the creator has a master plan... peace and happiness for everyone". Is that so impossible to imagine, that in fact the Indwelling Lord wants us to be happy, to grow, to flower?
When you get a sense of this deep down into your bones, it's a real leap. It might take courage, you might have to take a deep breath. You may also have to revisit this every day just to remember. But it is true! Relate to God in this way - that He/She knows what is best for you, that everything is perfectly unfolding exactly as it should. "Oh, I've heard this a million times before," you might say. So what. You may have heard it, but have you ever lived by it? Saints have throughout the ages. Show me a saint who hates life!
In the language of Bhakti, one way we can approach God is as a friend - and this, too, takes a leap, an adjustment. Having God as a friend, we need no one and nothing else. God needs friends in this world. Why not become one? Then you will slowly begin to sense the perfection of everything, the inherent bliss even in every little daily activity - even in moments of anger, disappointment, fear. You need not shake God's hand. But don't wait until you think you are pure enough. Do you think that God does not know every little thing about our human frailties and weaknesses?
Keeping God as "Thou oh mighty one are seated on high far far away" is a convenient way of keeping your distance and basically ignoring the Divine. Saying "Come and share my life"... now that's a leap! But, try it.
The Lord is already in your heart. And his plan for you? To enjoy life to its fullest, harming none, helping his creation, appreciating the sheer artistry that, say, went into creating such marvellous things we see around us. And as for God's sense of humour... no one who has observed squirrels at play or fierce little birds congregating in droves could fail to be convinced that the Lord likes his jokes!
I know in my own life, there have been many periods, some even stretching years, where God's sense of play has been buried by this "adult" world I found myself in, with all its trials and worries. But there have always been little reminders. One favourite moment of total absurdity is a memory of the first meditation centre a friend and I set up in 1979, in a little country town called Chichester, in the south of England. We taught an eclectic bunch of people, and had a winter celebration for them. This event became a quirky occasion of laugh after laugh,including a Liverpudlian playing the guitar, and the ceremonial blowing out of the candles on the cake we'd baked... by a toy dolphin. I cannot even remember quite why!
The jam sessionThe final memory of playfulness I'd like to share with you is a time a bit before that. I'd been working for two years on the staff of Maharishi's TM movement in Switzerland, and us staff members had to cook, clean etc for the courses of advanced meditation.
We saw many things, we staff members. Anyway, some of us gathered together, in between courses, at a temporary hotel in Interlaken in the Swiss Alps. We had many stories to share and swap. But a memorable evening unfolded when some of us brought out the guitars, and we discovered about 6 of us were all born with our Sun sign in Taurus. So, imagine a dinner, an evening of singing all sorts of inappropriate songs, of playful jamming on the guitar, of shared jokes and play - now that is enjoying the basic goodness of life.
So, think of yourself at your most relaxed, maybe surrounded by a family that for once is not fighting, over a delicious dinner. And then remember the words of Jesus: "Come, taste and see. For the Lord is good."
QuestionsDoesn't the basic Christian prayer begin "Our Father, who art in heaven"? Doesn't this imply that God is there and we are here? and why would God bother with our own little lives?
What do you think God does all day? Maybe sit on a throne with a long white beard while being ceaselessly praised? How about an exciting twist of view, to say "Well, the scriptures also tell me "The Kingdom of God is within you"? The presence of God in the heart is not just an intellectual concept that can be debated endlessly. It is the experience of every advanced seeker of truth. We are not who we think we are. we are set on wider stage by far. Yes, the Lord has the heavens. But the Lord has his own dwelling place inside of you. You carry this sacred connection like a lit flame inside you. Out of this connection pours God's actions in the world.
To this I would take exception. Buddha was anti the very concept of God, wasn't he?
The Buddha is always a special case, because there has never been quite such a revolutionary teacher even after over 2,000 years. But actually what he said was not "there is no God" but that other matters were far more more urgent and immediate - and he used the concept of a burning building to illustrate his point. You don't sit around discussing the merits of escape plans when there are people to be immediately rescued. He led us back to our lives as we live them, but always talked of the possibility of escape - of Nirvana, in Buddhist language. What lies beyond the escape, he let us discover. The Buddha's teachings are startlingly modern, they never age, and have a huge amount to teach people overly reliant on the crutches of religion. "Test everything thoroughly" is a sort of Buddhist concept. But He, like everything else, pointed to within as the source of liberation, helped by firm ethical behaviour. Buddhism is a path to respect - but there are many other paths to liberation as well.
God may be playful, but isn't this play kind of rough on us?
There's also a saying "God's ways are not our ways", and there's certainly an element of that. Making God your friend does not necessarily guarantee an easy life. all of us have our karma to reap. And I'm sure you have heard this before, that moment when the Spanish mystic St Teresa found herself stuck in a carrage in the middle of a swollen river, with a broken wheel. "Lord, if you treat your friends like this," she exclaimed, "no wonder you have so few of them"! We can only accept that things are as they are, and simply carry on. Life is muscular, it is powerful, it does not follow our own little plans.
I know what you are going to say: but everything happens for the best"
Yup. That's the long, tall and short of it. That's the essence of things. And before we all trot out those familiar complaints about a nasty world - killings, terrorism, rapes, displacement etc - just also consider something now largely forgotten about. When I grew up we pretty much all believed the world would be blown apart by nuclear war. A friend of mine when young was so terrified by this prospect as a child that he devised a whole superstition of counting etc just to avoid this prospect. But, lo and behold, the world actually wasn't blown up. We did not all die of Aids, or Asian Bird Flu, or toxic chemicals. No, the world was silently saved and will be time and time again until the moment comes for another cycle of creation.
I might want to be friends with god, but what if God does not want to be friends with me?
Well, if he tells you directly (Laughter)... this kind of feeling is normally due to traumas in childhood and the lack of parental, especially maternal, care. When we are not properly safeguarded or nourished by our parents, for whatever reasons, we have deep issues with trust. This can take a whole lifetime to deal with. But a first step is saying "Well, God is not like my human father and mother. He will support. He does nourish even if I have not the capacity to feel it." Give that a try.
Let's end with a prayer you could usefully repeat:
And I'll provide