In the Author's Note at the beginning of his epic poem Savitri, the great spiritual teacher Sri Aurobindo writes:
Still this is not a mere allegory, the characters are not personified qualities, but incarnations or emanations of living and conscious Forces with whom we can enter into concrete touch and they take human bodies in order to help man and show him the way from his mortal state to a divine consciousness and immortal life.
I have been self-directed from a very young age, learning to be guided by an inner voice way before I was old enough to figure out that not everyone works that way. The voice has guided my 'education' and this penchant for obsessive self-directed study probably explains my affinity for both Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo.
Following an inner passion feels somewhat obscene in our outer directed culture. If obsessive focus eventually gives rise to great music, great art or a scientific breakthrough, we laud it. But in the many years of geekdom that go into the project, there is the reality of never quite fitting in, of being a bit weird and out of touch with the pulse of the rest of the world, the 'normal' people.
I suspect that we all feel a pull - something teases, intrigues or mystifies us. If left to our own devices, we'd wander off in vague pursuit of this 'something.' Yet wandering anywhere without appropriate supervision is suspect. There are so many places you are supposed to go, things you are supposed to do as well as the prescribed way you should do them. The cultural pressure is loud, but like it or not, it feels uncomfortable to deviate. Wandering is not encouraged, especially when motivated by something as suspect as the recesses of your own mind. But I would guess that the best we can offer to ourselves and the world is that unique and special spark we each carry that is longing to be known. I am convinced that the only way we can learn to navigate the new, the unknown, is by surrendering to the deepest part of ourselves. Paradoxically our only access to the whole, the indivisible one, is through the unique center where we are most alone. This is the point where we can access our creativity, our courage and our capacity to love.
Culture is a beautiful thing; we need the solid container of culture to support our growth as human beings. But healthy cultures are a combination of security and resilience. The ability to adapt to changing conditions is the evolutionary imperative. Stability is a good thing until that moment when it stifles your ability to creatively adapt. Cultures do not miraculously change, individuals do and if enough individuals shift, cultures shift.
I've spent my entire life struggling with culture, even counter-culture, being acutely aware of what I'm supposed to be doing in all the various cultural climates that I find myself in. Yet instead I've been compelled to relentlessly follow the mysterious pull, feeling odd and ill-suited, but ridiculously stubborn and intense. This passion for intensity isn't very obvious to an outside observer. I live a very 'normal' life with a house in a small town, a long-term marriage, a simple livelihood, two grown children and two cats. But even the basics of life are transformed by conscious attention and surrender to a deeper guidance. The struggle to understand was driven by the question: "What does it mean to really love, all the time, everywhere?"
After 40 years of meditation, intense reading and personal practice, I came to understand that love is not something I can do; it is a reality I can surrender to. In yet another attempt to find my way through the maze of all the ways I shrink from love, I was drawn to an intensive study of the work of Sri Aurobindo. His practice relies heavily on what he calls the psychic and this reliance on a deeper divine aspect of myself seemed to be a way to both stay true to my own inner voice and reach farther. Instead of delineating a prescribed path he emphasized the need to surrender deeply to the divine. The unique challenges of life, as they actually show up, offer endless opportunities to practice responding from a clearer, more powerful place. For the last ten years I have been particularly obsessed with his epic poem Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol, a story of conjugal love meeting death.
One of the most daunting challenges I faced in loving was living with the constant fear that even after finding love, death would eventually claim it. Echoing this deep fear, Savitri finds the perfect mate only to be cursed with the foreknowledge that in one year he will die. Savitri spends the year alone with the pain of her impending loss, fulfilling her daily tasks and meditating while others slept; loving, yet gripped by pain and fear and compelled to search within for some way to endure her inevitable loss. When death finally arrives to claim Satyavan, Savitri has heroically grown enough to meet him with a divine clarity and power she didn't know she had. Struggling with death, she claims the right for her and Satyavan, her partner, to return to Earth to aid humanity in opening to the divine life.
Aurobindo embeds Savitri's story amidst seven hundred pages of blank verse elucidating the evolution of consciousness from primeval mud to divine oneness. In the beginning I could manage only a few pages at a time but the power and beauty pulled me in and I continued reading, finishing only to begin again. I eventually read it through at least ten times, finding it richer each time as my own consciousness stretched to understand. Immersing myself in Savitri called me to a more rigorous engagement with my own development and supported me in sustaining it. As this was not merely an intellectual journey, but a mystical one into levels beyond rational mind, time and space did not appear to limit access to information. I was drawn by the palpable experience of being guided, strengthened and called to a higher level of functioning than I could even imagine, much less strive to achieve.
Savitri, Book I: The Book of Beginnings, Canto IV: The Secret Knowledge, line 765
The Absolute, the Perfect, the Immune,
One who is in us as our secret self,
Our mask of imperfection has assumed,
He has made this tenement of flesh his own,
His image in the human measure cast
That to his divine measure we might rise;
Then in a figure of divinity
The Maker shall recast us and impose
A plan of godhead on the mortal's mould
Lifting our finite minds to his infinite,
Touching the moment with eternity.
This transfiguration is earth's due to heaven:
His nature we must put on as he put ours;
We are sons of God and must be even as he:
His human portion, we must grow divine.
Our life is a paradox with God for key.
What is most exciting about Aurobindo is his fearless pursuit of the inner workings of his own mind. He shared this journey and I found it both an accessible sketch of the territory and, more importantly, an invitation. The opportunity to dare to dive into the rich and ever shifting depth and power of my own mind is what pulled me. Savitri became a beloved companion but the journey had to be made on my own.
The emerging differences in my everyday experience of life, often painstakingly slow to manifest, were vivid enough to enliven my fascination. For me, the measuring stick was noticing how easily I could access love with my partner, my children, my co-workers, my friends, my parents, my sister, my in-laws, and eventually with everyone and everything. Slowly, I changed how I related to every part of my life, relinquishing my conditioning and polishing my lenses so I could trust them. Love is easy now and constant; I know now that love cannot be lost. From the outside life is as ordinary as ever. From the inside it's also ordinary, profoundly simple; there is no drama, fear, excitement, or craving. The only restlessness left is the overwhelming urge to share and the need to keep opening to new opportunities to love.
Studying my own mind was not an easy project. The paths were not obvious. It required relentless honesty and determination to keep digging even when I appeared to be going nowhere. Even blessed by an early ability to glimpse a more authentic voice amongst the many other voices playing in my mind it still took years of practice to learn to reliably keep the channel clear, to sift clarity out of confusion.
I began to picture my mind as a series of layers, where the lowest layer is subconscious. Frustrated by the muddled results that clutter my life when responding from this automatic but unconscious place, I started paying conscious attention, questioning and waiting for answers. What emerged seems to be a mix of inherited family patterns, deep cultural responses and a motley crew of defense mechanisms put in place in vulnerable but forgotten moments. They still jump to respond but now there is space to choose.
A higher more conscious layer contains all the beliefs I have acquired about myself and the nature of the world. All the information I learned in school, all of the ideas I studied, adopted and promulgated show up as my theories and prejudices about how the world works and why. This is highly useful if held loosely. Higher yet are the layers that I can only access from deep silence. The lower silent levels seem to sift into my mind as a knowing, convincing but not reducible to words or images. Higher is the deeply refreshing but unperceivable place that I can't know in any way but I come back from with such a sense of wellbeing and love that there can only be reverence and awe. All of the layers are held within the experience of deep silence. If awareness rests communicating with all the layers but not attached to any, the mind becomes workable.
Workable means that it is possible to navigate the constantly shifting reality exhibiting in the present moment. My consciousness expresses in two experiences, stillness and force. It becomes possible to meet the moment fresh. It means I am not crippled by fear, blinded by need or compelled by habit. I can access the information that I need to joyfully meet the unknown with love and equanimity. I can welcome what is happening and allow the force of life to move me into action, and then to release as the force of life moves on to the next form. In following the flow of life there is joy. In resisting the flow there is misery. Most wondrous of all is that in the flow it becomes possible to connect to the authentic expression of every other being and we can really share and create together, no longer self and other, but meeting in the place that transcends and includes both. We have touched the mystery together.
We live in a time in which we have innumerable and wonderful tools to use to delve into the inner mysteries of our minds. Unseduced by the illusion that all the drama, hectic activity and distraction are really required, we become free to use all the tools we have available. We are also free to use every branch of human knowledge, vast technological sophistication, and cultural treasures in ways that creatively engage the future. Together we can follow our seemingly unanswerable questions into the unknown in pursuit of a truly divine life.
Savitri, Book XII: Epilogue, The Return to Earth, Line 310.
"O woman soul, what light, what power revealed,
Working the rapid marvels of this day,
Opens for us by thee a happier age?" ...
Low she (Savitri) replied,
"Awakening to the meaning of my heart
That to feel love and oneness is to live
And this the magic of our golden change,
Is all the truth I know or seek, O sage."
In case I have given the impression that all it takes is mastery of our minds to create that fantasy of a world without suffering ‒ all bliss and no pain ‒ I want to share the most powerful lesson I learned and one I found echoed in both Savitri and in The Living Flame of love by St. John of the Cross. For the last four years I have been in intense and constant neurological pain. It may be related to damage evident in my brain from Lyme disease or it may be my body struggling to handle the force of consciousness that it hasn't yet integrated. I have no way to know for certain and either explanation leaves me in the same place, navigating intense pain every moment of every day. Strong physical pain doesn't allow me to be anywhere except where I am, physically or emotionally. It is the most powerful teacher I've ever had.
If I run from the pain, the agony is unbearable. If I move toward the pain, a movement I liken to the way I would move to soothe a crying baby, a profound sense of love emerges. It is not me acting loving, it is me moving into the field of love. St. John's image of the burning flame of love is oddly apt. The pain burns and what emerges is love. In the oneness where it is possible to meet the creativity and enthusiasm of another being, it is also necessary to meet their pain. Connecting to everything means everything: sadness, pain, loss, illness, death, loneliness, suffering, and cruelty. Nothing is left out. The miracle is that love is capable of staying present, always. To know this when times are good is beautiful, but to know it in the midst of agony is transforming. Hope is replaced by certainty. Reality is love, life is the force of love expressing.
I am no longer interested in avoiding my own pain. Only the intimacy of meeting the present moment with as much compassion as I can muster and the willingness to let my heart be broken again and again seems relevant. And oddly there is peace and joy in that. I can let it be. I am convinced that we have the ability to creatively meet each moment. Our minds are capable of accessing information and insights that call out to be explored and combined in beautiful patterns we haven't seen yet. But our freedom to access the full capacity of our mind is held captive to our fear. Infinite love is hidden by our frantic efforts to control the fear. What would happen if we surrendered? What would happen if we sacrificed fear for love and truly showed up with everything we've got?
Artistic Images: Joyce Jonte.