(This is the third article I've published in Maya's and her daughter Radhaa's series, Awakening Starseeds, Volumes 1-3. I appreciate the honor of being included…
Dr. Arvind Vasavada, my guru and friend, my gentle, generous mentor from my seminary days, used to advise me and his analysands (counseling clients), “Be in it.”
(Here he is pictured between my friends and colleagues, the Reverend Doctors Bart Gould and Vern Barnet, at my ordination in Saint Joseph, Michigan, in 1972.)
Imagine my good fortune upon entering seminary at the University of Chicago in 1969 to meet a man who embodied the two main interests I had – Jungian psychology and Eastern religions. I had moved on from embalming and funeral directing, having taken a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Philosophy from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan (where I had the good fortune to study Eastern Religions with Henry Rosemont, who then went on to work with Noam Chomsky at MIT). Dr. Vasavada had also just moved to Hyde Park in Chicago from his native Bombay (now called Mumbai), India, having recently graduated from his training with Dr. Carl Jung.
Friday evenings I would attend Dr. Vasavada’s open meditation group. During the week I would drive him about town, and we would talk. (He hadn’t learned to drive a car by then; I soon taught him.) He was a guru figure to me, and I was a sadaka (spiritual seeker) soaking up whatever he shared with me.
Though Vasavada was earning $250 an hour way back in 1969 for his attention as a Jungian analysand, he never charged me a rupee for all the time he gave me over the ensuing years. In fact, he ran into trouble with established Jungians in Chicago for his eventual dropping of his fee altogether. His guru, the Blind Saint of Vrindavan, had advised he give his gift and take whatever came in return.
One phrase he would use still hangs in me. I would go to him, all full of angst and anguish over some event or mood, eager to get relief from it. “Be in it,” he would gently smile. Rather than fight a difficult mood or escape an unpleasant feeling, I was to accept it, let it live in me. Doing so would change it, opening insight as to what was really going on. Or maybe it would reveal other attitudes or thoughts I might have otherwise never noticed.
Jung wrote of a similar dynamic. Enantriodoma was “crossing over into the opposite.” Instead of struggling with the same reaction or resistance, try the opposite energy. Too caught by the anima? Try animus energy. Feeling helpless and guilty? Get mad maybe.
But I didn’t discuss Jungian psychology with Dr. Vasavada so much as absorb eastern religious teachings about being free of the desires and aversions that usually run us. Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is normal enough, but is normally free and whole, or unconscious?
Two Hindu terms help explain this. Neti neti means “not this, not that.” It refers to the importance we usually project on mere temporary objects or situations. None of them are our ultimate, most intimate, concerns. All are transitory. How is the person who persists? Tat Twam Asi means “Thou art That.” We are connected to the unified oneness that we are, related to beings and conditions we haven’t noticed or don’t want, even as we are also related to the ultimate divinity we forget we are. (This latter phrase is akin to Martin Buber’s urging we see our relations as I-and-Thou rather than I-and-it.)
Such precepts guide. I’m expanding on what Reverend Marge Keip said here last week about our UU Principles and Purposes. These are not rules or a new dogma; they’re guides, values we hold, and ways we’d rather live. As such, these are akin to what I heard monk Thich Nhat Hanh explain as Buddhist dharma. The Eight Precepts of Buddhism aren’t laws or sins that if you break, you’ll be punished. Rather, they are the sorts of things enlightened people don’t want to do, and they’re guides to those who want to be enlightened.
Dharma teaches us that stealing, lying, and injuring divert us from each other and our own being. Spiritually advanced souls don’t even want to do these. Just so, if we as UUs want to live into and up to our Principles – the inherent dignity and worth of everyone, justice equity and compassion, acceptance of each other towards spiritual growth, a free and responsible search for truth, the right of personal conscience, toward a goal of world community, as part of the interdependent web of existence – we best live up to our whole and best selves.
Our Principles are not commandments. They are values and ideals of a living tradition. It lives as we live them. We are invited and dared to live up to our freeborn, caring, intelligent selves. The UUA is not an association of persons; it is of congregations. Such congregations, having covenanted to affirm and promote their Principles, draw on many sources, the first of which is core to our living faith: Direct Experience.
We each have our own “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
Like Emerson taught, we each and all have in us That which renews creates, and upholds life. We aren’t ignorant, beholden to supposed prophets, authorities, or pressure groups on matters religious; we affirm and promote our own able and fallible perceptions and tentative conclusions. From Thomas Paine to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Theodore Parker – we dare the boldest of the Protestant affirmations: It isn’t popes or priests who bring divinity down to us, it is the divine in us wanting our own unique connection and expression.
But here the meagerness of our place in life meets the demands of life. We don’t feel like enlightened beings on top of every outer and inner challenge. Doubt intrudes not just about popes, but in us about us. We know we don’t know It All. We’d like to think there is some priest, prophet, pope, or some scientist, who does, but there is not. We’d like to think we’re in charge of our own minds, but we’re not. We’re all partial in ourselves, and so is everyone.
We build what eastern religion calls sanskaras, mind momentums, which tend to run on their own, thinking for us rather than we do original thinking. Similar to Einstein, J. Krishnamurti used to ask us to consider: Who are you to think you know what to do next? You’re thinking with the past. You’re thinking with the mind that made the problem.
This offends our pride and trips up our confidence. Shouldn’t we have some humility towards our own self-assurance? But then again, how to not let humility dominate us, preventing us from our own self? We’re free to each be our own self, but who are you really?
Those of you who meditate will recognize you can’t just turn off your ruminating mind or easily focus it. It runs on its own, occupying our attention with recurring themes, arguments and aggrandizements, things to do, themes, and clutter. Hardly ever can one count breaths up to ten and back without spacing out. Hardly ever can we relish utter silence. Yet, once in a while, silence is there, and near it are reminders to be kind, to bear compassion, to come alive in some deep and dear way.
Usually what we think is not skillful thinking. We think we’re thinking with our sanskaras. Psychologists Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai demonstrated how we tend to remember and anticipate the headwinds of our life while we quickly forget and take for granted the tailwinds. We remember how hard it was or to expect it to be, but don’t notice how good it was, is, or will be.
Remember my injured thumb? I forgot about it as soon as it was healed. I didn’t have to attend its healing; my marvelous body did it for me. While it hurt, I noticed it a lot (headwinds); once healed I just use it without notice or gratitude (tailwinds). So too do we remember the struggle we made, the trouble we had, the injuries and insults we endured, while not noticing the help we had, the support we got from our bodies and buddies, our school systems, and our ecosystem.
Brain science reminds us the troubles and injuries of our lives fire off repeatedly in our wary brains, while the ease and pleasures of our lives aren’t so much lived into as vaguely wanted. If we are to balance this, we must deliberately live into, feel, embody the tailwinds we enjoy in order to ensconce positivity into our prevailing balance. We build actual neural structure via gratitude and practicing the positive. This applies both in our private lives and our public ones. A fellowship would best manage the challenges of life by strengthening the goodness of its members and their mutual intent.
In Robert Wright’s book Why Buddhism is True, he reminds us that personal salvation is part of the process of social salvation. We don’t just ignore our problems, but neither do we magnify them. He uses meditation practice as key to our enlightenment, saying, “Accepting an unpleasant feeling can give you a critical distance from it that winds up diminishing the unpleasantness.”
This shows in meditation itself. The problems besetting meditation are the very ones we need to be in to reach meditation itself. We sit in boredom and distraction. But rather than fight this, we let ourselves be in it and with it, noting the boredom and distraction. By letting it be, it becomes something else. Patience is the reward for patience.
We admit our mind wanders. That is what the psychologists call the default mode network, the tendency for the mind to drift. We’re tun by our own sanskaras. But by admitting it, we gain some distance from it. It isn’t just taking us away on a trip, we see that. In the seeing, we’re a bit rescued from it. Focused enough on one’s own being instead of our thinking and feeling, we can taste the bliss that is part of enlightenment.
But rarely do we find this because we’re usually deluding ourselves about how wonderful or horrible we are. It takes spiritual bravery to look at such thoughts for what they are – egoistic stories building a background narrative that we think is “I.”
This is the “I” that the Buddhists say doesn’t exist. It exists as a phantom in our mind, a name, a story, a set of typical reactions, but it isn’t as real as the Being that wears them. Mind momentum, habits from childhood and over the years, propels us forward occupying us, stuck in the past or worried for the future, desiring this, avoiding that, steered by dopamine rewards for fleeting inclinations. Such a mind is caught by the past or future, not aware of the present, not free to be present.
Largely, the key to unlock us from a meandering, menacing mind is to favor descriptive over the evaluative. We observe and note without judging and reacting. We observe our reactions as well. Be in it.
“Awareness is what causes change, not mere moral resolve to be better,” writes Brad Blanton in his fun book Radical Honesty. He says psychotherapy works when the client loosens her or his own history and begins to dwell in their being. “The stress that kills or cripples most of the population,” he says, “comes from people being too hard on themselves when they don’t live up to their own imaginings of how other people think they should behave.”
Truth is that most others don’t think about us that much. And even if our parents, pastor, boss, spouse, or friends have expectations of us, how much of that comes out of their own driven partiality? Even when someone attacks you with words, why take it personally? What demons are they wrestling with? Why live your life to suit their trip?
Our partial minds are driven by their partial minds, all influenced by the partial collective mind, the memes of our culture. Whenever are you the real you, the free you, the new you? Twisting the slogan into a helpful joke, Blanton says, “The mind is a terrible thing: waste it.”
Radical honesty can cut through the defensive and grandiose illusions we have about ourselves. Oh, we’re not angry, we’re merely upset, feeling helpless, wallowing in self-condemnation, gossiping about others, withholding our criticism to protect someone else.
We can be in this denial, or we can be in the anger beneath it, bringing a scarier but more advantageous truth to our awareness. But don’t stop there. What hurt, fear or unmet longing lies beneath the anger? What longing to love and be loved lies beneath that. Be in it.
The Buddhists remind us – all is transitory. The things we want, the situations we’re in, the states of being that overtake us – all these will pass. The challenges or relationship? These are fodder for our learning and development.
Vasavada used to remind me, “There is no relationship you can form which will not end.” Knowing this, do we expect the other to satisfy our desires, or do we serve the other? Do we live into the attachment and fears that pop up in us, or do we assert our own deeper, more lasting spiritual strength to serve? Either way, the relationship will end. How will we feel about ourselves then? Do we live from selfish surface desires or our deeper, nobler, and satisfied Being?
Vasavada’s guru, the Blind Saint of Vrindavan, taught the way to live up to your own Being is to let it show you what you’re not. Renounce what you’ve not repeatedly in order to let your own Being shine. We admit we’re selfish, grasping, living in a lost past or a future full of desire and fear. Being in it, admitting what we are without succumbing to being only that, we can say, “Oh, that’s more of my mind, diverting me from my truer, more lasting and important self.”
“Being is dying by loving,” Meher Baba taught. We die to our own sanskaras, our own old reactions and habits, our own desires and aversions. We die to our little self to live in our Self.
Isn’t this what a fellowship can be, a place where we let each other be even if we’re temporarily caught in lesser modes, being there for each other with perspective and compassion as we learn to live up to ourselves? The Buddhist Dharma, the UU Principles – these are attempts to remind and guide us to who and how we can be.
In every difficult or delightful now that you find yourselves in – be in it.
Reverend Byron Bradley Carrier
Presented to the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
February 4th, 2018