The grit that makes the pearl

Maybe enlightenment was just the booby prize. The thing you went after when what you really wanted didn’t work out. Anne Cushman

Why is life hard? Why don’t we get want we want? And when we do get what we want why does it so quickly become unsatisfactory and we start wanting something else?

I guess that’s the quandary for anyone who has ever investigated the spiritual side of life or ever asked themselves the ‘big questions’ or contemplated life to any degree.

Because, in my experience, we often ask those questions when the going gets tough. Curled up in foetal position. Wailing, “Whhhhyyyyyy?” Or even if you haven’t gone to that extreme. (Me neither, I was only asking for a friend…)

If we are these spiritual beings, made manifest in physical form, why is life so fucking hard sometimes? Why not make it easy? Why not just be these floaty, peaceful people, you know, being at one with everything? Wearing fabulous boho-chic clothes. Meditating and doing yoga, radiating peace and swapping organic vegetables. Raising our children with perfect patience and grace. If that’s our true nature, why do we struggle so?

I’m not going to answer that question, one, because it’s silly, two, because I’m not an enlightened one – and there are many beautiful texts written on the matter which would do far greater justice to it than I ever could. (I mean in regards to the meaning of life, not the boho-chic, floaty people.) And mostly because I don’t know.

I guess the thing is, even those great spiritual texts don’t have all the answers. Not one everyone can agree to anyway…

But what they all tend to point to, is that there is something in the nature of this physical reality, this physical incarnation, that is in itself part of the spiritual evolution of a human being.

The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials. Seneca

I was reading about pearls, because the idea just kept popping up, and the analogy of how a pearl is formed seemed particularly apt for me.

A pearl is formed as a reaction to the irritation caused by grit, like a piece of sand getting into the oyster’s shell, and in order to stop the rubbing, the irritation of this grit, the oyster starts to deposit this pearl substance, as a buffer around the source of irritation, and this creates a pearl.

A pearl is one of the most beautiful and highly prized jewels of nature, but it comes from agitation. From the agitation of the grit, that gets into the oyster, and irritates it enough to deposit pearl stuff around it in a ball.

In a similar way,  many cultures use the analogy of the lotus, the lotus that grows out of the mud. It grows its way up through the mud, through the water, through the murky depths, to become this exquisite flower, that is magnificent once it blooms.

In this analogy, as human beings we are in the mud. Right? We are incarnated into these dense, heavy three dimensional forms, and yet, there is something inherent in us that wants to get in touch with another aspect of our being. You can call that what you like spirit, the soul, the essence, self-realisation, whatever it might be. But it’s not a physical thing, it’s not a tangible thing.

A lot of what is most beautiful about the world arises from struggle. Malcolm Gladwell

Often what pushes people into wanting this relationship with the intangible thing, and what deepens this relationship once they are in it, is this sense of irritation or agitation, so the grit that makes the pearl.

There seems to be a belief in many New Age Spirituality circles, that we are all born with spiritual gifts that our modern life has blocked us off from, and if we just do some yoga or breathing or bang a drum or take some weekend courses, we can tap into this inner bliss and live in ecstasy, like, always and forever.

Now, while this idea is extremely appealing, and I like many, have fallen under its spell at times. It seems to me that whatever spiritual path we choose, the only lasting results – that will actually bring about the kind of inner transformation that won’t collapse under the pressures in day to day life, once we return from the bliss of our retreat in Bali – come from commitment, discipline and years of practice. The degree of self-mastery required is a lot of work.

I know, it’s not the best marketing pitch. You can see why “Seven Days to Complete Transformation” sells better.

We can embody the essential teachings of yoga and have a life that is full of divinity. The yogic path is to help us explore and embody that divine nature. But we can only experience this dependent on our own capacity. Have we corrected our intellect? Have we refined our understanding of life? And are we in tune with the value of truth? Only the one who has mastered themself can live a life truly worth living. Otherwise it is a struggle. Anand Mehotra

Recently I disovered an Italian writer called Julius Evola, who wrote very well and extensively about Eastern esoteric paths and all kinds of spiritual practices. He is very much out of favour because of his political beliefs, but he was an amazing scholar.

There’s a wonderful story about why he wrote about Buddhism in the first place. He believed that a Buddhist text that he came across after World War I, when he was suicidal, had saved his life. And to repay this debt, in gratitude, he used this text to write his book about Buddhism, The Doctrine of Awakening.

The text Julius read was a translation of the Theravadan (Tibetan Buddhist) text Majjhima Nikaya. Reading this inspired a deepening interest in Eastern spirituality, especially in techniques that strengthen the will, foster the power of concentration, and promote mastery over thoughts.

Evola believed that the translation of ‘dukkha’ as suffering, one of the most pivotal concepts in Buddhism, is a bit of a mistranslation. To his mind, a closer translation would be ‘agitation.’ It’s not suffering per se, in the sense of a great pain we must bear, although it can be for some. For many of us though, is the relentless monotony of desire and disappointment, the myriad of small and sometimes petty ways that life does not go the way we want it to. It is the agitation of rubbing up against the unsatisfactory nature of life that propels us into action.

We suffer because we cannot accept the true nature of life, of being. And this is the source of our irritation and agitation. We suffer because we are attached to the outcomes of our desires, which inevitably fail to satisfy, even when we get what we think we want.

The grit that makes the pearl.

Life isn’t easy-going. There’s sand in the sea, and it’s going to get into the oyster shell and be an irritation. Physical life, the body with all its groans and complaints, the mind and all its dissatisfactions, these are the grit of life. There’s no bypassing it, So where are our pearl-making abilities?

We look at it as something complex, as something far-fetched, to live a life of enlightenment, a life of brilliance. It’s not for us, it’s for somebody else. But at the core of our being we are looking for this, we are looking to have the most expansive experience of life. Anand Mehotra

I think I am still looking for the great insight, the one that changes everything. A magic bullet. Consciously I know that is silly and it doesn’t work like that, but subconsciously? Yeah. I still want quick and easy. I see how this belief sets me up for disappointment.

For the last six months, I have had a daily yoga (asana) practice. Before that I was practising probably five or six times a week, but there is a shift that happens when we commit to doing something every day, no matter what. It’s the discipline of practising regardless of how we feel about it.

Some days we battle against it, some days it is effortless. But if we do the practice regardless, we see that over time how we felt about it on any given day is actually irrelevant. It is the fact that we did the practice that counts. For me, this daily discipline saw me through a particularly lengthy and dark depression that lingered for months. I was proud of myself that I stuck with it.

And it was a reprieve. Anyone who has practised yoga over a long period of time will understand the psychological respite that we can feel even by rolling out and lying down on our mat. It’s that knowing that for the next hour or so there is no need for thought beyond this little space: the mat, the body, the breath.

During this dark phase, I found myself feeling very disengaged from my practices. There were many tearful moments where I literally begged for the will to go on. It all sounds rather melodramatic, but let’s face it, depression is an absolute fucker. It saps all your energy, any enthusiasm, any desire for connection or engagement. And when it just goes on and on like that… I was seriously struggling.

Into this gloom came an email from my dear friend Tanya Allison, who I met in India last year. Tanya was on her way to honour the Hindu goddess Durga at an ashram in India during Navaratri. Navaratri is the nine day festival that honours the various forms of Durga, the fierce mother goddess of the Hindu pantheon. Tanya was offering a daily online sadhana (practice) for the festival. The first three days honouring Kali, the next three Lakshmi and the final three Saraswati.

Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. Joko Beck

So I devoted my altar to Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, and Sarawati and began a daily practice of mantra, offerings and prayers to the goddess. A few days in, when we had moved onto Lakshmi, I took a long walk by the river.

During bouts of depression I often find myself unable to sit and read or do any of the things I normally enjoy, walking is a way I can get out of the house and it seems to settle me. Being in nature, particularly water, is always soothing to me.

I found myself missing India at this time, longing to be there. I have written before about the deep sense of connection I felt in Rishikesh, being beside the river Ganga. Especially the experience I had of being in her waters.

The power of this experience was not so much what Ganga Ma (the Ganges river as shakti or goddess) gave me or even took away, though both were palpable. It was the sense of being held in her unconditional, maternal love. I was seen completely, nothing was hidden, and yet everything was perfect.

I know what you are thinking. This is a river we are talking about, yes? For now, let’s just say you had to be there… (I wrote about the experience in this post…)

How could it be? Whatever power flowed through her, flowed through everything. I felt deeply, completely, unconditionally held and nourished in her grace. Loved and supported to a degree I had never known possible before.

I had glimpses of this all-encompassing divine love before, but this experience was overwhelming, it washed over and through me as her waters held me. In that moment, I came home to myself. I felt at home, fully embodied in my body, in the world. Like for the first time I actually belonged in the scheme of life. I wasn’t a phoney or an imposter or a failure. I wasn’t even trying to be anything, I just was a part of everything. I know it sounds wild, but that’s exactly how it was.

Everywhere one goes in India, one finds a living landscape in which mountains, rivers, forests and villages are elaborately linked to the stories of the gods and heroes. The land bears the traces of the gods and the footprints of the heroes. Diane L Eck

Now as I gazed at the Yarra River, feeling so very far from that state of grace, I played a video of the view from my room in Rishikesh, the 13-storey Tryambakeshwar Temple overlooking the Ganges, the chanting from the temple audible. In this way I could tap into that experience.

I sat by the river chanting the Gayatri mantra. I had a sense that I was simultaneously meditating by the Yarra river, but tuned in to the Ganga, into that divine maternal energy.

Maybe it was a trick of the light, my mind misfiring, I don’t know, so I will just describe the experience as it came to me.

As I played videos of the Ganges at Rishikesh, with the chanting from Tryambakeshwar temple in the background. I felt into that first experience of great Mother shakti love, of Ganga Ma. My heart expressed a longing to feel that grace and love again.

The sun was shining a great orb on the river’s surface. And there she was, all light and golden grace. Shri Lakshmi.

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. John Steinbeck

So before we all get too carried away that Goddess Lakshmi herself appeared to me, hovering over the Yarra River. I would like to add that what I saw was an orb of light, what I felt was a presence of power.

In the Tantric tradition shakti (or feminine power) is the force that creates and animates all life. There’s shakti in you, in me, in the sky, in the river.

I felt it inside of me and I experienced it outside of me. So what I experienced, to my mind was a connection with shakti. Because it was such a lovely, beautiful, uplifting golden energy, because I had been honouring Lakshmi in daily practice, I am happy to call this shakti shri.

Lakshmi, or shri in her ancient name, is the truly delicious aspect of shakti. She has 108 names which all mean beauty, wealth, abundance and worth. Lakshmi is said to be one of the most accessible deities, as connected as she is to worldly desires.

According to legend, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and Vishnu’s wife, or shakti energy, visits her devotees and bestows gifts and blessings upon each of them.

Lakshmi is depicted as a beautiful woman with four hands, sitting or standing on a full-bloomed lotus and holding a lotus bud, which stands for beauty, purity and fertility. Her four hands represent the four ends of human life: “dharma” or righteousness, “kama” or desires, “artha” or wealth, and “moksha” or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

She is often represented as sitting on a lotus flower. The lotus’ unfolding petals suggest the expansion of the soul. The growth of its pure beauty from the mud of its origin holds a benign spiritual promise. Particularly Brahma and Lakshmi, the divinities of potency and wealth, have the lotus symbol associated with them.

Of course as the intensity of this experience faded, I fell back into my dark mood, but there was a spark of something. I had connected with shakti, that power, and so I committed to 21 days of Lakshmi Pūjā, a daily practice of chanting, burning incense and candles and offering flowers and food to the goddess. 21 days has just become every day now.

It is from the intention of self-mastery that yoga arised. It was the desire to find a meaning for life. The base of the yogic teachings is the exploration of the meaning of life. Through exploration the early yogis realised that this is only possible through a level of self-mastery. Otherwise we are like a weak twig in the storm of life trying to hold on for dear life. We fight the very process of life. Anand Mehotra

Over this time of daily yoga, pūjā, chanting and prayers to the Hindu goddesses, my depression has shifted, my voracious appetite for reading has returned and I am devouring books on Tantra and Yoga.

There is copious evidence of the use of mantras and chanting to relieve depression, anxiety and to focus the mind. So much evidence I will need to devote an entire blog post to it.

What has become apparent is that whether you engage in these practices in a devotional way, as I tend to do, or in a very practical way, they are a system of self-mastery.

The word pūjā comes from Sanskrit, and means reverence, honour, homage, adoration, and worship.

This can be simple, a candle, a flower, some chanting of divine mantras. For me, creating a dedicated altar is important. It is both an act of devotion and a visual doorway to connection with the divine.

I feel the inner shift when I kneel before my altar, light the candle and ring the bell. My altar is also a reminder.  Have I prayed today?

Chameli Ardagh, who runs online Sadhanas (practice) to honour various goddesses puts it beautifully.

First create your altar. On the days you feel inspired, you will infuse the altar with your willingness and attention. On the days you feel resistant, busy, or disconnected from your practice, the altar can be your anchor to a deeper truth. It will remind you why you embarked on this journey. It will root you in your commitment to embodied awakening. Chameli Ardagh

Tanya’s emails provided a sadhana to connect me with intention of Navaratri, a daily practice of connecting with goddess or shakti. Tanya who I met in India. Who shared a blessed moment with me in the waters of Ganga Ma.

And I feel all this is connected. That intention I cast, like a red thread that brought me to India, to Diwali, the festival of Lakshmi worship, to these women. That thread continues to guide me.

I am guided, yet so blind and stubborn that I suffer too much to see. And still in the darkness, grace found me.

We don’t know what we do, the light we carry to others. We just seek connection to our divinity, and when we find it share it with others so they can find it too. We don’t know if they do or how profound a simple email or message can be.

So I had my breakthrough, I had another experience that at some deep level I am of value. I have worth. I am surrounded by grace. But what’s the real rub?

Sometimes, in fact much of the time, I won’t feel it. I won’t be walking around in a constant bliss state, overflowing with shakti. The world and all its agitations will continue to deplete me, to rub away at my skin. But I can make my pearl.

How do we make the pearl? Do the practice. Be disciplined. The temple, the shakti is in you. It is you. And in everything. But you just get to deal with this little package of everything called you.

So this is what I tell myself. Get up and meditate – practise the yogic techniques that strengthen and energise my body and mind, foster my power of concentration, and provide mastery over my thoughts.

I don’t need to live in an ashram. I have been in an ashram, I know what they do. I just need to bring those practices in my daily life. Make my real life an ashram. Bring my practice into my world instead of escaping from the world.

Moving my body into different shapes [through yoga], I became a different person. Creating more space in my joints, I made more space in my mind as well. Twisting and bending and arching my body, I broke up the ice floes of self-judgment that had frozen in my muscles. I squeezed out the anxiety knotted between my shoulder blades. I melted the anger in the pit of my stomach into tears. Anne Cushman

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I realise this all sounds very far-fetched and magical, so let’s break it down.

Finding myself bogged down in the mud of depression, I committed to a daily discipline of practice. The yoga asanas are only a small part of the yogic path. Meditation, prayer, chanting, pranayama (breathing practices) and lifestyle are also vital. I am only just starting to understand the full scope and power of these yogic practices, when used correctly.

The yogic path that I follow is essentially about clearing the vessel (the body, mind, emotional state) in order to allow the shakti, the life force to flow. To be able to embody this force, this power in every aspect of living.

In the tantric tradition, this shakti is represented as goddesses. Each goddess bring an aspect of wisdom and divinity which is transmitted through dedicated practice.

I believe no prayer goes unanswered. A prayer is a devoted intention. A year ago I made a pilgrimage to Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga. I wanted to find a teacher.

When I arrived In Rishikesh – the most magical place on Earth. I stood on my balcony overlooking the Ganga (a life-long dream to be near her) and looked at the Tryambakeshwar Temple. I had the intention to find a place to practise yoga and as my eyes scanned the buildings opposite I saw the sign Sattva Yoga. I walked over the bridge and met Amy Love – a recent graduate from the Sattva Yoga Academy – and began practising daily with her.

She showed me a photo of Anand Mehotra, her teacher, who seemed absolutely luminous, and told me all about her wonderful experience learning yoga with him.

After coming through this latest depression, having attributed this to the yogic practices I had been so diligent in during that time, I felt a renewed passion to continue my yogic studies. But which teacher?

Nobody out there can do it for you. No teacher, no leader. It is only through self that the self can become realised. We have the radical responsibility for our own life. It is nobody’s fault. We have to realise for ourselves the great magnificence of this life. We have to embody the essential teachings of yoga so it is not just on the conceptual or emotional level. Anand Mehotra

I watched a fantastic series on the Yogic Paths on Gaia, which featured Anand Mehotra as one of the teachers. I found his words and his presence captivating, so I signed up to his newsletter and then two days later I was thrilled when the opportunity arose to study online with him.

Coincidence? Maybe. Synchronicity? Definitely.

Anand teaches that the yogic path is about exploring reality to see that we are an expression of nature, we are as much an expression of the divine and creative forces, the shiva and shakti, as the trees, as the rivers.

As this is the ever-creative, ever-expanding, ever-changing force of life we can either embody it, harness it, or face the struggle of trying to fight against it.

When we can master our mental chatter and allow this life force to animate us, we cease to suffer. Life will challenge us, yes, but we can meet those challenges as beings embodied with a creative and evolutionary force.

We can meet those challenges, not with disappointment and petulance, but as the grit that makes the pearl. Then we can grow, then we can master our limiting thoughts and behavioural patterns, to continually evolve as a human being. And surely that’s what life is all about.

I guess for me the real challenge is to let go of how it all looks. To put my faith in the practice, to develop the discipline to carry me through the dark times, the lonely times, the truly gritty times when I want to scream “Fuck this! It’s not working!”

It’s unlikely I will ever master the ‘floaty, serene yogini’ thing, so I will have to just accept the ‘gritty, imperfect and agitated but keeps practising anyway, and has a moment or two of spine-tingling grace every now and then’ thing.

Having loved enough and lost enough, I’m no longer searching just opening, no longer trying to make sense of pain but trying to be a soft and sturdy home in which real things can land. These are the irritations that rub into a pearl. So we can talk for a while but then we must listen, the way rocks listen to the sea. and we can churn at all that goes wrong but then we must lay all distractions down and water every living seed. And yes, on nights like tonight I too feel alone. but seldom do I face it squarely enough to see that it’s a door into the endless breath that has no breather, into the surf that human shells call god. Mark Nepo

Hari om tat sat. Namaste. Blessings.


Artwork by Elena Ray https://elenaray.photoshelter.com/index

Tanya Allison http://www.tanyaallison.com

Amy Love Yoga https://www.facebook.com/amyloveyoga/

Anand Mehotra/Sattva Yoga http://mysattva.com/

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