Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Suffering And Spirituality Go Hand-In-Hand

 The latest from my good friend and fellow monk Gadadhar Pandit Dasa at the Huffington Post

It's quite natural for those of faith to turn towards God during difficult times. Even if one has a regular spiritual practice, their practice can increase and improve during times of difficulty. After the events of September 11 for example, churches in New York City had some of their largest attendance in quite some time. Why is it that a lot of us have to come to a point of utter hopelessness and desperation before we call out to God? Why is it that even if one doesn't have faith, one may make a last ditch effort to call out to God as well?

When life is treating us good and all is going well, we often don't feel a need for God in our lives. Our material acquisitions -- money, property, friends and family -- become our crutch. As long as we have these things in place, we feel comfortable and don't have a strong need for a spiritual practice.

However, when these things start to fade, we feel a sense of fear and panic come over us.

As a society, we have become so dependent on material things for our happiness that our lives would become completely disrupted without them. When things are on shaky ground, we pray to God to protect what we have. We reach out to God and expect Him to keep things as they are or fix them and make everything all right. God becomes our plumber who's supposed to fix things when they go wrong. This need-based spirituality is all right, but it's a bit superficial.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (God) lists four basic types of people that turn towards Him. Number one on the list is the "distressed." In case you're wondering, the other three are those that need money, the philosophically inquisitive, and the wise or those who don't want anything from God, except a loving relationship. In the Gita Krishna explains that He welcomes all four types that approach Him, but the one who approaches Him without material motivation is the most dear.

We can tend to use spirituality like medicine or a hospital. We utilize it only when things aren't going right or when we're suffering financially, emotionally or relationally. Our pain and suffering, however, can be a path to transcending this selfish conception of spirituality into something more. It can make us ask the questions we normally wouldn't ask, and can lead us to bigger and broader questions, such "what's really the purpose of life?" and "how can we avoid suffering?"

Unless one starts to ask these questions, one can never truly understand the purpose of life. Even if one does understand philosophically that there's a higher purpose to life, without some suffering, one may not feel the impetus to implement some spiritual practice into their life.

Suffering doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. It can help us grow and mature in ways we can't even imagine. It can give us realizations about life which otherwise would be difficult to acquire. I'm not suggesting we go out and look for suffering. Rest assured, it will find its way into our life.

There's a beautiful verse in the Gita, chapter 2 verse 14:

"...the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons...and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed."

Difficulties teach us patience, tolerance, acceptance, and ultimately that we're not in complete control of our lives. We can do everything perfectly and things might still not go our way. Some of the greatest teachers within Hinduism demonstrated by their own example that our soul can experience the greatest spiritual growth during challenging times, and they also demonstrated that we can actually thank God for the difficulty.
While undergoing a difficulty one may not be able to fully understand how this is supposed to be beneficial. However, as Steve Jobs said in his commencement speech, you can only connect the dots looking back.

The Vedic texts explain that the soul is a part and parcel of the Supreme. It is qualitatively one but quantitatively different from God, like a spark of fire which has similar qualities to the larger fire, but is insignificant in size compared to the actual fire. Because the soul has this eternal connection to God, it has a natural tendency to reach out to God during difficult times. These opportunities provide the soul, which is stuck in a material body, to again reach out to God and rekindle that relationship.

The help will definitely come, but not always in the ways we expect it to. If the soul can remain faithful even if it appears that God isn't sending the help one is asking for, the soul's union with God is almost guaranteed even within this life.
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Strange Art of Relationships

Five years ago I began my life as a monk at a Hindu/Vedic temple in the hills of West Virginia. It was the time of my life in which I burst out of the bubble of my previous life, as a middle-class, suburban young man/student from Michigan, into a whole new culture, into the world of responsibility, and the exhilarating and nerve-racking adventure of adult life, with a deeply spiritual twist. Soon after, I experienced the shock of my life.

I began to see that some people in our community, despite them all being deeply sincere spiritual seekers in their own way, were having an incredible time maintaining any semblance of a healthy relationship. In fact, their relationships, despite of, or perhaps because of so much personal history, didn't exist on any kind of healthy level, and that this reality was having a negative permeating effect on the community as a whole.

It was a certain smashing of my own naivete, and for the last five years I have been processing this revelation. I have found the strange art of relationships, both in my own life and in my continued observations of others, to be perhaps the most difficult aspect of any community to grasp, and to keep vibrant and whole. This difficulty is enhanced because without healthy relationships, no community can exist, let alone prosper and grow.

My heart calls me to process my initial sense of shock, and the resultant dislocation and disillusionment that comes from it, if I am going to understand my role as a loving servant of my monastic community here in New York, and of God. Talking today with my friend Charlie, the saintly and wise sage of Boston, we both were appreciating the necessity of this processing.

He said it begins with understanding that perfect and peaceful relationships, without any strife, are a utopian ideal best left aside. What really needs to be done is to appreciate the real growth that can be found in finding the proper perspective, based in a deep patience and selfless love in the midst of the inevitable quarrel and hypocrisy which comes to us in our dealings with each other.

The holy books of the Vedas describe our times indeed as the “age of quarrel and hypocrisy.” Yet the intensity of our time can compel us to truly understand our sacred duty towards each other in the art of the relationship. The Vedic scriptures also describe one who is a madhyama-adhikari, or one who has loving relationships with fellow spiritual seekers, compassion for those who are striving to seek and who need guidance, and who is able to avoid the negative effects of envious or proud people.

This level of consciousness is a transcendent level to raw selfishness, in which one can be in actual contact with one's conscience, the presence of the Divine within guiding us through the winds of our relations.

In his commentary to the classic Vedic text the Bhagavata Purana, renowned Vedic scholar and pioneer Swami Prabhupada expands upon this point:

"God has given advanced consciousness to the human being. Therefore he can feel the suffering and happiness of other living beings. The human being bereft of his conscience, however, is prone to cause suffering for other living beings."1

Recently I have been trying to drag my own conscience up from the dank and grungy space where I have left it. During the recent month of Kartik in our tradition, a time of extended and concentrated introspection and prayer (similar to the times of Lenten or Ramadan, for example), I attempted a meditation to focus on how much I criticize others, either verbally or mentally.

The first and most fundamental realization I gained from this meditation is that my critical facility runs on automatic overdrive. I realized that most of the time, I don't even notice the voice in my head, which also often finds its way into verbal expression, whining, moaning, cajoling, and chastising others for not living up to some standard that I myself don't even live up to.

This is a disease, a mentality which rots to the core any semblance of being able to meaningfully relate to others in a holistic and spiritual way. The experience of this meditation was, and continues to be, a cold shock to my system, yet I am grateful for it. It has heightened my awareness of my surroundings.

For example, in our monastery, we have a small yellow poster taped to the wall near the door. It is the “Four Principles of Community Building” by a renowned and beloved contemporary Vedic scholar and teacher Bhakti Tirtha Swami. I, probably like most others in this monastery, in our sometimes mad rush to do our duties and stay ahead of the clatter of our own minds and the streets of New York City where we live, never really notice this humble yet wonderful document.

Taking the time to consider it now, BT Swami's paeans to the hope we can share together strike a few essential chords to the processing of our conflicts.
Take a gander..

  1. Treat each person with care as if the success or failure of your own spiritual life depends on this. Do not take into concern how they treat you. The manner in which you treat people is the same way you are treating your spiritual teachers and God.
  2. Anytime there is a problem in a relationship, you should first see it as your own fault. Even if others are to blame, you will only add to the problem by considering them to be at fault.
  3. You should treat every person with whom you come in contact with the same care as the person you love the most.
  4. As we associate with others in our spiritual communities, we should do so in a mood that these are the people I am living with and they would probably also be the people that I leave this body with.
Wow, impossible, I say...

But that is perhaps just my naivete again, mixed with that rancid spice of cynicism. If we look at these principles with an objective lens, a hopeful lens, a courageous and open-hearted lens, we find essential spiritual technologies which can shatter the pride and envy which stand like barbed-wire tip walls between all of us and the healthy, dynamic relationships we desperately need.

These principles will allow us to firmly regain hold of our conscience, or our relationship of communication with the presence of God within us. We need to hear His voice within our heart, if we are to hear how our own voice communicates with others, and how we can also listen properly to what others want to communicate with us.

Otherwise, the dysfunction of our miscommunication robs us of the opportunity to find our voice in His voice. It leaves us mired in the complex state of fear which prevents us from knowing each other, trusting each other, and loving each other in the light of God.

No progress here comes without serious contemplation. Let us step back and really think about the conflicts in our life, and what we need to do to transcend them and allow them to help make our relationships grow. I hope to write an addendum to this piece soon, concentrating more on Bhakti Tirtha Swami's principles, and also some meditations on the need for some conflict, and the need to acknowledge gratitude, as markers towards understanding this strange art of the relationship.

I pray you may find some personal meditations of your own through this offering.

1  A.C Vedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavat Purana)-Fifth Canto, Chapter 26 (Summary), Bhaktivedanta Book Trust