With Thanks to Mr. May... (Part Two)
Posted October 15, 2008
This essay is in gratitude to Gerald May, whose book "Will and Spirit" delineates pitfalls to all who seek on the spiritual path. Reaching across the sectarian divisions between us, he arrives at the core of spirituality, our common experience of God and our hunger for His unconditional love.
On the testimony of scripture and saint, sadhu and sastra, May proposes that all love is sourced in God and is expressed, however deficiently, through human channels. Therefore, we cannot deny the value of interpersonal relationships, even while at the same time we realize their limitation, specifically the inability to satisfy our deepest craving for unconditional love. We search for unconditional love particularly in emotional intimacy, which by way of its intensity, appears to approach what we are looking for, until it wanes over time, and the "I love you, no matter what" is replaced by "I love you, but..." Still, we can sense that unconditional love is out there, somewhere. It is like we are made aware of something like an ocean and just happen to approach it, and even in approaching it, we are in awe; we have not actually touched it, yet something of the ocean, maybe the salt air or the sea spray, has entered us, and we cannot forget it, and look for it everywhere.
Love has its source in God, but taking this further, May goes on to discuss how all emotions are sourced in God, and how they are manifestations of His energies. This concurs with our Gaudiya vaisnava line of thought, but it is fascinating how he reaches such a conclusion, and instructive as to the implications he draws from it. To reach this conclusion, he disavows the western method of objective observation and analysis, and utilizes instead the eastern method of subjective experience. Consciousness is, after all, subjective experience itself. To examine it objectively, for example by measuring brain activity, brain chemical composition and behavioral cues, is exactly like the well-known analogy of tasting honey by licking the outside of the bottle.
Tasting the Honey from the Inside Out...
Through meditative practice and prayer, one is able to perceive (subjectively) the emotions as manifestations of energy. This is the testimony of a nun, who went on a prayer retreat to find calm amidst some emotional turmoil she was experiencing:
"During the first part of the retreat my mind remained highly turbulent, but after many hours of just sitting with all the mental noise, things began to quiet down. The multiplicity of thoughts and images which had preoccupied my attention began to disappear. As they left, I became aware of another layer of turbulence beneath them, this consisting of emotions. Watching this very quietly, I experienced the whole gamut of emotions coming through my mind, one after another, as if on parade. Sadness, anger, frustration, sexual desire, guilt, fear, hope, and now and then some peace, lightness and humor. First I recognized all of these as feelings, much like body sensations but coming from deep within my awareness. They seemed to originate very deeply, and for a while I became fascinated with seeing how they came into being. It appeared that something lay behind these feelings- some origin or source- and that my usual experience of them had been very superficial. As I moved more intimately towards that point of origin, it seemed as if there was a level at which a kind of diffuse dynamic "percolation" was taking place. Indeed, this appeared to be at a very primeval point....
Out of this level, there seemed to come spurts of activity which became attached to certain mental concepts or words or memories or images. When this attachment took place, I could immediately identify that "spurt" or "spark" as an feeling, an emotion. And with just a little more discrimination, I could label the feeling as anger or sadness or whatever. I was left with the conviction that what I experience as emotions on a day-to-day basis is really just a superficial interpretation of a much larger and more generalized process. More importantly I was deeply impressed by the fact that while all this activity takes place it is possible for some kind of awareness to be present, totally unruffled, watching it all with complete serenity. There is something deeply reassuring about that."
This stillness amongst the turbulence of emotions reminds us of Bg 7.20. It is also interesting how the evolution of emotions, as described here, closely resembles Krsna's description in 2.62- emotions develop into recognizable forms (lust, anger, etc) only after they become attached to something (an image or memory, or in other words, an object of the senses which is either physically present or remembered). Originally, in their raw state, emotions are pure energy, emanating from the energetic source, which the Vedas define as Brahman. This pure energy simply becomes transformed , and according to the transformation, it is perceived and labeled as such. When it becomes attached to a painful image or memory, it is transformed into fear or dread, and when it becomes attached to a pleasurable image or memory, it becomes transformed into desire.
What is important is not to stop emotions, for being as energies emanating from God it is not in our power to control them, but rather try to seek out their source and in so discovering their source and nature, we cease to be propelled by them unconsciously, reactively, and often against our best interest. It may be asked how it is that simply becoming aware of something could protect us from being propelled unwillingly by it, but this is not a new concept in the realm of psychology. According to the current consensus of psychological thought, almost all our behavioral tendencies which do not make sense or which do us no good can be traced back to memories which we have repressed, which are out of our awareness, and which need to be brought into awareness to be healed of their malignant effects.
We must not only be aware of how emotions arise and form attachments within us, but be prepared to disentangle from attachment itself. This is not easy, as we identify with our particular turbulence of emotions; and the behavior patterns it generates: easily recognized and identified, emotions allay our existential terror of not knowing who we really are. We form a concept of who we are, much as an actor on a stage chooses a character, then when an emotion arising from within us corresponds to that sense of personal selfhood, we feel we simply must respond, and when the emotion does not do so, it threatens us, and we repress it. This leads to considerable conflict and guilt, and we punish ourselves for having felt something, when it is only natural to feel. It's as if the guilt is a chain holding the thing in bondage, and if we let it go, it could get out and destroy us.
The fact is, however, that it is not emotions that are a threat, but our attachment to them. One can feel something, acknowledge it and not act on it. We need not make it a part of who we are, or who we are not. But this surrender of self-image means letting go of control at a very deep level, and it is not easy to do. In fact it is logically impossible, as to let go of control is just another type of control. The contradiction is resolved when we consider that the desire for control itself, of being in charge of ones own destiny, sets us apart from the energy of God working through us. We must, through prayer and willingess towards His grace, be prepared to give up the security of control and self-image when the ability to do so is granted us. It is a step into the unknown, and groping around in the dark, we can only fumble for His guiding hand.
Bedha! Abedha! Acintya!
It would seem that in the first chapters of this book that Mr. May is somewhat of an impersonalist, as he describes spiritual ecstasy in terms of feelings of unity with God. However, such feelings are also natural for a devotee, and they are symptomatic of the uttama adhikari who cannot see distinctions but rather sees all as the Lord's energies, variously manifested in accordance with His will. However, the problem with unity, explains May, is that in that state of mind one cannot distinguish between right and wrong- one sees all as ultimately good and serving the plan of the Lord. This does not have bad consequences if one is actually on the uttama platform, for then one is wholeheartedly surrendered to the will of the Lord, to be used wholly and solely as an instrument of His unconditional love. Such a person is without false ego or sense of personal image, or sense of separateness, he is what we call transparent, does nothing of his own accord- he is the Lord's puppet and dances to His will only. Tremendous good comes from such surrender, as illustrated by the lives of the saints, avatars and sons of God.
The problem is when one has not yet reached this level of utter surrender of personal self and will, when one still is of a dualistic mind and attached to self-image, but has simply glimpsed the vision of unity and is enamored of it. Then one can enter spiritual freefall in one of several ways. One can, subconsciously reinforce one's ego through believing oneself to be very pure, special, spiritual, blessed or favoured by this realization, which only furthers one from actual unity. Alternatively, the experience itself can be used to rationalize moral vacuity, failing to distinguish between good and evil, considering the dichotomy to not exist, or to be simply delusions of the dualistic mind. More than just moral danger can result if one applies these intellectualizations of unity to such everyday phenomena as approaching cars! Lord Chaitanya illustrated this madness to His mother by eating dirt, while claiming it is All One-but His mother corrected Him with the Oneness and Difference philosophy that while food and dirt are ultimately the same substance, they have different effects on the body.
The duality of good and evil exists, but simultaneously it does not exist, being a creation of the dualistic mind that sees in terms of "good" and "bad". Dirt and food are One, yet Different. This is impossible to conceive, yet it is precisely this inconceivable oneness and difference that is not only Lord Chaitanya's philosophy, but is also at the heart of Buddhism and Christianity. Christ therefore said "I and the Father are One. I am in Him and He is in Me" yet he also spoke to the Father and even felt forsaken by Him- utterly separate. In Buddhist philosophy also, there is the teaching "Form is One and One is Form" - which is clearly monistic, but tempered by "Form is also form and One is also One" - which is clearly dualistic, simultaeously.
Our philosophy also, of course, centres around love- or union... in separation- duality. Although inconceivable, it is conceivably perfect, for if reality was duality alone, there would be no union, no love, no connectedness, between ourselves, and ourselves and God. On the other hand, if there was only unity in reality, there would be no exchange, no sense of right and wrong, and beyond that, nothing to surrender up to the will of the Lord. Ultimately in this philosophy, it is the will to understand that we must surrender. It is simply and wholly beyond our mental grasp. It is acintya!
The value of the acintya-bhed-abheda concept, as presented by May, helps us clear our minds of those weaknesses that befall the lower stages of bhakti, and understand better how progression happens. At the lowest level of devotion is the Kanistha or neophyte devotee, who sees the deity in the temple but not anywhere else, and sees his religion as superior to all others; his mind is in duality only and he interprets his relationship with God in that way. Because there is no sense of unity, his personal interactions are abrasive and tend to cause division, while his preaching puts people off spirituality, as he sees himself as separate and distinct, more holy, more pure, and so on; thus, he is perceived as self-righteous, which he is. The uttama devotee, on the other hand, sees only unity and has no impetus to preach unless he sees some duality of good and evil, and therefore he chooses such a vision, which is reality also. The madhyama platform of making distinctions- not on the basis of separateness between me and you - but between "right" and "wrong", rejecting what is bad for Krsna consciousness and accepting what is good for it, is that platform from which we can ultimately mould our will into that of the Lord, dissolving our sense of separateness from Him, while at the same time engaged in His service.
One can see many similarities between what is written in this book and in the books of our bhakti tradition. My reason for writing this is to appeal to the reader not to reject this book because it appears from the outset to be impersonalist literature, nor do so with any book, in fact, but try to see what is at its core and if it has anything valuable for bhakti. In respect to helping us with the finely detailed demarcations of anarthas, including those that arise from bhakti, in respect to overcoming the trappings of desire, fear, attachment, dualism, and even monism, and in respect to building up faith that is not blind but is built up on sound reason and direct perception, "Will and Spirit" is quite unique, and I hope that my defective attempt to show its value will inspire someone else to read and benefit from it as well. Thank you.