With Thanks to Mr. May...
Posted September 20, 2008
As a kid I used to enjoy joining up dots and creating pictures. Today I am doing the same thing with our philosophy and still getting much enjoyment. The dots are intriguing points of gaudiya vaisnava philosophy, such as the only truly free thing we can do is to surrender to the will of God. This point and others, such as that we are inconceivably one with and different from God, can be found dotted throughout various literatures on the subject of the absolute truth and of its manifestations of divine love as we experience it at ground zero.
It is a truly wonderful experience to break out of the sectarian stranglehold of reading only "our" books and discover that God can speak through anyone, and His voice is always sweet both to the mind and the heart. It joins the dots given in the vedas so that one can see how they fit wholly the picture we call reality. I am in particular gratitude to Mr Gerald May, whose book Will and Spirit is laced with the joy of finding the Lord yet again in an unexpected place.
"The true self, whatever its nature, seems to lie beyond, behind, around, or in some other relation to the qualities of self-image, in a different dimension of consideration. We reveal this assumption in speaking of my body, my will, my desire, as if the true "I' possesses these attributes. This of course becomes most paradoxical when we think of my self. This statement, without our knowing it, underscores the mystery of who we are..."
This of course is the opening point of many of our lectures on self-realization, and it could easily have been written by a devotee in our line, yet the author is May. After thus laying waste to our assumed sense of identity, he proceeds, in this book, to make an examination of the anatomy of spiritual ecstasy and its ramifications for the soul, undesirable ramifications that we may call "anarthas". That spiritual bliss could cause anarthas to arise reminds us of Visvanatha Chakravarti's warning that "anarthas arise from bhakti herself".
How bhakti, or spiritual love of God can give rise to anarthas, is certainly bewildering to us, so how could a so-called karmi, or a devotee outside our line, shed any light at all on the matter? As soon as we think in such terms of owning or having a monopoly on spiritual truth, the Lord who is Its embodiment, escapes from our sight, as purported by the story of Radharani being left by Krishna, only because she started to think that she was somehow special, or specially favoured by the Lord. Thus this pastime is an example of anarthas caused by bhakti. Not that Radharani really had a problem with feeling special or favoured- the Lord covers His devotees to teach us lessons. It is we who have a problem with it.
What is the origin of such feelings and how to overcome them? May describes the ongoing struggle between the self which longs for loving union with God, and the ego or sense of separate self-image, a struggle that goes on even though such loving union brings one ecstasy, or even because it brings ecstasy:
"As soon as one becomes aware of some spiritual growth, one also becomes vulnerable to spiritual narcissism. Simply stated, spiritual narcissism is the unconscious use of spiritual practice, experience and insight to increase rather than decrease self-importance. It is a subtle turnabout in which ego manages to identify self-image with "trying to become holy" or -worse yet- with actually having become holy, thus making the spiritual quest a self-aggrandizing process rather than a journey of deepening humility"
May makes liberal use of the word "ego" and how it offers constant opposition to the nature of unconditional love. It is clear however by "ego" he is referring not to our true identity or who we really are, but the image we have of ourselves, which we call the "false ego". He makes this clear in this passage on what is idolatrous:
"All of us are to some extent idolatrous. If we are relatively free from mistaking image from reality in other areas, we at least idolize our self-images. When I speak of myself, I am almost always referring to the image I have of myself, and I habitually assume that I am talking about something solid and objectifiable. I forget that my true "self" is mystery born of mystery. This happens simply because it is more comfortable to forget than to remember. It feels safer, more secure, and certainly more entertaining to assume that my image of me is really me, because then I can glory in "my" triumphs and wallow in "my" miseries...throughout this colourful arena of heroic and tragic self-entertainment, the mysterious reality of who I really am is studiously ignored. It would require too much sacrifice, humility and willingness to admit that in thinking "myself" I am referring to nothing other than "this symbol I have of myself"
Clearly, there is a difference between parrotting "aham brahmasmi" and actually experiencing it! Even if we theoretically acknowledge the existence of false ego, and do the motions of full surrender, we can get caught up into thinking ourselves the "doer" in relation to grand preaching successes or subtle successes like triumphing over sex desire. We may even memorize slokas which state that Krsna is the ability in man, that Krsna acts through us, that not a blade moves without His hand, and so on. Preaching it is one thing; believing it another; living it is a totally different ball game. What can be done to actually live it?
Actually we all without exception live it at some time or another. Everyone at some time has had an encounter with God, some time when one feels His guidance or protection or love, some time when self-image falls away and one sees no difference between oneself, others and the universe. This is common to all human beings regardless of race, creed, age or personality type. It is an experience that is had by both the materialist, the seeker, the faithful and the non-believer; its just that we all deal with it differently. Many people repress such experiences and need outside promptings to even recall them; others who may be already spiritually inclined may start to feel themselves special or "blessed" or "advanced". Both are wrong responses in that they interrupt one's audience with God, being manifestations of the false ego whose business is self-definition, self-image, separateness.
The modus operandi of the false ego is what May calls "willfullness", with "willingness" being its opposite and ultimate threat. May explains the subtle differences between these two essential attitudes thus: "Willingness and willfullness cannot be explained in a few words for they are very subtle qualities, often overlapping and very easily confused with each other ("the weed may look exactly like the creeper") But we can begin by saying that willingness implies a surrender of one's self-separateness, an entering-into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself. It is a realization that one is already a part of some ultimate cosmic process and it is a commitment to participation in that process. In contrast, willfullness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control or otherwise manipulate existence"
One is reminded of Prabhupada's Prayer: "Oh Lord, I am merely a puppet in Your hands, and if You want me to dance, then, oh Lord, let me dance..." Feeling oneself to be an instrument of divine love and compassion which are sourced in God, or feeling oneself to loving and compassionate is the subtle difference between bhakti and anartha. Thus May is very good at giving gardening tips to the discerning cultivator of bhakti lata.
Still, how to really feel oneself as an instrument, a conduit or a branch instead of a surgeon, electrical current or a tree? Hugely helpful, I find personally, is May's own testimony, given from his own raw data from countless interviews, that everyone has at some time or another had an encounter, or many encounters with God, that we are less searching for God than God is searching for us, and does find us in those moments when our defenses slip, and in those times we are helplessly overwhelmed by His love and beauty. If everyone has had those experiences, then His love is all around us, then I am not unique or saved or whatever. That it comes to even one who does not seek it, or tries to forget it, means that it is truly unconditional. Making myself holy does not guarantee His favour, nor does "falling down" disqualify me. The fallen, the righteous, the faithful and the atheists- all have at one time or another, whether they know it as such or not, have had experience of God's love.
It is difficult to find such universality and unconditionality in love between human beings , there are always some conditions which cause love to disappear or even turn into anger or hatred. The reason given by May, is that human beings, by nature, are not sources of unconditional love, by nature, we sometimes feel love and sometimes not. However, being of the nature of spirit, it is spiritual or unconditonal love which we hunger for, and when we look to find it in a human being, we are certain to be disappointed and our need causes us to resent the deficiencies in the other, and an extreme need may cause us to hate. This is not to say that there is no value or meaning to interpersonal relationships, but it is simply to say that they do not satisfy our deepest spiritual yearning. They are not a one-stop-shop for the soul.
May proposes that all love is sourced in God, and that some is expressed, be it deficiently, through human channels. Thus, it often happens that a person begins a loving activity from a genuine feeling of love and compassion, and later on it becomes a necessary ritual, something that is part of one's self-image, and then even the most charitable work becomes devoid of feeling.
This can even happen in relation to parenthood, as even the most dutiful parent does not always feel love for their children. There may be times when they wish they had never chosen parenthood. Then they start to think that there is something wrong, experiencing terrible guilt about not feeing love all the time. They maybe deeply shocked and disappointed that at times they do not feel love even for their children or spouse, what to speak of ones neighbour. One is simply misidentifying one's self or one's role as unconditionally loving. Expecting oneself to be so causes unneccessary guilt, and expecting others to be so, causes unnecessary resentment. Realizing however, the source of universal love to be God, and that it freely flows to every atom of the creation, one can be at peace with oneself and the world, and on a spiritual level it is a crucial step in overcoming anarthas that arise from bhakti herself, or rather from false ego using the experience of bhakti to reinforce its sense of separateness and self-importance.
There is more to it than that, like exactly how - and why- the false ego functions in this way, to separate us from the world...Achieving separateness is a necessary part of growth, as one learns first to become separate and independent of one's parents and later when one is fully mature one can then develop a relationship with them of what may ideally approach unconditional love, where there is nothing material we expect or need back from them. And so it is with our relationship with God, with the essential difference being that God is actually doing everything at every step of our development. It is only under the influence of false ego we think ourselves the doer, and see our future as laying in our own hands, and thus we exert our will and desire for survival. Then when we do approach God, we do so in neediness for His presence that is devoid of the necessity to survive, for that would degrade the relationship into beggar and charity-giver. The illusion that we can supply our own necessities for life frees up the relationship so that it is only a necessity of the heart, only in and of love.
This can be seen in the residents of Vrindavan, who under the influence of Yogamaya,
think that they have to rise early, milk the cows, sell the products and so on, and who
do so diligently, and who therefore look to Krishna not to perform these things for them
but simply to exchange loving feelings and nothing else.