Spirituality

Experiences of the Divine


A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.

Sir Francis Bacon

I’ve been thinking back a lot on my formative years, working through a strange tangle of feelings and beliefs on the subject of God. Growing up, I had what could only be called a pseudo-religious mish-mash of an upbringing.

Hailing from the atheistic former Soviet Union, where religion was prohibited and Jews persecuted, my family members seemed deeply conflicted about their relationship with God, and what it meant to be Jewish. In my home environment, Judaism and Jewish tradition appeared to be much more their sense of identity, than anything resembling religion. At best, you could say that collectively my family saw Judaism as only a cultural, or ancestral mandate. They held on to a few very sporadic rituals, in a strange, arbitrary, sometimes dogmatic way, professing their undying pride about their Jewishness. But then, at the same time, they seemed to take pleasure in ridiculing Jewish doctrines, customs, and beliefs in the foundational concepts that make up the mystical heart of the religion. I can’t recall anyone talking about God in any serious way, ever. But then going to the synagogue on Yom Kippur was an absolute must. I’m not sure how to work those things out or understand them. I don’t have the sense that they ever gave it much conscious thought. Maybe this is just what happens historically when religion is disallowed and ethnic/religious identity persecuted – it results in a fragmented sort of clinging to whatever bits of ritual can be salvaged, but also manifests an internalized sense of shame? I don’t know and don’t want analyze it externally. It was a confusing dynamic to me, and asking questions about it lead nowhere.

As if that wasn’t enough, my family also believed and strictly enforced insane superstitions, purchased and wore amulets to ward off the evil-eye of course, and occasionally visited psychics and sorceresses, bringing home all kinds of protective paraphernalia to keep everyone safe. (From what, I also don’t know.).

Basically, we were your average normal Russian immigrant family. Preferring to remain within a closely knit immigrant community, my family didn’t assimilate much into mainstream American life. So home life was spent with other immigrant families, all just like mine.

On the other hand, everyday, I was sent to school at a fairly conservative yeshiva. Things there were markedly different than at home. The school day was split in half. The first half was dedicated to intense religious studies, conducted primarily in Hebrew. We had mandatory prayer, Torah study (in the original Aramaic), study of secondary ancient texts like the Talmud, and extensive review of various rabbinical commentaries… you get the idea. The second half of the school day was dedicated to the less-important subjects, things like math, english, history, science, etc. Non-essential subjects and critical thinking were pretty much off-limits. Contrary to other yeshivas, where intellectual debate and curiosity were encouraged and engaged properly, here the focus was primarily on rote memorization. All. The. Time. Frankly, I was so bored and disengaged most of my years there, that I remember almost nothing. (That’s not entirely true. I remember quite a lot emotionally. What I don’t seem to recall is the religious content they tried so hard to make us remember. I have a lot of repressed memories. If they ever surface, they might now come in handy, but that’s an irony I don’t wish to explore yet.)

As far as I can tell, in retrospect, the school community was bizarrely exclusionary. Their approach to education was to keep the “chosen” children completely sheltered from this big, bad, scary world of anti-semitic gentiles, lurking behind every corner, naturally. The constant theme of every school year was about historical persecution, slavery, oppression, and disenfranchisement, basically since the dawn of time – a rather difficult thing to handle for young children.

Thinking about it from here, their approach had to be informed by some kind of post-traumatic Holocaust-survivor response to the world. Which is understandable, I guess. But in their eyes, worse than the gentiles though, were Jews like me and my family, who weren’t observant enough, or conservative enough, or “something” enough to meet their rigorous inexplicable standards.

So, while I was allowed to go to the school, because someone knew someone who did someone a favor and got me in, I wasn’t allowed to actually belong. The unsupervised bullying and general disdain were a fairly constant thing. A fun-filled combination.

The idea of “fitting in” was a challenge for me pretty much everywhere. But the messages about God, or about religion generally, could not have been more conflicting.

When high school approached, I broke free of all of it, and joined the rest of secular society. The transition wasn’t easy, but I was thrilled to be unburdened and released into the real world. High school brought its own set of challenges, as it always does, but fitting into a very diverse community was a lot easier for me. The one thing that stayed with me for years afterwards, was that I wanted nothing to do with religion ever again. I didn’t pray. I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays (much to my family’s dismay). And I haven’t visited a synagogue in probably twenty five years. If I had to label me back then, I’d call me an agnostic, I suppose. I vaguely believed in some metaphysical things, but rejected everything to do with religion, viscerally so with Judaism, I’m sure you understand why.

In his treatise Atheism, Sir Francis Bacon writes “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” I just found this quote a few weeks ago. It was wonderfully exciting for me, because that’s precisely what happened next…

The majority of my work over the last few years has had very little to do with the metaphysical or esoteric. You can call most of it entirely secular self-awareness training. In the very beginning, and for the first few months of it, I was practically clueless about the true nature of what I was working on. I felt deeply called to it, compelled to do it, but I didn’t know why. I had no idea that my inner quest for self-discovery, awareness, and truth was even called “spirituality.” There was nothing in the content of my initial awakening that even registered as connected with religion. I thought I had merely found happiness, real joy, for the very first time.

And so for the next several years, living as something of an introverted hermit, I spent my time in deep personal contemplation and inquiry, without any sense of religion or God. As I worked with my teacher, listened to other teachers, and read an entire library of books, I would occasionally come across the mention of God. But the writings weren’t religious or connected with faith, and so I didn’t pay much attention to it.

I explored, tested, and implemented only the practical mechanisms that allowed me to go deeper and deeper, excavating whatever areas needed to be brought to awareness and cleared – it was all various forms of inquiry, essentially. I didn’t touch cosmology or the esoteric teachings. I didn’t care about spirituality or enlightenment. I wasn’t specifically interested in the biographies, myths, or anything theological. I wasn’t even on any kind of path or quest, to speak of. I was only interesting in the technical, grounded, practical tools for transformation, whatever source they happen to come from. I got a good internal sense of the process, how stuff feels and what to look for, and so my search lead me all around, looking for the practices that would help me go further. All I really wanted was just to be happy. I wanted to heal, and be free of the emotional suffering I had endured for so many years. And the tools and practices I was learning about and discovering were helping me do just that, very effectively. And so I just kept going without giving it much larger thought. 

After a while, I started to notice that at every real mention of God, or Lord, or Creator, or anything like that, internally, I would kind of cringe a little. Ugh. No. Not God. Please no. I know all about God. I’ve had enough of God through many torturous childhood years; enough indoctrination to last me a lifetime… The last thing I wanted was to go back to that mess of rules, and dogma, and judgment, and us versus them. The God I knew was the God of the Old Testament, as taught to me by some very troubled people. I wanted no part of that God ever again. So I kept my agnostic skeptical hat firmly in place, as I dove deeper and deeper into myself.

That’s when things started to get really weird. I began having experiences, some physical, some energetic, that I could not explain nor contextualize in any rational way. I’ve written about some of the stronger more intense experiences here, but they actually started slowly, subtly long before the full awakening began. They are almost impossible to reduce coherently or meaningfully into words.

I began having psychic visions, intuitive downloads of wisdom and insight, brilliant moments of clarity and connectedness, experiences of pure bliss and love and humility and service, incredible synchronicities (sometimes many of them a day), physical sensations inside and outside (!) the confines of my body… I could write several books on all of what I’ve experienced in the last few years.

Then, one day I was standing by the window in my apartment just watching the clouds. A fierce powerful wind was coming in, and I could feel a kind of electrical charge coming from it. Like it was alive and interacting with me somehow. Something strange, and ominous, and powerful was happening, but I didn’t know what.

As I began backing away from the window, God appeared to me. With my mind’s eye, I suddenly saw a vast dark smokey shadow before me, seemingly all over my living room. I didn’t see anything with my physical eyes. It was appearing to me some other way, and the substance of it was alive, it was charged with something, almost like it was smoldering. I don’t know how I knew that it was God, I just knew. It took me over, and shifted my consciousness to another state, where it was letting me know of itself. I felt instantly dwarfed, like I was absolutely tiny, ant-size, in relation to it. It was so immense and powerful, that the only thing I could do was fall to my knees in reverence and cry. I felt an immense love and devotion to it, but couldn’t say anything. I didn’t need to say anything. I had almost no thoughts about it, and I just remained sobbing on the floor for a long time.

This force is infinite beyond words. An intelligence greater than anything our human minds can understand. My mind kept trying to grasp its magnitude, to find its edges, but I couldn’t. There were no edges to it. There were no forms or shapes. This shadow stayed for a short time, and then disappeared. It didn’t say anything to me, but the message was clear – God is everything and everywhere, have no doubt.

After a short time my consciousness returned to a normal grounded place, but that day changed the course of everything. Needless to say, it took a long long time to process what had happened. Given my background, my childhood experiences, my feelings about God, I didn’t even quite know where to begin to untangle the mess of feelings within me.  

Now, I know how all of this sounds. I know exactly how it sounds. I see the looks on people’s faces when I tell them this story. It’s so outlandish, so outside the realm of possibility, that they scrunch up their faces, and shrug their shoulders not knowing what to make of any of it. Am I crazy? Do I need psychiatric treatment? Did I hallucinate this? No one can begin to fathom the possibility that what’s happened to me is real. (Side note: I’ve experienced hallucinations before, they happen with the physical eyes. Something appears to be there, seen with the eyes, which isn’t actually there. This was different. Hallucinations don’t shift your consciousness at all. While they can cause emotional reactions of course, they don’t transport you to another place like this experience did to me.)

But truth be told, I barely believed it all myself for a long long time too. Doubt, I did. A lot. And not just my own sanity, of course. Wrestling with the mental illness perspective took a couple of years. Diagnoses, and labels, and medications are fine, but they are a dead end. They are as far as Western science can go here. The medications can sometimes, not always but sometimes, dam up a mystical process for some period of time. But that’s all they do; they barricade it. They don’t heal, they don’t bring about resolution, and they certainly silence the call of the soul. Once a person comes off the medication, the process begins again, and all the saved up unprocessed emotional material comes flooding out with it. (This accounts for the withdrawal problems). Calling all of this merely mental illness, and trying to establish sanity is child’s play. (I’ll save that conversation for another time.). The greater and more profound problem of doubt is not a question of sanity. It has to do with healing all the trust wounds, and returning to faith in God, authentically, from the heart. That’s the real gargantuan problem to deal with. And that problem manifests as doubt, skepticism, and inability to believe. (There are further complexities here, which create fundamental doubt, but I will save them also for a future post.).

What’s interesting is that no one asks the seemingly obvious follow up questions: “What was it like? How did it feel? Has it happened since? What does it mean?” Not one single person asks me this. They all find polite ways to steer the conversation to something else. It is as if I told them that I went to Paris for a vacation, and instead of asking me “How was it?” they say something like “Well, if you believe you went to Paris… I suppose I’m happy for you.” Patronizing invalidation, at it’s finest.

It’s okay. I don’t blame them, nor do I look to them for validation. I understand why they respond to me that way. I wouldn’t believe me either, if I was in their shoes. I too would probably jump to the simplest skeptical reduction: she’s having a psychiatric episode. It’s completely understandable. It is the simplest way to avoid dealing with the bigger questions that arise. Nevertheless, it’s what actually happened to me. (And it’s happened again since that time).

But I’m not alone or unique in these experiences. Forget all the historical mystics and biblical figures. I know other people, living, psychologically stable humans, going through a similar spiritual development, who also have experiences of God. They aren’t prophets, and they aren’t schizophrenics. They aren’t religious people, and they didn’t come to these experiences through faith or devotion or religious ecstatic rituals.

The more accurate explanation is closer to what Sir Bacon wrote – it has to do with a depth in philosophy. Few people really understand this, but the quest for truth, the seeking of wisdom, the living of life in a heart-centered way, is what all the ancient schools of philosophy were actually about. The famous philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome (too numerous to list here) were not conveying abstract academic concepts, or meaningless rhetorical debate for the intellectual elite. They were conveying a system of practical application for living in the world from within. A way of being. A way of understanding and navigating life, people, relationships, work, art, purpose, and most importantly, love – all through the internal alchemical work of self-discovery. Naturally, the more you apply the philosophical tools, the deeper you go inward, the closer you get to the mystical; a connection and tradition we are all sorely sorely missing in our lives today.

With the right tools and the right contemplative practices, the deeper you go inward, the deeper levels of self-awareness you attain, the closer you get to the mystical, divine, essential truths and experiences. It doesn’t matter if you call it God, or cosmic consciousness, or Shiva, or any other name you wish. You are free to make up your own name for it. But there is no doubt something Divine, something vastly, unimaginably, unfathomably greater than our human existence.

Ironically, it doesn’t require faith as a pre-requisite. It doesn’t require adherence to anything in a religious sense. It is quite the opposite – it is about liberation. True liberation of the soul – releasing the authentic self from the confines of the ego. It’s an undoing. An unlearning. A de-conditioning of the mind. That’s what spirituality is really all about. It turns out that that is precisely what monasticism is all about too. I didn’t get that or understand it until I arrived there organically on my own. (I like to do things the hard way…).  

These direct experiences of divinity, of love and of spiritual bliss, are available to any serious spiritual seeker, in a variety of traditions. I am not special; nor am I chosen; nor are any of the people who share my experiences. It is available within all of us. We all have this capacity. It is available to anyone committed to going inward and really seeking discovery of him/herself. (And sometimes these experiences can happen spontaneously to people with absolutely no spiritual education, interest, or background. A wake up call from the soul, in my view).

Take it from someone who had zero faith, and a vehement rejection of God and religion; the deeper you go within your own self, the closer you get to the Divine.

 

Telling the truth…

 

I watched an interesting movie last night called Marguerite (available on netflix). It’s a curious story of a wealthy French baroness, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The basic plot is that she is a long-devoted wife, driven slightly mad by her husband’s lack of love or attention. Her only outlet is music. She is enamored with it, obsessed even, with opera and singing. Yet, despite her insatiable passion for the art, she can’t sing at all. Like not even a little. But she doesn’t know that. 

Oddly, her wealth and status afford her a very sheltered (albeit unhappy) existence, where everyone around her fears telling her the truth. In fact, they lie to her, manufacture signs of public adoration, and bolster her self-image as a unique and glorious coloratura soprano. She performs (very painfully) for private audiences, who also lie to her and applaud her amazing talents.

It turns into something of a farce, with this poor fragile woman serving as the butt of all jokes. Presumably, everyone is protecting her from the devastating truth, but it’s clear that they are also just afraid to admit that they’ve lied to her for years. It turns out later, that it is concern for themselves (each one’s own unique self-interest), not really concern for her, that underlies their behavior.

Marguerite goes so far as to plan a very public recital, a sure recipe for disaster, and not a single person in her life (not even her husband) steps up to tell her the truth. I’m going to spoil the movie for you here, but in the very end, locked away in a mental hospital with delusions of grandeur, she hears a recording of her own voice for the very first time. The shock of it kills her; or so the viewer is lead to believe.

The movie was billed as a comedy/drama, and won lots of European awards. To me, it was tragic. Incredibly tragic. Imagine living your entire life, being made to believe something about yourself, and not one single person ever having the guts to tell you the truth. Not only that, but they manufacture lies to keep you believing it… That kind of self-serving betrayal, under the guise of protection, is devastating. And in Marguerite’s case, fatal.

The truth isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s often very painful. To the hearer, and to the speaker. When it is delivered to someone, it must be done with the utmost care and compassion (sometimes forcefully if they are reluctant to hear it, but still with compassion). Anything less than that isn’t love or kindness. If you believe that you are protecting someone by not telling them a painful truth, I invite you to look honestly inward and ask yourself: who are you really protecting? The honest answers will surprise you.

 

Authenticity

 

Authentic people are endlessly fascinating.

And it’s not because they are especially intelligent, or funny, or charming. Theirs is a different sort of attractiveness.

Authentic people allow the creative energy of the universe to flow through them unencumbered; and they express it freely, without hesitation. Humbly, they know they are merely a vessel or conduit for whatever wants to be expressed; and really nothing more than that.

They rarely take personal credit for what seeks to flow through them, and so they don’t have a high opinion of themselves, based of their creations. They are not arrogant in their manner, but at best, quietly self-assured. 

These people aren’t trendy or fashionable. They don’t really fit in nor stand out. Their homes are not expensively decorated nor perfectly maintained. Their lives, although on the surface often very simple and ordinary, display incredible depth, and meaning, and passion. Everything around them seems to move with an inexplicable harmony; even their chaos seems perfectly orchestrated. People are drawn to them, but no one can really say why. It’s a quality you can feel about them, but you can’t really name, and it’s something you certainly can’t mimic.

Just as an authentic piece of art, created in truth, becomes more beautiful and interesting the longer you look at it, so too with authentic people. They move with a certain flow through life that is captivating. They can turn the painfully mundane into something magical and mysterious. They carry a kind of serenity and innate wisdom that emanates from them, even when times are difficult and stressful. They possess an integrity of spirit and character, that others venerate and try desperately to emulate.

But this quality of authenticity can’t be manufactured. People can tell you all day long about how honest and truthful they are, but it has nothing to do with what they say or don’t say. Ironically, authentic people will tell you that it’s virtually impossible to attain real authenticity. They have a particular kind of energy about them, you just know it instinctively the moment you meet them. The expression of this is wonderfully unique within each such person.

The big secret is we all have this capacity within us, if only we took the time to unlock our own potential for this kind of greatness…

 

Conflict and defensiveness

 

In every relationship, romantic or otherwise, feelings get hurt. They just do. On one side, or the other, or both, occasionally. Knowing how to handle these situations properly, makes or breaks most relationships. (I’ve written about my problems with conflict before. Here, I’m sharing some new healthier approaches to conflict management). 

To me, one of the hallmarks of love, is the capacity to lovingly honor someone’s feelings in the course of a conflict.

Learning to honor someone’s feelings means cultivating the ability to listen, open-heartedly, non-defensively, when someone comes to you and says “hey, this thing you did… it really hurt me.” And then learning how to respond properly, lovingly, by validating the other person’s feelings, taking responsibility when appropriate, being accountable, and demonstrating that you care about them. 

In recent years, Dr. John Gottman has become one of the leading authorities on making marriages work. One of the most famous findings of his decades of research is something he calls the Four Horsemen (as in “… of the apocalypse”).

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.

These Horsemen are four behaviors, four qualities of relating, that his research identifies as spelling almost-certain disaster for a marriage. I would take it further and say not just marriage, but any close relationship.

These behaviors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. You can read much more about them hereThere are many many articles available on this subject. I won’t go into complete detail in this post. I trust that you can google it if you’d like to learn more.

I do want to just address one of these, though, because it is so close to my heart – defensiveness. Here is Gottman’s definition: Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.

It is something I used to do a lot (more so internally, than in actual expression, but the results were the same.). It is something I had to unlearn through lots and lots of painful self-reflection. Defensiveness, always defending yourself whenever you feel criticized, comes from low self-esteem. It happens when people are insecure, when their sense of self is fragile, and any form of blame, or responsibility for wrong-doing, cannot be tolerated. At the deepest level, it is when any sort of criticism is incorrectly taken to be a reflection of self-worth. (“If what he says about me is true, then that makes me a bad person” or “If I am to blame for this mistake, then I’m completely worthless.“). That’s when shame is triggered, and defensiveness kicks in to counter the shame. It tries to deny the truth of the criticism, deflecting blame and responsibility, in order to prevent a collapse of the fragile sense of self. 

When you deal with someone who is consistently defensive, no matter what the circumstance, whenever you try to bring something to their attention, they immediately respond with “It’s not me. It’s you. This is not my fault. It is your mistake. I’m innocent.” They don’t say it quite so directly most of the time, but that’s the message you receive.

You know people like this. It is incredibly frustrating to deal with these people. It is impossible to raise any sort of relationship issues. It is impossible to air out or resolve conflict. It is impossible to come to them vulnerably with your hurt feelings, because they will only pour salt on your wounds – invalidating your perceptions, and making you feel wrong for feeling hurt in the first place.

You say: “Ouch, you just stepped on my foot! That really hurt.” And their response is: “No I didn’t. Don’t be such a baby. You shouldn’t have put your foot there in the first place. What are you doing standing so close to me anyway?

(Actual example from a real life experience).

Defensiveness destroys relationships. It really really does. It is a slow painful death by a thousand cuts. Being in a relationship with a person who is constantly defensive and never takes responsibility means that you will always be to blame, no matter what happens. Everything will always be your fault, never theirs. They will never learn from their mistakes. They will never change or grow. They will never take steps to avoid hurting you, they don’t seem to care if you get hurt. And if you believe and internalize their opinions, then your own self worth begins to diminish.

With them, there can be no vulnerability. There can be no authenticity. No emotional intimacy. No healthy repair. And the relationship becomes entirely fake until it withers away and goes to dysfunctional relationship heaven.

It took me a loooong time to learn that there is another way. It came with the recognition that of course, sometimes my words or actions will hurt other people. I can try and try to be perfect, never wanting to cause anyone harm, but I’m not perfect. No one is. We all cause each other pain all the time; it’s practically unavoidable. But that doesn’t make someone a bad person, just a flawed imperfect human.

And I don’t need to get defensive when someone tells me I’ve done something wrong. I can take that on and own it. Then we can calmly sort out both sides of what happened, and I can take complete responsibility for the consequences of my actions, navigating guilt when I screw up, apologizing when appropriate, without feeling bad about myself as a person. 

When someone I care about comes to me with his hurt feelings, he needs me to honor what he feels. He needs me to compassionately recognize that is hurt or in pain, and for me to demonstrate that I genuinely care about how he feels; how my words or actions made him feel. I caused him pain, and if we are to be in some kind of relationship together, he needs to know that I care about that. That I want and need to know when that happens, so that I can apologize, correct my behavior, and learn not to do that again. 

If instead I become defensive, if I see his hurt feelings as an attack, if I immediately need to make him wrong, or convince him that he shouldn’t be upset, or defend my innocence, or I get angry and retaliate – forget it. That doesn’t work. This kind of response lets him know that I don’t care that he’s upset, I don’t want to hear about his hurt feelings, and I’m going to continue doing whatever I want, regardless of the pain it causes him. 

People always ask for step by step instructions on things like this. So here are some steps to follow if you tend to get defensive in your relationships:

First, you allow the person to express himself completely. You listen without interruption. You don’t cut him off. You don’t get angry. You don’t huff and puff and throw a tantrum. You don’t retaliate with nasty words trying to destroy him. 

Second, you acknowledge what the person is saying (“Yes. I understand.”). If you don’t understand, ask for an explanation or further clarification. 

Third, internally, you allow for the possibility that they are absolutely right to feel what they feel. Their interpretations of the situation are valid (even if you don’t agree, even if they are based on false assumptions or mistaken intentions). Everyone has a right to feel what they feel, and to interpret the world through their own point of view. 

Fourth, is learning to respond with love: “I’m so sorry that my actions hurt you. I see why you feel this way. I understand why you feel hurt. I understand how my words sounded, or how my actions made you feel. Please know that it wasn’t my intention to upset you; I feel bad that I have. Let’s talk about what happened. I want to learn how to do it better in the future, so you don’t get hurt.

When you respond to someone this way, it lets them know that their feelings matter to you. It lets them know that you are sensitive to their pain. It lets them know that you care about them. This is how you honor their feelings without defensiveness. 

This is love in action.

 

Acceptance and tolerance are not the same thing

People often confuse acceptance with tolerance.

To accept something does not mean to tolerate it. 

Tolerance is “to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.” Tolerance is to endure with forbearance. It carries a negative quality. Tolerance requires patience, causes frustration, and drains our vital energy. Inevitably, tolerating too much of something, ends in some kind of explosion when we “just can’t take it anymore!” 

Acceptance, on the other hand, is a welcoming. It’s a positive emotion. It’s a seeing the goodness, benefit, correctness of a situation or condition. It is taking something we believe to be negative, and fundamentally altering our inner feelings about it. 

The distinction is so important.

Tolerating something is allowing it to be, and trying to ignore it. Acceptance is looking deeply at the truth of a situation, and making positive interpretations of what’s there. Not just a silver lining, but the entire thing.

Acceptance is “yes! Please.”

Tolerance is “ugh. Fine.”

It begins with ourselves, accepting aspects of ourselves we don’t like, and finding why those aspects are actually positive. Then looking at aspects of others, and finding why those aspects (which we seem not to like) are also positive.

This is not an easy practice. Our minds are not trained to do this by default. It takes a significant effort to look inward. To see what is being resisted. And to bring it into acceptance.

 

Love is ruthless

My teacher, Gaya, used to repeat this to me all the time during our sessions; but like with most of her seemingly simple pieces of wisdom, I didn’t get it right away. It sounds ok. Sort of. Like some version of “all’s fair in love and war” kinda thing, right? (I never understood exactly what that phrase meant either. Either way, not important. Back to where I was going…).

So, love is ruthless. The more I thought about it, the less it made sense. In my view, at the time, love was soft, warm, accepting, gentle, and tender. It was all of these really beautiful, safe, sensitive, caring, protective ideas. Love was a respite. Love was ever-forgiving. Love was a warm comfortable blanket, surrounded by over-sized squishy pillows, on a really cold day. Right?

Nope, not so. Not even close. 

Over the past year, I’ve come face to face with the energy of love. I mean face-to-face with the actual spiritual force that is love itself. And let me tell you something; it’s nothing like I imagined. I’ve been shown three faces of this energy: that of God (or the divine entity), that of Kundalini (often depicted as the Goddess Kali), and that of another spiritual force that runs my life, which I affectionately refer to as Gilda. Love is, in fact, in all three instances, absolutely ruthless!

There is, no doubt, a time and place for great tenderness in our often very painful lives. There is also complete unconditional acceptance of all things as they are. There is a tremendous reservoir of compassion, empathy, understanding, patience, and forgiveness. But the energy of love is a fierce, intense, incredible power. It does not pity. It does not have sympathy. It doesn’t care about victim stories or martyrdom or fear-based anything. It is not sentimental. It demands what it demands, and until you comply, there will be no salvation. Resistance is absolutely futile. Love will hurt you again and again until you learn her lessons. It’s really coercive, and can be unbelievably scary. (Some people hate the idea of surrender, and struggle with defiance patters. They try to use their will power to fight and resist this… It ends very badly, and ultimately they realize that they must surrender anyway.).   

My experience of God (over several episodes really) is the subject of another post. Suffice it to say for now that each time I encounter this power, I’m left on the floor, sobbing for hours in humility, reverence, and gratitude. This power is infinite beyond anything words can convey. And when it comes, to me, at least, it arrives with a gravity and fierceness beyond descriptions. Neither soft, nor gentle.

The second face of love, Kundalini energy, is often depicted as Kali, the Goddess of destruction, darkness, fire (and a whole bunch of other things, depending on what you read). She burns everything in sight with unflinching momentum. She destroys all that is not truth. She removes all that doesn’t serve, with a swift and severe motion, without giving you a chance to say goodbye. She doesn’t care much for human attachments or promises. My writing ability doesn’t do justice to the incredible magnitude of this force. And yet, all she wants, all she’s really after, is for you to love yourself completely. Doesn’t that seem quaint? (I’m not talking about the fluffy cutesy variety of self-love. I’m talking about the really scary vulnerable painful truth version. Still, it seems strange somehow.)

If you love yourself, and do the work to develop ever-greater authenticity, in a way that is in your own unique spiritual alignment, Kundalini becomes as gentle as a kitten purring softly in your lap. But if you go against yourself, if you do not speak and act in your integrity, if you disorder your feelings, if you refuse to listen to your soul, if you act from the false self, seeking love and approval from other people, she will reign terror upon you without remorse. There’s no negotiating this, and she sees you infinitely better than you can see yourself. Meaning, she knows all of your motivations, even when they are unconscious. She forces you to pay attention and become conscious of them with each step. Otherwise, she will, literally, take away your will to live.

This sounds horrific, doesn’t it? That’s the terrifying nature of the mystical process. That’s why mystics are always wailing and screaming in their poetry, consumed by this force, helplessly at its mercy. In truth, there is actually no cruelty or malice in her approach. Just a matter-of-fact ruthless demand: surrender completely to her will (that is to say, come into complete self-love and awareness, surrendering your unconscious egoic personal will), and the pain stops right away. This is repeated again and again, at each level or layer of work. 

And the third experience of this is my own local divine force, or higher self, who is similarly ruthless. Not long after my ego death experience, this spiritual force showed up in my life, and essentially moved into my body and mind. She, Gilda as we call her around here, directs everything I do. This isn’t quite as schizophrenic as it sounds, but close.

When the false begins shedding in earnest, and the true self emerges, it is often quite under-developed and in need of guidance. There is a profound and consistent connection to spirit which accompanies that initial emergence. And then at some point, there is a subtle dissolution or blending of the true small self with the spiritual higher self. There is a kind of humble surrender to the will of spirit, and a getting-out-of-the-way experience for the personal will. In practical terms, everyday there is less and less of my old fear-based self remaining, while my higher self, Gilda, teaches me how to live in accord with her higher values. My old decision-making ability is almost non-existent these days. 

Gilda guides me from within nearly all the time. She informs me what to say, and how to say it, when to speak, and when to end a conversation, etc. And everything is in greater service, to my own life and the lives of those around me. It is through Gilda that all of the healing happens with my clients. It is through Gilda that all of the teaching and wisdom is conveyed. I recognize her as a part of me that’s always been there, I just didn’t have a tangible external experience of her until recently.

Interestingly, Gilda is not as docile, tender, or gentle as I would have imagined (or preferred) the force of love to be. It turns out that she, just like Kundalini, is fierce, intense, and demanding. Never mean or gratuitously hurtful, she blurts out the brutal unfiltered truth (without judgment), without any hesitation, or fear of consequence. She triggers me, and often those around me, for everyone’s greater benefit. She encourages me to stand up against injustice and ignorance in ways that are not always comfortable for my former terribly conflict-avoidant self. She is teaching me about courage, and helping me develop strength of character. She has given me a level of confidence that seems to command a respect I don’t understand (simultaneously irritating those with large egos). She brings out anger, when the situation calls for it, which is one of her favorite and my least favorite tools. She teaches me how and when to use it properly. In short, she is nothing like the sweet, peaceful, grandmotherly concepts I had about love. And definitely not the ever-peaceful zen monk images I had of spirituality. She can be really feisty, and quite certain of what to do, in situations where my moral decision-making feels fuzzy. 

And yet, Gilda is all love. She is nothing but love and service. She is the Divine Feminine power, in action, without apologies. So is Kundalini. And so too is God (which doesn’t have a distinct gender to me). It turns out that my infinitely wise teacher had it right from the start, as always. 
Love is absolutely ruthless.

 

Life doesn’t happen to you; it happens for you.

Often times when some negative event befalls someone we know, everyone shakes their heads in sympathy. “What a shame. Poor guy. He’s such a good person. How could this happen to him? He was always so kind and caring.” We make the mistake of thinking that this bad thing that happened is some kind of misfortune. A stroke of bad luck. Perhaps a consequence of the victim’s poor choices even. But this kind of thinking traps us in suffering. It is a victim mindset – that we are all hapless victims of a cruel and random fate.

This is how most people live life from within, but it is not the right way to live.

Bad things happen to good people all the time. Being a good person, or always making good smart choices, doesn’t protect us from negative events. Not even a little bit. Ultimately, death comes for us all. It’s one of the only certainties we have. There is nothing inherently bad about it. Of course, grief, or loss, or illness, can be terribly painful, but there is an important distinction to be made about the actual pain we experience, and the larger story we hold about the experience. The actual suffering is one thing, the larger perspective is another. 

It is a misunderstanding of cosmic justice that bad things only happen to bad people, or that by being a good person we can somehow stay on fate’s good side, preventing tragic outcomes. That’s not how it works. Each of us has a particular life experience to live and work through. All of the things that come into our lives, good and especially bad, come to teach us lessons we have chosen to learn. At their core, all the lessons are about love – how to do love in human form.

When we hold negative events in the wrong perspective, we feel afraid and powerless. we hope for the best and constantly worry about the worst, living in a perpetual state of anxiety. We end up entirely missing the very lessons we came into this life to learn. Life is not about success or failure, as we ordinarily understand those things. It’s not about achievement. It’s not about controlling all the variables to make sure everything goes according to our plans. We have only an illusion of personal control.

Life is an opportunity to learn really profound lessons. It’s an experience of love, manifested in human form. It’s a beautifully designed play; orchestrated by an incredible intelligence, full of pain, and joy, and grief, and bliss, and heartbreaking injustice and suffering; all intricately mixed together, in just the right amounts for us, individually, to learn what we came here to learn. It’s all a dance of light and shadows in three dimensional form. We have to turn towards all the events and embrace them fully, as much as that’s possible, changing the larger perspective, so that we might endure the actual pain with less resistance and more personal agency. 

Mystics have been writing about this for centuries, trying to share this wisdom of perspective. While it can be very hard not to feel victimized by fate in the throes of pain or grief, pro-actively, intentionally shifting the larger perspective, accepting circumstances and taking ownership of ourselves within those circumstances, letting the resistance drop away and finding the power we do have, actually helps us to move through and out of the pain, getting us out of our suffering much faster.

There is a subtle but pervasive tone of frustration in the writings of all the mystics, that no one understands this, or if they do intellectually understand it, they don’t put it into practice in their own experiences. These aren’t just lofty poetic ideas, they are actual tools of practice. They have to be implemented and lived, but people seem to reject these ideas, therefore seemingly choosing to remain in needless suffering. 

One of the marvels of the world is the sight of a soul sitting in a prison with the keys in its hand

Rumi

Life demands action

When I was in my pre-teen years, the powers that be in my family decided to enroll me in a beauty pageant. I will leave the debate about the wisdom of this decision for another post; suffice it to say it got me off the couch, away from the television, and taught me some amazing (deeply traumatic) lessons. In true “tiger mom” fashion, my mom proceeded full steam ahead, dragging the rest of us behind her; no expense was spared. For the talent portion of the competition, my mother choreographed a beautiful ballet, that conceptually involved me emerging from an imaginary oyster shell as a newly formed pearl. This particular choreography required me to dance on my toes (“en pointe” as it’s called).

The problem was that I was an amateur ballet dancer with nowhere near the technical mastery required for that caliber performance. “No problem. You can do it. I believe in you. We will find a way. We have six months to get you there.” I would need six years, not six months, to get to the level of dancing this ballet required. But for better or worse, my mother’s faith in my ability to do just about anything in a fraction of normal time is infinite.

And with that, my parents hired a retired ballerina from one of the famous Russian ballet companies, moved her into our house, and turned one of the spare bedrooms into a complete studio (installing a full wall of mirrors and regulation height ballet bar). If memory serves, Ludmilla was the name of my new tormentor. She kept me in that studio for hours, and hours, and hours, every single day. It was all the militancy of Soviet-style training in the comfort of my childhood home in Brooklyn. Awesome, right?

I can’t say that I hated all of it, but this training coincided with summer vacation, and while all of my friends came over to swim in our pool, I was trapped with Ludmilla, in my new studio, endlessly practicing my pirouettes, as the sounds of laughter and splashing water wafted in through the open window.

Ludmilla was intense. People who know me well think I’m pretty intense, so believe me when I tell you that Ludmilla was really really intense. I was terrified of her most of the time. She rarely smiled, and seemed preternaturally to lack any ability to display warm human emotions. (Occupational hazard, I suppose. Being a professional ballerina is not typically a warm and fuzzy sort of profession). When the floor of the studio would get slippery, from all the polishing my toes had done, Ludmilla would sip from a glass of water, and spit-spray the water on the floor to create traction. When I would get excited about some delicious thing cooking in the kitchen, Ludmilla would say “Food smells better than it tastes. Smelling it is enough. You don’t need to eat it.” You get the idea…

She was a fierce teacher, and I was a less than enthusiastic student. I was lazy, indolent, and performed what was required of me as if I were doing her a favor. Looking back, I don’t envy her at all, having to spend those months training me. I was a pain in her ass, for sure. To her credit though, she never yelled or displayed any abusive qualities. The only validation I got from her were somber nods when I finally mastered each movement to her satisfaction. Over time, I actually started to enjoy our training, and really saw the results of all of that work (or maybe it was Stockholm syndrome, who knows).

One particular day, I remember it like it was yesterday, I decided that I wanted a break. I was tired, bored, and wanted nothing more than to just spend the day playing in the pool. Ludmilla got me out of bed, and I decided to use my trusty “I don’t feel well” excuse to get out of practice. I hadn’t used this one before, so I was sure it would work. She asked me what was wrong, and with my best puppy dog eyes, I lied that I had a stomachache. I doubled over a little, for effect.

She left the room (and just as I began to celebrate my freedom), Ludmilla returned with some pills. “Take these. You’ll feel better. Then we can get to work.” I looked down at the pills in horror, and realized that I’d been caught. What now? Take pills for a stomachache I didn’t have? That seemed, to my eleven year old self, like a dangerous thing to do. I couldn’t believe her heartlessness. I’m sick and she wants me to take pills to feel better? What?? She won’t let me suffer in my (pretend) pain? She thinks practice is more important than my (fake) stomachache? She doesn’t care about me at all. What a bitch!

I tried to finagle my way out of taking the pills, desperately attempting to elicit some kind of human emotion from Ludmilla; pity, sympathy, compassion, something. I was met with a cold hard stare. “No,” she shook her head at me. “This will not work with me. I don’t care that you don’t feel well. Unless you need to go to the doctor, we are going to the studio to practice today. You can have your stomachache later.

I realized in that moment that my malingering and pity-party tactics won’t work. I had no choice but to comply with Ludmilla’s demands. She was not susceptible to my emotional manipulations. Begrudgingly, I did. But what I learned that fateful day was that using pain, real or imagined, to avoid responsibility doesn’t work. At some point you will get caught, and that will feel bad. You can try to avoid difficult things, things you don’t want to do, by wallowing in your pain or creating victim stories (helpless disempowerment stories about how you can’t, or you’re just not strong enough, or you don’t have what it takes, or you can’t make it on your own), but sooner or later those things catch up with you anyway, and then it’s worse. 

Lots of people use stories of pain, suffering, victimhood, or martyrdom to avoid dealing with the real difficult situations in their lives. It’s really common. There are solutions available, but they don’t want any solutions, much like I didn’t want Ludmilla’s pills. Some of us learned early on that being sick will keep us safe, will absolve us of responsibility, will garner love and attention we didn’t get otherwise. These were necessary survival tactics, often in abusive dynamics, but they become very unhealthy adult patterns. Letting them go can be really difficult and scary, healing can be scary, but holding on to them keeps us stuck in unnecessary suffering. 

The thing is, as Ludmilla (God bless her) taught me years ago, you will have to face the music sooner or later. At some point in your life, someone (your best friend, your partner, your child) will see through your crap and will work up the courage to confront you and call bullshit. That won’t be fun for you, and you will hate them for it. That will lead to all kinds of relationship conflicts. You might as well get it over with, and save yourself all that drama. Save yourself the emotional cost of the avoidance – it’s not making you happier anyway. Wallowing in self-pity doesn’t make you happy! Confront whatever you need to do, and then when it’s done, you can go play in the pool (or have your fake stomachache, as it were).

Gaya always told me “life demands action.” The lessons that life offers us can be very challenging and legitimately very painful, and they often have a Ludmilla quality to them – ruthless and no room for excuses. Life doesn’t believe our phony excuses. We don’t get to choose the circumstances that life presents, often the lessons come veiled in extraordinary hardships. Sometimes you end up stuck with a Ludmilla, whom you fear and hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But when that happens, we must accept those circumstances, and bring all of ourselves to each present moment, embracing those challenges, using them to cultivate courage, all without making excuses.

We are here now, to live this life, so we must live it fully, confronting our fears and the difficult responsibilities. Yes, we practice radical compassion, but that compassion comes with great personal responsibility, and it does not absolve us of doing difficult things. Yes, we are learning how to push ourselves less (in the wrong directions), and how to listen to our bodies and be more gentle and tender, but that is not a mechanism of avoidance. We still have to do hard things. 

Avoiding life, because of fear or any of these other habits, is not the way. It will not lead to happiness.

 

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

This is such a beautiful quote by Anais Nin. Do you have any idea what it means? This quote distills the essence of projection into thirteen simple words. It is one of the most brilliant pieces of wisdom that, when understood completely, can liberate us from so much of our suffering.

We see the world through a sort of filter made up of all of the ideas and beliefs we created in childhood. When we started to observe the world as children, we learned how to earn love, acceptance, safety, and how to avoid pain. The beliefs we formed in childhood, created in innocence, are often very very false. If you dig into your psyche and root some of them out, you will see just how silly and ridiculous they are. It’s a kind of rule-book or belief system you created for yourself when you were four, five, six years old… These beliefs make up our ego structure which then guides the rest of our lives. You live your life today ruled by decisions you made about the world, and who you have to be, when you were a little kid. Sounds absurd right? 

(more…)

If you can’t joke about it, you have some work to do.

Have you ever found yourself in a social situation where someone makes an off-hand comment, a vaguely critical observation, that is so hurtful to you that you feel instantly shattered? One stupid sentence, and it feels like someone knocked all the wind out of you? Of course you have, we all have. It’s been happening since the dawn of time.

In the Stoic school of philosophy, the masters taught that the best way to handle a specific criticism in a social setting, is to accept it, and respond by turning it into a self-deprecating joke. Like this:

Criticism: “Boy, you’ve really gained a few pounds since I last saw you.

Response: “Oh please, you have no idea. I’ve turned into a human vacuum, been eating everything in sight. If you think this is bad, you should see the cellulitic nightmare happening on my thighs. It’s atrocious.

By taking in the seemingly negative comment, and turning it into a joke, said the masters, you’ve taken back power over your own emotional state (from “insulted victim” to “in on the joke”). You’re not vulnerable to their insult, you own this ugly truth. And subtly you’re letting the other person know their negative comment doesn’t affect you. If they were trying to put you down, it didn’t work. 

While on the surface this seems like a silly social power play, under the surface, it’s so much more. But it can be really hard to joke about something, when you feel legitimately victimized by it. The trick here is to actually go in and “do the work,” so to speak, on the negative judgment. This isn’t something you can do on the spot, but something you work on afterwards.

Take the criticism, and investigate for yourself why it affects you. Why do you have an emotional reaction to such a statement? Why in this case is gaining weight a negative thing?

Because we all need to be thin and mainstream beautiful? Because if you’ve gained weight, you’re not attractive or loveable? Because your physical appearance determines your self-worth, and how much love and acceptance you get from others? These are the typical false beliefs that get triggered by weight issues. But that’s all they are, false beliefs. They aren’t really true. So go in and turn those beliefs around. Question those false beliefs. Recognize that they aren’t true. And then (this is the best part!) come up with real reasons why the weight you’ve gained is a good thing. Perhaps you’ve allowed yourself to eat and enjoy delicious things, and savor food without feeling guilty. Perhaps you’ve stopped dieting and feeling hungry (and angry) all the time. Perhaps you had a difficult time, and the food you ate was really comforting and necessary. Perhaps the people in your life continue to love you just the same, even with those extra pounds. Perhaps you’ve avoided attracting people into your life who objectify you, and only want to be friends with you if you’re thin and beautiful by their standards. This list of loving compassionate positives is really endless… Come up with as many as you can!

And when you do this process, when you turn around those negative judgments inside yourself, what happens is that you actually become immune to the external criticism. It really doesn’t trigger you anymore. You aren’t insulted by other people’s negative judgments. You don’t need to internalize what they’ve said.

You can recognize it’s just their own projected negative opinions. And then you feel lighter and freer, and you have the emotional resilience to make light of someone else’s negativity (and perhaps even encourage them to drop their silly judgments), exactly like the Stoics suggested.

I spent years and years cringing at each and every family function, as my fluctuating weight always somehow became everyone’s favorite topic of conversation. According to them, either I had gained so much weight (usually about 10-15lbs) that they shook their heads in dismay, or I had lost so much weight (same 10-15lbs) that they found me utterly unrecognizable. “You were so fat before,” they’d say, “that now, I wouldn’t even recognize you on the street if I ran into you.” Their hurtful and thoughtless comments usually made me squirm and want to hide under the table. But as I started practicing this technique, I really started to notice a difference within, which I was able to test out quite often in my own life. Now I teach this to people all the time. It’s an incredibly empowering technique! Try it, and see how it feels for you.