It is in the space created during our personal practice that a dialogue opens, between our junior explorer and our mature Observer. What do we discover as we enter onto this path? Different traditions have different names for this phenomenon. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is the Stillpoint. In Sufism it is the Essential Self. In Mahayana Buddhism it is the bodhisattva. In Christian mysticism, it is the Light of Christ. In Vedic tradition, as in yoga, we come to know the Atman or the Self. And, when we touch this driving life force, we also learn that this is where the seat of our integrity resides. This is where we discover our current, working truth.
There is a wonderful Zen Buddhist tale which bears consideration.
A retired academic leaves his teaching duties to enter into monastic life. The Monastery’s Zen Master greets him, placing a tea kettle on to boil.
“Why do you come here?” the Zen Master asks the academic.
“I wish to achieve Enlightenment, honored Sir,” the professor replies.
“Ah, yes. I see,” the Zen Master responds, continuing to prepare the tea. “How do you think Enlightenment is achieved?” the Zen Master asks.
“I don’t know. I came here so you could teach me,” the professor explains.
The Zen Master begins to fill the academic’s cup with the freshly brewed tea. The tea comes to the cup’s brim, and still the Master pours. The tea soon fills the saucer, until the saucer is overflowing. The hot tea begins to spill over the table and onto the floor.
Pushing his body back from the low table, the professor leaps up shouting, “Stop. Stop. The cup is already full!”
The Zen Master replies, “Yes. And, so too, is your mind.”
Thus, exploration, genuine exploration, of our personal Universe, through the lens of our internal Observer, requires us to empty ourselves out daily. This means letting go of old miscommunications that rankle, forgiving past hurts, scraping the crust from our hearts caused by nursed resentments, and otherwise cleaning out our emotional house of pain. Because, when we finally let go, the petty things going on locally and socially outside of us will also give way, and we will be able to focus on two things.
More often than not we as Americans, and philosophically as Westerners, walk through our days, half asleep, reenacting habituated living patterns, bouncing from one sense pleasure to the next. Think: morning coffee (caffeine) to sweet-roll snack (sugar) to main-meal pasta (carbs) to afternoon chocolate snack (I would note here that chocolate for many bodies is akin to hitting the ball out of the neurological baseball park) to, perhaps finally, dinner with a glass of wine or martini (alcohol). And, we do this all only to fall into bed at night, wake up the next morning and hit the repeat button on our lives. But, there is another way.
In Vedic tradition, (I prefer not to use the term Hinduism because it is a colonial label for Sanatana Dharma—what the Indians would call their own religious tradition—the Eternal Way or Law), most especially in The Upanishads, there is a profound distinction made between pleasure and joy. Pleasure is finite, fleeting and linked to the stimulation of the body’s senses. Joy is infinite, enduring and stems from the actions taken by a mature and compassionate heart, which is moving in coordinated awareness from a seat of pure intention and for the greater good.
You are the Universe. You are whole. You are of everything that was and will be. You are made to be creative, full and vibrant. We are made to affirm life. We all simply need to wake up.
There is a quotation from the book, The Jew in the Lotus, by Rodger Kamenetz, which documents the visitation of a delegation of Jewish Rabbis invited to visit His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is quoted as saying, “God’s will is for us to learn how to affirm our full truth [while] doing full justice to the other, not partial justice or twisted justice or a secondhand treatment.” (p. 49) In basic terms, this means that we must acknowledge that there are seven-and-a-half billion people on the planet today having at least seven-and-a-half billion different experiences of what it is like to be on planet earth. Or, from the perspective of a Sankhya adherent, “There are a great number of Universes whirling about and bumping up against one another daily, as we all go about the business of finding our Way. We must learn to be respectful of one another as we travel through time and space.“
Yet, how many of us could do full justice to another person’s truth—another person’s wholeness or world view—when most of us do not even have a solid perspective or command of our own? This is the point at which we in the West, might turn our heads East or look to some of the traditions of First-Nations’ peoples, where the majority of spiritual traditions offer willing individuals the tools necessary for serious self-exploration. This is the point at which an unflagging commitment to a dedicated, personal practice becomes critical.
If we remain with the examples provided to us through Vedanta for methods of self-exploration and for waking up, the first option asks us to approach each day and all of life with reverence and devotion (bhakti yoga). The second option asks us to reference daily inspirational literature that encourages an attitude of humble awe in us (jnana yoga). And, for secular humanists, this means appreciating the exquisite beauty in a well-designed double-blind study. The third option asks us to sit quietly within ourselves, while evening our breathing until our consciousness follows calm suit, encouraging meditative self-reflection (raja yoga). In the fourth option, we choose to serve others—or one of the Earth’s many environmental systems—selflessly and without attachment to outcome (karma yoga). And, through these practices or a combination thereof, we will be able to connect to more readily to the internal Observer. Finally, in the fifth option, we may honor and strengthen the body, preparing a place of residence and receipt for our highest Light or the Self (Atman)—the powerhouse of personal integrity, which then grants us the keys to our own unfolding (hatha yoga). If we choose to work through the body (and, in my experience, the body is one of the most direct routes to exploration of our internal Universe), any solo, repetitive physical activity that enlivens us—swimming, running, yoga, tai chi, rowing, kayaking—all constitute acceptable forms of personal practice.
Once, while dining at a favorite ethnic restaurant, featuring a full luncheon buffet, a new bread item appeared next to one of the buffet’s regular bread offerings. The new bread item was a puffed, triangular pillow with a buttery texture and an herb infused batter. After having procured my second helping, my dining companion asked me what I thought about the new bread. I proceeded to describe, in great enthusiastic detail, exactly what I was experiencing—the subtle flavors of the complex mix of herbs, the bread’s creamy or buttery texture with carefully crisped edges along the pillow’s golden crunchy seams, which contrasted sumptuously with the bread’s still soft and warm main body. Gastronomically, I was enchanted to say the least.
So, my dining companion, with whom I share many preferences and tastes, walked up to the buffet to procure a sample. Upon returning to the table and sampling the new bread item, my companion observed rather flatly, “I don’t know, Julian; I am not having the same sense experience that you described.”
In one of India’s six orthodox philosophical systems, Sankhya, upon which Ayurvedic medicine’s approach to healing is based, each person is considered a Universe unto him or herself. There may be trends, categories of types, or combinations thereof—think apple, pear, or string-bean body types with matching profiles regarding temperament or disposition. Nonetheless, and ultimately, we are each entirely unique. And, the manner in which we experience the world is solely our own.
When I read about current scientific findings, I enjoy taking Sankhya’s philosophical point of view with me. In one of the alumni magazines coming through our home, there was an article about how we taste food. As it turns out, the broccoli eschewing crowd, which accounts for approximately twenty percent of the U.S. population, actually rejects this delectable and nutritious crucifer, among other cruciferous vegetables, because these individuals possess a heightened sense of taste in the bitterness category.
Food scientists postulate that the evolutionary reason for this heightened acuity around bitterness has something to do with the fact that many plants, poisonous for the human species, fall into this specific taste category. Thus, the hypothesis is that people, who reject bitter foods, and their progeny, are more likely to have survived over the long haul of human evolution because they would have avoided bitter, poisonous plants. Yet, in Ayurveda, there are several bitter plants which are consumed fairly regularly because certain bitter plants are known to cleanse the blood. Foreign travel has taught me that our sense of taste is not only determined by our biology but also by our cultural training. In India, people are encouraged to eat safe, bitter vegetables with an awareness about when such a vegetable might be appropriate for its balancing and healing properties. And, such truly bitter foods are usually eaten with relative emotional equanimity.
Yet, how many of us can muster emotional equanimity at will, in the name of rebalancing our bodies or in the name of engaging in exceptional self-care? Or, like a crew of good yogis, how many of us can call forth our own reliable internal Observer, with a capital “O”—upon command and in pursuit of the exploration of body, mind and spirit, which are some of the components within our personal, internal Universe?
More often than not, when we think of marriage, we are describing a formal commitment between two people who enter into a promise to celebrate and support one another through life’s many passages. This is one of the external, social forms that marriage may take. There is another form of marriage, more ancient, arguably more difficult to maintain and guard the sanctity of, and which is sometimes considered or recognized in but a few of the world’s dominant cultures. This marriage is the internal, sacred and spiritual marriage we enter into at birth—between the body and the Self.
With birth into the body and into the physical realm, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are our highest Light, pure Spirit, holy Consciousness. And, with physical birth, there is a prearranged pairing—or marriage, created between the physical frame and the Light. Our Light is that which drives the body. Yet, how many of us forget, through the course of our social engagements, that we have a Supreme driver, to call upon daily, as we maneuver life’s rural expanses, twisting back alleyways or busy city streets?
Calling upon the Self. Interestingly and paradoxically, the most efficient path, perhaps, to a balanced and healthy internal, spiritual marriage is effected by respectfully tending to the physical frame. Spirit is a delicate, resilient creature, benefiting from the upkeep of a solidly working and cherished home. And, it is when we are actively addressing the issues of the body through regular self-care, that we are able to continue to forge, recommit and strengthen the internal marriage between body and Spirit. Thus, anytime we are engaged in any respectful, life-affirming activity, we are able to request, of the Self, clear and accurate guidance about how best to proceed with integrity and in relationship with the wide variety and aspects of Grace we are privileged to encounter and live among.
Kneeling next to a large recliner with her hand resting gently on the chair’s arm, “Nancy” (not the individual’s real name) invites a cardiac patient in respiratory distress to change his breathing pattern. The house is a familiar call. Two additional Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’s) are on Nancy’s heels setting up the equipment to deliver the required medical treatment.
During one of my CPR trainings, I learn about Nancy and her unusually calm demeanor from one of the instructors who also teaches EMT certification courses. As an EMT certifier, the instructor is required to complete several active-duty EMT shifts annually, which is how he has come to know and work with Nancy. If she is on duty, Nancy is the preferred first responder in situations where respiratory distress is involved. Her “uncanny ability” assists other EMT’s by granting them valuable time for the set up of critical-care equipment. As a professional meditation and yoga instructor, listening to what is described as Nancy’s almost “magical effect” in such circumstances, I note that Nancy is employing the use of a technique known as entrainment.
Entrainment is what happens when an individual gives up his or her own independent breathing pattern or rhythm, for a time, to accept the breathing pattern or rhythm of another individual or group. Entrainment is a formal pedagogical tool in some spiritual traditions. It is used primarily to ready an individual or group for receipt of a teaching, to grant an aspirant the opportunity to stand in another’s shoes, thereby, assisting in the teaching of compassion. Or, it may be employed to share experiences of certain emotional states (joy, freedom, calmness) or states of consciousness (forgiveness, surrender, unconditional love).
The most critical component behind the employment of entrainment is a sincere desire on the part of the lead breather, if you will, to serve selflessly.
“The monster on table six with his tight-wad wife and bratty kids doesn’t look like he’s going to tip tonight,” Tina’s smoke-seasoned voice cracks the peace of a smoothly running kitchen machine with her crude complaint.
The padded door, upholstered in leather, is still swinging between the kitchen and dining room. I feel my heart seize with the harsh tone of her words and delivery. My stomach follows reactive suit with the social inappropriateness and radical shift in her personality. Moments ago, I stood two tables away from Tina as she billed and cooed over the same four people.
“What a little gentleman and young lady we have here,” she syruped over the children. “How old are they? You two look like you should be on a date. You can’t be old enough to have children.”
This is my third or fourth seasonal stint as a server. Waiting tables is one of the best short-term positions for earning reliable money during college summers.
This particular restaurant is the most exclusive place I have ever served, featuring a full lakefront view and a classic American dining menu (e.g. steak and lobster). The regulars are fewer in number, while the more pervasive, non-regular clientele comes to celebrate special occasions. It is an event for people who dine here. Tables with children are exceptions. And, although I am accustomed to some degree of back chat in restaurant kitchens—where frustrated servers occasionally let off steam—this place raises the bar on contradictions when I consider my previous working environments. It also has more “lifers”—the term applied to wait staff who are not using this form of employment to transition into other lines of work.
Looking to return to my internal equilibrium I think, “They are paying guests. Don’t they deserve better treatment?” There is no way for me to put this question to Tina or for her to hear what is going on in my head. As a junior server, I am in no position to vocalize anything to turn the situation around. So, I swallow what has been dished up, returning to the dining room while acknowledging, in compassionate fairness to Tina, the fact that she has been on staff for years. I have not. She is burned-out. I am not. Still, the environment is toxic. I feel like an egg in a carton of cracked, borderline personalities.
Trying to keep things light in my internal world, I amuse myself with the following silent observation, “Maybe this is why I am now working next to the only padded kitchen-to-dining-room door I have ever encountered in the ‘hospitality’ industry.” The trained pedagogue in me would simply send everyone for a long counseling retreat.
Choosing to move on, I remain at the lakeside restaurant only a short time. But, the experience gives me a clear picture of what I term the Kitchen Door Effect, where things are one way in the dining room (exterior) and another way in the kitchen (interior). This phenomenon exists—to some degree or another— in virtually every industry, circumstance and personality I have encountered. Additional life experience causes me to note that the more exclusive or carefully polished an exterior appearance is the greater the gap (or heavier the door) may be between the two realms.
I cannot turn the clock back to adjust working conditions at that restaurant. Neither can I improve the mental health of the personalities I met there nor was it my place to do so. What I do have the ability to address is the integration between the kitchen and dining room aspects of my own personality. And, in terms of a single personality, there is far more than one door or two realms at play.
Doors are what separate us from our highest Light, the sacred Self. In truth, our external world is only as unified in the Light as our discrete internal world. This is one of the primary teachings that restaurant position provided. To work on removing these doors, over time, is to become whole, gracious, kind and compassionate, while growing in the knowledge that each living creature possesses a divine Light of its own. So, no matter what the external appearances, concerns, attachments, fiscal arrangements or social structures may be in a given situation, we have the opportunity to unify our personality around our highest Light. This is a tall order requiring commitment, bravery and tenacity.
So, while I cannot change the falseness of certain social environments or the craziness in the kitchen environments of the world, I am focusing on “unhinging” my own bent toward duality and contradiction—searching out and removing my own doors—in favor of table-side food preparation with a full view of the Lake.