Monday, February 8, 2010

Just Say Yes

I believe it was the time I heard spiritual teacher Ram Dass speak at a church here in L.A. called Agape years ago, when he invoked the idea: "Say yes to everything." The way he said it was almost flippant and it certainly seemed to be an almost commonplace idea to him that was something of an almost random aside the way it rolled out between more primary thoughts.

I'm going through a break-up right now. A difficult one following a passionate and loving, but also damaging and difficult, two-year relationship. I am devastated. And I know there are bigger problems in the world by far, but to stand where I am standing at this moment, is to stand in more than a bit of fire. However it may compare to any other fire, it hurts like hell. I am deeply in love with this man and I now have to pick apart the psychology of, as my friend Birdie might aptly say, "the part of you that's broken." The part that wants to revisit places and co-created situations that have hurt me-- hurt both of us-- over and over and over no matter how hard we've tried to do it differently. And I do this, probably, so that I can relive some parental trauma that feels like home. Yes. It's a bit of a personal fire I'm currently standing in. Maybe more than a bit. So the flippancy of someone telling me to say "yes" to this is kind of a pisser.

But the truth is that Ram Dass's statement couldn't have been made from a place that was entirely flippant. He was doing some heavy lifting, I'm fairly certain. And the reason I'm fairly certain of this is because this was the same sort of teaching Ram Dass had always offered in one form or another, but now he was offering it as a recent stroke victim who spoke even more meditatively than before. Slower. Exponentially slower. And he described trying to verbalize some of his ideas and looking for the right words as 'looking for the right article of clothing in a large closet and not knowing where you've placed it.' He was standing in his own very personal version of the fire and was seeming to say "Well, true, this is where I'm standing. Yes. What's the big deal?" Which kind of blew my mind. And still does.

To boot, his light-hearted, post-stroke, follow-up to his '60s bestseller classic "Be Here Now" was also entitled with equal levity: "Still Here."

Ram Dass along with Stephen Levine have been two of my most influential teachers as I've continued to re-embrace a more personal spirituality that has increasingly felt more compassionate and truer to my own spirit. This, after having given my childhood's taught notion of a misogynistic, vengeful God the less than proverbial finger after walking away some time prior to me finally fleeing to Los Angeles.

And I don't know why this idea of "saying yes to everything" pricked my ears so, but for whatever reason, it did. And even after years of meditation and yoga practice and generally having worked much harder than the average west-coast migrant to become what many members of my extended Midwestern family less than affectionately refer to as "A California Fruit and Nut," not having understood this idea just bugged me. I really thought I'd earned my stripes at least to some degree. But even that-- no, especially that, is something I'm sure Ram Dass would say is simply more mind fodder to meditatively note and undramatically return to the breath-- that it's more ego stuff, more "Grist for the Mill." And he'd be correct.

In meditation, whatever your particular method, you develop a one-pointed focus. My Western explanation of why this is done is basically: to quell (I learned from my last individual therapist) what the Buddhists call "the monkey brain". And it is also done in order to achieve this proximity to that quieter, one-pointed presence. Some chant mantras, some focus on one point like a flame and some, like I was taught, focus on one specific point where the breath passes in and out. This, in order to touch our truer nature, our divine nature that is interconnected with all that is, seen and unseen.

To this end, I have attended 12-day vipassana ("to see things as they truly are") meditation courses and taken the requisite vows of silence for the duration of those weeks in the woods at the meditation center near Yosemite. I have done serious yoga, often quite feverishly. Which is to say, often in a very un-yoga-like fashion. I have fasted and mantra'd and meditated with the best of them. And I think it frustrates the very-alive and present inner-adolescent that I'm finding that more and more, my childhood devotion to and love of the divine as I understood it in the context of my Born Again upbringing and childhood is really not so different from the healing of opening my heart in Bhakti yoga and song. I would even go as far as to say that even now, after years of anger and hurt toward the various forms bigotry and hypocrisy of almost every Christian I've known (including myself when I professed to be one), I am reconnecting in my own far-less organized and quiet way with that culturally charged word: God. And taking it a step dramatically further, at least in the sense of my own belief of "it may be mythology, but it undeniably moves me:" Jesus.

It frustrates me for the same reason that I didn't understand Ram Dass's statement. We have these scavenger "monkey brains" which are constantly identifying desires and aversions, ideas and constructs that we attach ourselves to, all of it temporary. These monkey gather up all of this temporary stuff and lay it out to look at and admire, all shiny and interesting. And most of the time, we have no idea the monkey is even doing this. It's just happening. The monkey's collection is not collectively things we would say we love or hate, but they are simply the collection of things we're currently clinging to. And it doesn't take much more than a decade before a veritable warehouse is required in order to hold this constantly growing collection. And further, it takes an expert guide just to walk you through the warehouse. That reason, simply labeled, is the ego or the idea or notion of oneself. The notion of "me."

So you get your version of your personal warehouse tour guide to try not to get too lost in the ego warehouse-- you get the therapist, the friend, the teacher, the guru, the mentor, the pastor, whomever-- and it takes seemingly forever to walk through the place as the guide begins, "Over here we have the idea of our intellect-- I'm smart or average, book smart or street smart or maybe I'm stupid and have a hard time learning. Over here, we have our sense of aesthetics-- I like this art and this movie and this sound and this color, I arrange visual, aural and all things sensual in this way and that. I abhor this style, I love this one, etc. Step over to this aisle for personal history-- everything I've done, what my parents did and didn't do, siblings, where I lived and traveled and went to school, who I've loved and fucked and forgotten and been forgotten by, etc. In this wing we have people we're connected to-- family, friends, lovers, enemies, employers, etc. Over here we have all the hurts we've held onto, knowingly or otherwise. And over here we have our triumphs. Over here we have a sense of our physical selves-- I'm beautiful or ugly or average or what have you. Over here we have religious beliefs and very nearby, political beliefs (who can say way they're in such close proximity). And on and on and on. And then with all of this host of fleeting things, all the accompanying beliefs therein, each has its own unique bearing on whether or not that impacts the ability to connect with other people as a lover, friend, family member, student, teacher or whatever aspect of our identity we're invested in creating at this moment, how we connect with others and the world, where we think we fit and how, etc."

And the warehouse goes on forever. But inevitably, no matter how big it is, we gather up that billion-ton monolith of a warehouse and try to carry it around on our backs and insist on calling it... "me." We live our whole lives from this confused place of believing all these fleeting notions that our monkey brain is collecting and clinging to is who we are. Without them, who would we be? It's terrifying to think of putting it down.

And that is the big "trick" I keep trying to learn. I've said before that I keep relearning this, but I think the truth is I'm really trying to get it at all for the first time. And really, it's not a trick at all. And my Grandma might have said something as simple as this to express it: "You just need a little perspective." Other Eastern teachings often talk about "Taking the seat of the observer."

So when Ram Dass casually insinuates that I should "say yes to everything," I think it means something that, to my monkey brain, is not immediately as obvious as it might be for Ram Dass. And that is, just like in meditation, whatever arises, you stay with the one-pointed focus and just stubbornly keep returning to that focus regardless of what is going on. It could be terror that is arising at this particular moment or boredom or planning or lust or giddiness or, really, anything at all that arises in that monkey brain as it scampers to squirrel it away and trick me into identifying with the shiny new object of mind. A big one for me in meditation is actually pretty funny: "Let's eat. Screw this meditation stuff. I'm hungry." The food's usually not more than 30 minutes from happening anyway. I'm not starving. It's just the monkey brain throwing something at me that it knows will give it the run of the kingdom again. Sometimes it's nothing more than an itch that comes up and the desire to scratch it. And sometimes I do just go ahead and scratch rather than choicelessly let the itch arise and pass. And that's fine too.

But I think what Ram Dass might be saying is, whatever crosses our path in life, and whatever our response or particular choice of action may be at any given moment, respond by take the seat of the observer. I don't think in imploring us to "say yes to everything" that he's encouraging us to walk into life's storehouse and make no choices and just look at the stockpiled shelves and "say yes" to eating and grabbing every single thing in the store. I think he's saying wherever you are, be there. Say yes to the moment. You're in a moment of joy, be there, feel it, walk around it, feel the connectedness to who you really are. You're in a moment of panic or fear, be there, feel it, walk around it. And when every cell in my being realizes as I sit in a place of terror "Run away now" and then I choose to run away, be with that too. "Okay, yes, now I'm running away. I'm terrified. Yes. Okay. I'm here with it."

It's not about control. At all. It's about loosening my grip on trying to control everything. And the paradox that whenever I find myself, as I have this week, in the middle of a painful break-up and it hurts so bad that I want to run in five different directions all at the same time as hard as I can, so much so that I just become paralyzed, even in the middle of that I can stop and say "Yes. This too."

It's not "me." It's a moment I'm experiencing. It's the tide I'm happen to be standing in. Moving in and moving back out. And again, as my Grandma might have said, "This too shall pass."

But even beyond that, I begin to feel, bit by bit as many of the great mystics have, from Siddhartha to St. Francis, that "God" imbues everything. Everything. Every rock, every tree, every atom. Everywhere. And to me, that means that God also inhabits all the joy and all the terror. All the heaven and all the hell.

I can't properly define what I mean by "God," but I can certainly feel what I mean.

Because of my incredibly difficult history with Jesus-- and all the people claiming him (right there is more fodder from that warehouse I'm carrying around yet again), I find it hard to admit that I am also still, or maybe once again in a new way (I'm not totally sure), moved by the mythology of Jesus. It's REALLY hard for me to bite down on. BUT I also love the story. And my understanding of the story of Christ's death in particular is very moving to me. The way I understand it is that he goes through this unbelievably horrific experience of physical pain, while also being shamed in the deepest way imaginable. And consistent with what he taught, he offered in response to all of this inflicted hell-- love. He went through as much hell as we could manufacture here on earth and he responded with love. And, again, as I understand it, the story has him finishing this off by declaring "It is accomplished." As if to say "I have now created a new level of what it means to love no matter what. Spit on me, shame me, nail my body to something naked and mock me while you do it and I will stay in that balanced place of the seat of the observer. I live in the seat of the observer. I live in the place where I am never not saying 'Yes, this too.' Just as I am to you now, dear one. Here is what love is. Try to get this." And of course, almost none of us ever do. And it is likely just a story, but I really love that story. And I think if nothing else, the millions of people who have truly loved that story have endowed it with something powerful that can be called upon.

To my mind, and my experience, there is nowhere that God disappears. God/our-higher-self/whatever-you-want-to-call it (I don't think God is concerned either) is not absent even in the presence of a hell. And if that is true, and it does feel that way to me, I can have the requisite faith to at least try to say "Yes" to everything. Yes to what scares me, yes to what exhilarates me and even yes to what hurts. And if I start screaming in terror "No no no no, not fucking this!" as I'm apt to do, eventually, I'll hopefully learn to once again gather up enough of that faith to again stand back up on my weathered legs and say "Yes. This too." Whatever it is that's been placed at my feet, maybe one of these days, I'll learn to skip some of the drama I'm so prone to and just say yes.