The world is the river of God,
Flowing from him and flowing back to him.
~ Shvetashvatara Upanishad
Is there any force on earth more powerful than a river?
Waterfalls have always fascinated me. I’ve meandered through the mountains of North Carolina, mesmerized by waterfall after waterfall. I’ve stood on the border between New York and Ontario and beheld water falling 167 feet over Niagara Falls. Yet Niagara, I am told, hardly compares to the world’s two largest falls, Iguazu and Victoria. There is something breathtaking about such beauty and such power.
Water destroys, and water gives life. Water batters our bodies and heals our hearts. Too much drowns us, yet even a little sustains us. Water thus seems a suitable image for the power of the Transcendent – call it whatever you will, Spirit, Tao, or as the Hindus say, Brahman. It is the force of life and death, that which destroys and creates. Come too close to it, and there is psychosis. Withdraw too far, and there is depression.
Of Myth and Meditation
An ancient Hindu myth tells how the giant dragon-demon Vritra took all the world’s rivers captive. No waters flowed. Earth became a desert. The god Indra gathered the army of the gods and launched an attack against Vritra’s demon army. At his side Indra carried a spiked club named Vijra, sometimes described as a thunderbolt. Vritra, for his part, was armed like Poseidon with a trident. The two armies clashed. The battle was fierce. Eventually, Indra’s army was able to crash through the ninety-nine fortresses of Vritra.
Now the enemies stood face to face. Indra and his elephant mount charged. Indra cut off one of Vritra’s hands. Vritra retaliated by swallowing Indra and his mount whole. All seemed lost.
But Indra, now deep inside the belly of the dragon-demon, did not abandon the fight. He took Vajra in hand, and giving one mighty swing, sliced through the demon’s abdomen and escaped. Vritra was mortally wounded. He fell onto his broken fortresses, crushing them beyond recognition. At that moment, the world’s rivers were freed from captivity. The waters flowed once more, and the desert of the earth blossomed.
The myth is an apt metaphor. Sometimes our lives are deserts. The waters of life are no longer flowing. We are out of touch with the Source of vitality deep within ourselves. We may become aware of this sometime after midlife. The energies of youth no longer sustain us. We grow weary. Life becomes dry and dusty. There may be many things that help us: exercise, good diet, testosterone boosters. But the real remedy is not physical, but spiritual. There are shadow forces deep in our psyches blocking the flow of the waters. Like Indra, we must enter the depths of our psyches and do battle. There are issues we must work through before the terrain of the psyche will allow the life-force to flow.
Many times, the meaning of a myth is buried in the details. So it is with this one. Indra’s weapon is named Vijra. The Sanskrit word vijra can mean both thunderbolt and diamond. In Hindu culture, the word has come to signify determination as hard as a diamond and spiritual power as mighty as a thunderbolt. It takes determination and spiritual power to find the freedom we seek.
Indra’s weapon is said to be made from the backbone of an ascetic. Any Hindu would immediately catch the reference. In Hindu meditation, the position of the back is essential to the practice. It is to be held upright, as if a string were attached at the top of the head pulling the back into alignment. This posture promotes relaxed awareness, the mind-state necessary for meditation. If the back slouches or is out of alignment, the mind loses its alert focus and the muscles of the back begin to ache.
When our life-energy flags, one of the weapons we may use is meditation. It requires rock-hard determination to meditate day after day. The benefits of meditation are not immediate, nor are they always obvious. Sometimes, when our thoughts are racing and our emotions careening, it seems pointless to meditate. We are in the belly of the demon. Yet when we meditate regularly, we will gradually win through to the deep source of spiritual power. The rivers will flow again.
The Still Presence
I first discovered this contemplative form of meditation using a Christian practice called Centering Prayer. The experiences I had in centering prayer were probably the main reason I did not give up on the spiritual path when I came out as a gay man.
Like Hindu meditation, Centering Prayer involves using a word or mantra as an anchor for the mind, perhaps a favorite name of God or a word that has spiritual significance. After a few moments of collecting oneself into the here and now, the practice is simply to repeat the word silently and slowly in the mind and heart. That is all. If the mind wanders, gently bring yourself back to the word. If emotions intrude, gently bring yourself back to the word. Over time, the practice has the effect of calming the thoughts and emotions. You may be gifted with moments of utter stillness, when thought and emotion cease. In these moments, you may let go of the word and simply be still, utterly still. As the stillness passes, return to the word.
With long practice, first with Centering Prayer and now with a more Indian form, I’ve discovered that when I’m given these moments of stillness, all that remains is simple awareness. This simple awareness is what the Hindu tradition calls Atman, or the Self. It is not the ego, the conscious center of decision, feeling, and thought. It is something much deeper. It is pure consciousness. In meditation, as the Upanishads say, “the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal.”
I’ve discovered too that this silence is not empty. With my mind quieted to simple awareness, what I become conscious of is an indescribable Presence, infinite and formless, serene and blissful. This the Hindu tradition identifies as Brahman, or God. The Sanskrit word Brahman comes from the root brih, “to expand.” The infinite expansiveness of this Presence is one of its most salient characteristics in my experience. Hindus believe this Presence of which we become aware in meditation is, in Eknath Easwaran’s words, “the irreducible ground of existence, the essence of every thing – of the earth and sun and all creatures, of gods and human beings, of every power of life.” Hindus do not ascribe personal attributes to it. Rather, they claim only three qualities for it: essence (or being), consciousness, and bliss – or in Sanskrit, sat, chit, and ananda. This description stays close to what one experiences in meditation.
Meditation is not the only way to access this still Presence. The Hindu tradition identifies three or four ways to do so, depending on how one organizes the material. Each of these ways is called a yoga, that is, a practice or way of realizing union with Brahman. The way of meditation is known as raja yoga. Meditation may be seen as foundational to the other three. Jnana yoga is the way of study and understanding. Bhakti yoga is the way of devotion to a particular god as a personification of Brahman. Karma yoga is the way of selfless service, which allows Brahman to work through oneself. These yogas are not mutually exclusive. A person may focus on a particular approach. But all will likely be present to some degree. These yogas work together and balance one another.
However one goes about it, the purpose of yoga is to live out of the Self rather than out of the ego – to let go of our personal likes, dislikes, and illusions, and live with a simple awareness of life and of its transcendent Source. This realization of the Self, says the Hindu tradition, may with time become our everyday experience. In the words of the Upanishads,
When the five senses are stilled, when the mind
Is stilled, when the intellect is stilled,
That is called the highest state by the wise.
They say yoga is this complete stillness
In which one enters the unitive state,
Never to become separate again.
If one is not established in this state,
The sense of unity will come and go.
The Freedom to Be
Consistently experiencing this state of unity is Hinduism’s fourth aim of life, the fourth purushartha. This aim represents a significant development from ancient Hinduism. The Hinduism of the Vedas recognized only three aims in life: dharma, artha, and kama. We have looked at these in the past few posts. As the tradition developed, it added this fourth aim. Hindus called it moksha, meaning freedom or liberation. Traditionally, attaining it meant being released from the endless, wearisome cycle of death and rebirth.
The leaders of the 19th and 20th century Indian Renaissance, though, emphasized the importance of moksha for this present life. For them, it was the ability to bring the fruits of communion with Brahman into the present that ultimately mattered. Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, wrote: “It is through the heightening of our consciousness into love, and extending it all over the world, that we can attain Brahma-vihāra [the abode of Brahma], communion with this infinite joy.” Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi focused on this life, choosing a path of personal liberation that included the liberation of India from British rule. The concept of moksha as one of the four great aims continues to develop.
It is fascinating to me that Abraham Maslow followed a similar pattern of development with his Hierarchy of Needs. When he first articulated his motivational theory, the highest drive was for self-actualization, which is in many ways parallel to what Hindus call one’s personal dharma. The five drives he originally named are all ego-drives. This observation is not meant to denigrate them in any way. Each represents an important stage in our personal development.
Later in life, Maslow added a motivational step beyond self-actualization, which he called self-transcendence. Here Maslow included the drive for communion beyond the boundaries of the ego-self through peak experiences. Among these peak experiences, Maslow included such phenomena as mystical experiences, transformative aesthetic experiences, and experiences of communing with nature. He called our capacity to have such experiences “Being-cognition,” perhaps his name for what Hindus call Atman. He observed further that people with a strong motive for self-transcendence regularly engaged in service to others.
We live in an age that desperately needs people who have grown beyond the ego-drives. We face crises on many fronts – economic, nuclear, interracial, and above all, environmental. What is more, the struggle for the rights of LGBTIQ people is far from over. In many parts of the world, it has hardly begun. My hope is that we gay men will rise to the challenge of our times, and live out our dharma to bring reform, compassion, healing, and reconciliation. I believe we are being brought to the fore for just this purpose. The world needs what we can give.
But our activism will be most effective if it does not come primarily from our egos, with success being measured by how well we are loved or esteemed. Activism is often thankless work, and without deep spirituality leads to burnout. Spirituality without activism, on the other hand, is sterile. We need an activism like Gandhi’s. Our attempts to liberate the world from the catastrophes of greed and domination must be rooted in our own liberation. Only by union with the Transcendent do we find ourselves free to bring about lasting change.
When the river of Brahman is free to flow through us, there is no limit to what we can accomplish. For then, all the destructive and creative power of the universe is speaking with our voice, walking with our feet, touching others with our hands.
In the post that began this series on the four purusharthas, I mentioned that the balance of these aims depends a great deal on our stage of life. Youth are prone to the pursuit of pleasure (kama). Until middle age, we may find meaning in accumulating means (artha). This is all as it should be. At midlife, though, we need to make a shift. Our goals need to become more spiritual. We should look toward self-actualization (dharma), becoming who and what our hearts tell us we can be. Eventually, even this quest gives way to a greater one, the search for the freedom of transcendence (moksha).
Gay culture, in part because of its relative youth, seems to be largely focused on the pursuit of pleasure and wealth. Those of us who are older, though, have a responsibility both to ourselves and to those who come after to prioritize larger aims. Our growth will be stunted if we see our later years as an opportunity to travel more, drink more wine, and explore our sexual kinks. These are pleasure’s aim. They have their place. But the great privilege of our later years is that we may be given more freedom, both by internal and external realities, to pursue the larger aims of dharma and moksha, self-actualization and transcendence.
The world is the river of God…: Shvetashvatara Upanishad 1.5, in Eknath Easwaran, trans., The Upanishads (Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1987, 2007), Kindle loc. 1915.
An ancient Hindu myth…: The story is first revealed in the Rig Veda 1.32 (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv01032.htm), and mentioned in numerous later texts, including the Bhagavata Purana 6.9 (http://bhagavata.org/canto6/chapter9.html).
“the separate self dissolves…”: Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.12, in Easwaran, Kindle loc. 1221.
“the irreducible ground of existence…”: Easwaran, Kindle loc. 354.
“When the five senses are stilled…”: Katha Upanishad 2.3.10-11, in Easwaran, Kindle loc. 1101.
“It is through the heightening…”: Rabindranath Tagore, Sādhanā: The Realization of Life (New York: Macmilllan, 1913), 107.