Saturday, November 16, 2013

Non-Attachment and Formlessness

Lotus blossom

“…Non-attachment is a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment to desire for things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened perspective… Non-attachment as release from desire and consequently from suffering is an important principle, or even ideal, in the Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism and Taoism” [Wikipedia]. On a practical level what is attachment and how does it work?

In 1973 I experienced what is called in India Nirvikalpa or Nirvikalpa-Samadhi. In this experience, during deep meditation, a force known as kundalini awoke at the base of my spine. This legendary energy rose up my spine through the chakras and flooded my brain with ecstatic force, reducing me to a state of nirvana.

As the ecstatic state finally ended, I descended back into my body and felt the pressure of an earthly existence reassert itself on my being. All the pressures of my personal life fell back into place. I opened my eyes and was back in my body, in that room, with a new energy that had taken place in my will.

I had experienced a state of transcendence from this world, of non-attachment. Thus, when the world came back into focus, I saw all my attachments falling back into place. I became aware of how those things limited me.

I soon changed my life to undo those obstacles. I left college and returned to my family in the redwoods. Thus began a journey to find and pursue meaning in my life.

After a few years of travel, study, and learning from others, I returned to school to be a writer. I had become a poet and philosopher. I have ever since applied the principles that I have learned in order to achieve the tasks presented to me by fate and the higher powers on my Spiritual Path.

In due course, I came across the works of Gopi Krishna, a Hindu poet and mystic who had experienced the same thing in 1937. As I read his autobiography, I recognized the same personal experiences I had gone through. His work allowed me to understood my own personal transformation, providing language and a conceptual context to understand it.

I mention this not to focus on my life, but rather to understand the experience of nirvikalpa in relation to the idea of non-attachment. Surely this is the summum bonum of spiritual endeavor, to transcend the earthly world and achieve liberation as prescribed by Siddhartha in his articulation of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
  1. Life includes Dissatisfaction (suffering)
  2. Suffering is caused by Desire
  3. Desirelessness is Liberation
  4. The Eight-Fold Path to Liberation

In this formulation, non-attachment means to be desireless, and hence attachment is desire. Indeed, I felt liberated from desire during my experience. Over the years I have had to face fear directly, and cast myself forward on the path in spite of my fears. This addressing of material and emotional attachment has challenged me, but because of my absolute faith in the Spiritual as a result of my experience, I have let go of attachments, although it has been difficult.

Many times over the decades since my nirvikalpa experience, I have contemplated the earthly pressures I felt upon returning to everyday life after bathing in cosmic ecstasy that fulfilled all my desires. Bathed in cosmic oneness, my deepest longings were satisfied in every nerve of my being.

There is a dichotomy in our society between groundedness in the earth and transcendence. One thinks of Einstein, his head in the clouds, and all the absent minded professors, so abstract in their thinking they cannot stay conscious of their physical bodies. It reminds me of a story about Ramakrishna, the 19th century Hindu saint.

One day Ramakrishna and his assistant went into town to buy some items. The assistant went into a store, purchased some items, and returned to the wagon. Ramakrishna was gone.
19th century Hindu saint

Lord of the Dance

The frightened assistant looked for him for hours, finally coming across him at quite a distance from where they had stopped. He went up to Ramakrishna and put his hand on his arm. Ramakrishna turned to him and exclaimed, “How could you have let me wander off like that!”

Thus is the genius often relegated to a space in their imagination that is so vivid, so expanded, that they are literally not in this world but in one of their imagination where creative concepts and images live in full reality. I can attest to having been in this state. It requires extraordinary discipline to turn away from the sheer pleasure of creative imagination and pay attention to the mundane matters of this earth.

And yet, and yet… We live in a time when the earth cannot be ignored, where we see the imbalance in our planetary ecosystem at every turn. Perhaps this is why I chose to become a professional environmentalist, because it has become a necessity for me to attend to this world both for professional and personal reasons.

The fear that one encounters in departing from the world of attachment to material objects is the fear that one’s responsibilities will not be met. Only when one’s faith overcomes one’s fears is it possible for one to open to the world of the Spirit, The Great Spirit in the Native American formulation. Through Faith, made possible only by humility and surrender to the crushing force of Truth, can the world of Spirit be activated within us, and the laws of Spirit prevail in one’s life.

One can see this change acting on the lives of the founders of religions, the prophets of our histories who forsook material reward in order to live in the world. Buddha begged, Jesus rejected materialism, Mohammed owned no property, because they did not need earthly objects to satisfy nonexistent desires. This is the nature of prophets, whose deep satisfaction is innate.

If we are indeed entering a New Age, it is a new age of harmony with Nature. This can only be achieved if we can find humility in the individual human condition. Such humility is not insincere if it acknowledges the actual plight of every individual, for the most part unable to control our fate.

We are born into a world over which we have no control. We are one amongst billions of people, in a world of billions of stars. Humility is the simple acknowledgement of reality and is the only sane conclusion one can reach about our true state as living beings on this planet.

This is aptly shown through the Hindu image of Shiva, Lord of the Dance. There dances Shiva encircled by flame, four armed, with one foot resting on the back of a dwarf lying on its belly. That dwarf is the ego, the message that life is a dance if one can keep the ego under control.

To be without egotism and attachment is to be without a distinct form, to be formless. Thus one can adapt with endless flexibility to the requirements of the moment. It is like the old Zen story about the monk whose kitchen burned down.

“Now I have a place from where I can see the moon.”

Consider the cultures of the world. Each has its values and mores, and each differs from all the others in certain respects. Some would be aghast to eat pork, others to eat beef, and still others to eat dog.

Some practice polygamy, some monogamy, and others revere celibacy. Each believes in their own way, but these attachments to the mores are not intellectually based, but rather connected to viscera and emotion. Such are the attachments that separate us from each other.

In particular, nationalism and religious dogma are deeply held and embraced attachments. Loyalty to God and Country causes people to live their lives in the service of a struggle such as a war. Such service may be justifiable under certain conditions, but blind faith serves only to prop up dictators and corrupt, archaic systems.

If the biological imperative is to adapt, then formlessness has the greatest chance for survival. Even today as we consider the causes and effects of global warming, observe with what difficulty the United States adapts to it in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is real and human-caused. Material attachments and current patterns of production and consumption are defended in an irrational manner, denying the need to change our way of living, rejecting an end to self-destructive waste and selfishness.

So here’s the challenge: How can we grow spiritually as is the direction of all religious traditions, and yet live in this world, attending to the very real threats to our existence whether ecological or sociological? How can we embrace the heavenly spirituality of Ramakrishna and yet address the material threats of global warming etc… We can only do it through non-attachment.

Hence, to live in the body is to feel emotions, so withdrawing to an ascetic existence does not serve human needs. There is such a thing as legitimate anger. Emotions are grounding.

Ultimately, the task we have, and it is by no means an easy one, is to integrate all the different streams of human existence into one – to become the super pragmatist as well as the saint. One thinks of Mother Teresa attending to the impoverished in India. This is the realm of service, and in the end it is a major path to liberation as one loses the ego in generosity and charity.

Enlightenment is not abstract, it is corporeal. The old Zen saying is, “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.” Understanding this is the meaning of the New Age.

It is not simply living an ethereal and abstract existence. That may or may not feel good, but it does not reach the summum bonum of human existence, to act in the service of humanity. We are not embracing the New Age idealism if we are living it from an armchair.

The soul has incarnated here for a reason. Carne is meat in Spanish. True spirituality is found in living in the real world, contributing however one can.

When the soul un-incarnates, gives up the body to experience pure spirit, the body dies. As Charlie Chaplin says in the film A King in New York (1957), “I can’t stand the sight of blood, but it flows in my veins!”

A King in New York (1957) Charles Chaplin
Don’t worry about becoming spiritual. Do what you can do to help others, attend to your responsibilities, act with kindness, and protect your integrity. No one knows what happens after death, but we are here to live the lives we were granted to the best of our ability.

Spiritual development is an evolutionary process, both for the individual and the species. As the human spiritual instinct grows, all things will begin to make more sense. In another few hundred years, we’ll know more and be better people than today.

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