Meditation on devotion; Mapping a path to the divine

If you’re like me, you try to live in alignment with what is true and do what is right, even as you acknowledge that this may be different for everyone. You feel your way around topics like divinity, devotion, and grace. You try to touch lightly, with all the gentleness of tending an open wound or a newborn.

If you ask me to explain God, I’ll tell you it’s the Universal Energy that makes seeds sprout, that holds protons and neutrons in the nucleus while electrons orbit around them, that creates atomic bonds to form stuff, and that otherwise structures the world as we experience it. As a feminist, I’ll never use a masculine pronoun to refer to God. And as a devotee of reason, I’ll never claim that this God-stuff that holds the universe together as it generates, degenerates, and recycles matter has any interest in me personally. And I certainly won’t anthropomorphize this Force. Ultimately, my mind and language are finite things, I’ll say, and God is infinite, so I’ll never be able to really understand or explain God.

This is what Rational Me knows about God. Rational Me has gone to books to clarify ideas about the divine, to trace my fingers along the well-worn maps of other travelers, which is how I view these texts.  Rational Me is helpful. Up to a point.

But sometimes she gets in the way. So I have learned to find my way by observing her. Reading the Bhagavad Gita, Rational Me had an immediate, clear opinion about the central issue on Bhakti (devotional) yoga (Chapter 12). Arjuna asks Krishna, Which is best way to unite the personal consciousness with Supreme Consciousness  – either devoting oneself to God with attributes (manifest) or without (unmanifest)?

Rational Me sided with the unmanifest form, pure in its nothingness and everythingness, in its potential. Rational Me was irked by Krishna’s answer that it was better to meditate on the manifest form of God (Krishna) rather than the unmanifest (Brahman). It’s easier, He explains, for embodied beings to devote themselves to an embodied God. In addition to thinking Krishna’s answer was self-serving, Rational Me got a little rush of self-satisfaction. “Maybe it’s easier for other people,” she thought, “Yeah, those other people who take their metaphors too literally.”

RM gloated a while – through a few readings of the chapter, actually. And then it hit me! (Because I was observing the ego in RM.)

Almost daily as I have made long drives through Los Angeles and Orange counties, this feminist talks out her frustrations, fears, and dreams with an invisible dude who has the power to help her with stuff – even if it’s mostly finding peace and gratitude when things aren’t going my way. I talk things out – OUT LOUD, mind you – and my unseen buddy ribs me about how we’ve been through this before. And I nod and chuckle to a voice only I can hear. Many days it’s just me and God: on the road together, yucking it up about what a dumbass I am, as I live out the “God is my co-pilot” cliché.

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This is me at BhaktiFest, a yoga festival in Joshua Tree, CA.

But there’s more: As with other friends, I’m disappointed when God’s plans don’t include me, and I’m irritated when his plans for me aren’t what I had in mind. Sometimes, the relationship feels really dysfunctional. Sometimes, I’ve blamed him. There are times, I get busy and don’t call. But when I’m really in a crisis, I can count on him to answer. Even if it’s been a long while since we’ve talked, he’s kept up with what’s going on and knows how to guide me. When I am grateful, accepting and compassionate, I sense that I am in good hands (not my own) in this journey from birth to death. This is how Intuitive Me experiences God.

As odd as it seems, rational thought doesn’t entirely govern my beliefs. Rational Me doesn’t know the map, no matter how many of them she reads.

This split between my thinking (abstract; unmanifest) and my action (concrete; manifest) seems to speak to the question raised in Chapter 12. While I can be in awe of the beautiful complexity of God in either form, it’s easier to be in a state of loving devotion to a manifest form that loves me back. I might add, that my devotion is absent when I am self-involved.

As a person who has changed her mind a lot, I’m a bit of a commitmentphobe. This is especially true of dogma. I like to explore the spiritual terrain of religions and even set up camp and learn their practices, but I have never settled on one. If anything I draw on all I’ve experienced in mapping my own route to the divine.

One of the things that I love about yoga is that I can, without having to worship a literal deity, still love “God,” unite with It- — whatever It is. I don’t have to define it because I directly experience It. Believing in a Source/Force that underlies the apparent world –creative, sustaining, and destructive – I feel what a small pixel of the big picture I am. It makes it easier to surrender the outcome of my actions, which I cannot control because more things and bigger things also impact the outcome.

It seems like this is my personal experience of Krishna’s counsel that if you cannot observe the Vedic rituals (which I can’t), then one should cultivate knowledge (which I have been); or better yet, meditate on the Supreme Consciousness (which I do often); or best of all, in devoted work, surrender the fruits of action and achieve peace of mind (which I also do often). Krishna closes chapter 12 saying that is in equanimity (toward comfort and discomfort, toward friend and foe, etc) that one becomes dear to him.

Equanimity: maybe this is what I am sensing, rather than indifference, when Rational Me explains God. If so, when I am equanimous, my consciousness is aligned with the Supreme consciousness, and I experience union, which is what the word yoga means.

As I experience equanimity through surrender, I achieve that peacefulness in which I feel loved, and that engenders love in return. And therein are the seeds of bhakti; that is to say, devotion.

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The Manifestation Tree: A new ritual for a new year

I love a good ritual! A few years back I invented a ritual to celebrate the new year and honor the things I wanted for myself and my life.

It started as an urge to give others what they most wanted. Just before Christmas 2015, I had been brainstorming gift ideas for a couple of close friends. I wanted something that would be meaningful but wouldn’t be expensive. I had squirreled away some giant mugs with spiritual quotes that seemed like a good start, but I didn’t just want to stuff them with candy (so impersonal!) or give an empty mug (symbolically awful!).

I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could give the people I love what their hearts most desire?”

The rest came to me pretty quickly. I conceived of a variation on a floral arrangement in the mug: “The Manifestation Tree.” It would be an attractively arranged bunch of branches from which paper leaves were hung by ribbons. On the leaves, goals, desires, or dreams could be written down with the intention of the growing them into existence.

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magical-treeIt was everything: affordable, meaningful, symbolic, and practical.

I gathered fallen branches in a eucalyptus grove. Then I went to the craft store for the rest of the supplies: florist’s foam, decorative moss, silver spray paint, ribbon, craft paper, permanent markers. I selected silver spray paint and shimmery craft paper to create a magical feel, and then I chose ribbon colors specific to my friends’ personalities. My Buddhist friend would get a purple-ribboned tree in a black mug with an image of Buddha; and my yogini friend would get a aqua-blue ribboned tree in a blue mug with the lord Ganesha, remover of obstacles.

My friends appreciated their gifts, keeping them up for the season and then saving the mug when the branches had served their purpose.

I was so in love with my invention that I made an identical blue tree for myself, and it still stands. My manifestation tree sits on my kitchen table year round, a sort of altar in the my home’s nerve center of growth: the place where I nourish, heal, and warm myself.

I’ve watched as each of the intentions I wrote down manifested one by one. The leaves were a visual reminder of what I wanted in my life, and I believe moved me toward what I wanted. As I identified new goals, I wrote them down and added them to the tree.

Tmanifestation-tree-coverhe tree is rather full now, and I’ve seen most of what I intended come to fruition. This year, I may begin removing the leaves that have manifested to make room for new ones to grow. It seems fitting that these leaves be sent up in fire or stored in a special place.


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I lead Creative Flow: Yoga & Writing in Recreation Park in Long Beach, California, on the first Saturday of the month! Come move and write with us!

A Daily Writing Practice for Busy People

Writing “into the moment” rather than “about the moment” allows you to slow down and appreciate where you are. This practice can help writers be writers. And crazy-busy people be just plain ol’ busy and not so much crazy.

Think of it as a form of meditation. Except that, if you’re a writer, you’re also getting something accomplished and not just sitting there. To do this, you use the five senses to bring yourself fully into your experience. You will see how memory is fed and intuition is fired when you drink in everything deeply through the senses. In your dilated state, fully aware of the gross world, you are attuning your awareness so that it can become increasingly subtle. Writing about the sensory world “the world of the particulars” allows you to really immerse yourself. In meditation, they call this “mindfulness.”

But if you’re a busy person — one who is juggling so many things that it’s hard to slow down like that for big chunks of time — sometimes trying to honor a daily writing practice seems like one more thing to do. And it doesn’t feel urgent, so it gets put off. I know. I’ve been there.

When I was a smoker, even when I was crazy busy working full-time and going to graduate school full time, I used to take 5 minutes to go outside and smoke a cigarette. Suddenly everything just got put on hold for 5 whole minutes. It wasn’t a question of if I would do it. It happened like clockwork. Every hour or two, I’d take those 5 minutes and enjoy the sun on my skin and the wind in my hair. I don’t smoke anymore. But I often take these little breaks anyway.

It’s the perfect time to write about the sun and the wind in just a little writing “quickie.” One that feels like a stolen moment of down time.

Buddhist priest and writer Fiona Robyn calls these short snippets of writing into the moment  “Small Stones.” She says two things define this writing practice: 1) it’s short  and 2)  it preciselystones captures a fully-engaged moment. Writing Small Stones is not only a mindfulness practice, it’s a creative practice that can get you living up to your potential as a writer.

It’s practices like these that help us build a consistent and feel-good writing life that I address in my Wholly Creative writing workshops. If you want to know more about them, you can go here. I have found that writing is my spiritual practice, and it’s important that I do it regularly and often to stay centered and grounded, which translates to sane and happy. If leading and attending workshops is like going to church; small stones are like daily prayers of gratitude. I need both.

These excerpts from well-known poets are fully engaged and small enough to be a small stone. The last one is by Fiona Robyn herself.

William Carlos Williams, From “Paterson: Book I”

nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!

Wallace Stevens, From “Of Mere Being”

The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Dan Oestreich, From “Going to Sleep”

the sound of the creek
just after the rain stopped
trees still drip-dripping
and the clouds starting to break
wide open into
(I remember now)
a kind of blue peace
the still
wide open
unknown

Fiona Robyn, From Small Stones

The sun sags in the sky. Half a lemon sits face down in a puddle, scenting the water with citrus. Everything tightens against the cold.

Take a break right now and write a Small Stone, and then share it in the comments section!

Awakening in the shallow end of paradise

I jogged in place in three-and-a-half feet of cool water, warming my muscles, while I watched the sun stream its golden light into a blue sky and fill the white clouds with iridescence. Foghat pounded from a big, plastic boom box, and I kept pace with the steady, driving beat of “Slow Ride” while the pool filled with bodies.

For the next hour, on the command of the water aerobics instructor, all thirty of us swooshed right and left with the kickboard in our arms or waved our arms overhead and bounced up and down in a series of jumping jacks or whatever it was we were told to do while 100.3 The Sound offered a continuing stream of classic rock.

But my attention was on the sky. Several women also turned away from the instructor and gazed toward the swollen, setting sun as we exercised.

“Beautiful,” said the woman next to me, acknowledging our shared experience.

While we kicked, lunged, jumped, and swooshed, the sky’s blue turned to striated pastels. The clouds became pink and then bruised slowly, first on their bottoms; then the purple seeped up, overtook the pinks, and swallowed the rosy glow in their scalloped tops. Quickly then, purple became ash.

“Such dramatic change,” I thought, my mind turning toward how I often resist and resent change, even when it comes in the span of years rather than a few minutes.

That me – earthbound and limited – seemed foolish and small now to this me, immersed in the pool and expanding awareness. I was more than in the moment.

Time stretched – and I with it – as the music pulled me into a non-specific nostalgia for a past era, the water and movement anchored me in the present, and the trajectory of the sun and its myriad sky effects, still working on the Western horizon, pulled me into the future. I was in five decades at once. Maybe more.

In line waiting to pay admission to the Belmont Pool
Heaven’s waiting room: the view from the line for the Belmont Pool

On my back, I held on to the lane line, scissor-kicking and gazing up into the now blue-black expanse of the sky where time seemed to reach out in all directions. I felt myself move with it, transcending mere presence. Weightless and timeless, I felt myself expanding toward omnipresence.

“This must be what it’s like to be God,” I thought, not with self-importance but with awe.

This side of heaven and still time-bound, class ended at 8. The bodies began to emerge from the pool. While people wrapped themselves in towels, I did a handstand. I turned a few somersaults. I stroked the surface of the radiant blue water, which had become more beautiful now that it twinkled in the pool lights, wanting to stay.

“It’s time,” I thought, making my way toward the steps. My fingers were water-logged. My bladder was full.

Back on the pool deck, I felt a different pull. Gravity.

As I picked up my towel and made my way toward the exit, everything felt twice as heavy as it had before I’d gotten in the pool. And I wasn’t ready to be burdened again – not physically with the weight of the world, nor mentally by the conventions of linear time and thinking.

“Nope,” I thought. “Not yet.”

Tossing my towel toward the bleachers, I took several large and eager steps and plunged back in.