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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Writing (and everything else) is a Spiritual Experience; or, a Rock Can Inspire a Dream

Just about anything you devote yourself to will lead you to spiritual wisdom if you let it.

For instance, much has been written about the spirituality of baseball (click for a rabbi’s take on it). You’ve probably heard of  the zen of motorcycle maintenance (here’s Forbes take on it). There’s even the tao of comedy (this lady’s killing it with this approach).

My creativity altar
My creativity altar

For me, writing has provided the spiritual adventure of a lifetime. It’s been the impetus for leaving bad relationships, for understanding the nature of love, for coping with trauma, for creating community, for taking up exercise, and for getting sober. While I was a columnist, writing was also a sort of therapy, connecting me with the outside world in a way that made me get out of my emotional pain — rather than looking inward, I had to look out and around. It was one thing that helped me not collapse into despair.

So while lots of wonderful people go to a sanctuary of some religious affiliation to get their spiritual experience, I get mine by showing up for my writing practice. I can tell how “spiritually fit” I am by looking at my relationship with my creativity. Am I disciplined and showing up regularly? Am I showing up with reverence for the “magic” that happens when I get in the zone? Am I humble when I am blocked or uncertain? Am I loving and accepting of myself and my work when it isn’t awesome?

I used to think that my writing career as a columnist and poet was a measure of my awesomeness: my drive, my talent, my connections. When I got stuck or I failed, I was full of self hate and shame. I’ve learned over the years that my intellect is not “mine” (I was just born with that innate intelligence into a family that nurtured it), my talent is not mine (again, I’ve nurtured it, but the aptitude was inherent), my will is not “mine” (all the energy I derive for that will power comes from food and air and lessons others taught me), and my love of writing is not “mine” either (many people share this love).

Oddly, before I really did some spiritual growth, I used to brush off my successes (“Of course I’m a columnist, I’m good at writing! That’s not really an achievement!”) and really focus on my failures.  I’ve learned that I can celebrate success, but I have to give credit to EVERYthing that contributed (thanks Air! thanks, Food! thanks, Mom and Dad! thanks, Editors! thanks, neighbors for shutting up often enough for me to get work done!). To me this “EVERYthing” is a lot like what people talk about when they talk about ONEness, or how everything is one.

This also gave me a new relationship with the “f” word — failure. It’s not all on me. A host of factors play into my non-success. I’ve learned to interpret these occasions as an opportunity to renew my commitment to my craft or project, to exercise my humility, and to contribute to creative growth as I try again but in a different way.

Writing is not my religion, but it is my practical approach to spirituality. Instead of telling me the WHAT of spirituality (which is what religion does in its dogma–its code of beliefs), it has shown me the HOW. For me, that’s a wonderful approach because the HOW is inclusive of people of all faiths (or none at all), while the WHAT is exclusive to a specific religion. We also could use more practical spirituality in our everyday lives.

I used to be entirely pragmatic with no “trimmings”; however, now I see the value in creating altars and practicing rituals to support my creaIMG_3654tivity. As a pragmatist, I put my altar on the bookcase in the living room beneath the wall-mounted TV, where my focus naturally rests when I’m sitting on the couch, where I often write.

I have an image of the Hindu goddess Saraswati (she rules creativity and intellect), some candles, flowers, and a stone printed with the question “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I often light the candles as I hope to spark some new idea or let creativity shine. I look to the water (in the vase and in the Saraswati image) as a reminder to let things flow and not to be too rigid.  The flowers remind me of the organic cycles of creativity (not always blossoming). And the stone I will often pick up and hold in my hands because grounds me as much as it reminds me to invest in what I really love and to dream bigger.

I’ll be leading a FREE webinar on Practical Magic for Writers. Join me and learn more about simple practices to infuse your writing life with joy, inspiration, and vitality.