Deep sleep. An initial sound arises out of the pool of Stillness. At first, there is nothing other than this sound appearing from and disappearing back into Stillness. Then thoughts slowly begin to arise and pass, providing meaning to the sound. It is the voice of a young man yelling throughout the neighborhood in the early morning hour, showing off to the world a sense of self-importance. Beneath this bragging, larger ripples cascade across the pool of Stillness: immense pain, profound mournful yearning, craving for completion, utter worthlessness, loneliness, despair.
Each of us knows this primal wound. No matter how many layers of distraction we build over this wound, we cannot escape our innate longing to return Home, our yearning for the Supreme Love from which all form arises. This innate longing is our most precious gift from the Divine—without it, we would never be able to return Home. On the path of devotion we ride this longing like a surfer on a wave, following its course as it naturally brings us back Home. Each of us simply wants to be happy.
This yearning to return Home occurs in each instant as form arises out of Stillness and then recedes back into Stillness. Each beat of our heart expresses this ongoing Dance of form and Stillness. Sensation of the beat arises, is recognized as nothing but a creation arising out of the Divine, and then disappears back into the Space of Stillness until the next beat arises. How amazing! How utterly beautiful! This is the Bliss of which we are spectators. The Divine, like an artist painting a picture, simply creates form to reflect back at Itself, only to say, "I see You and I love You." Love is indeed Truth in action.
Every one of our thoughts arises and passes like a beat of our heart. We are this Process. We are this Dance. We cannot escape It! And who makes this heart beat? Not us! We are at its mercy. At any moment, our heart could stop and this occurrence of a separate self wrapped up in a body-mind matrix would end. This entire display of form and Stillness of which we are a mere audience would disappear back into Eternal Stillness until the beginning of the next show.
Yet, we take each thought and wrap it into a story of "I" which we believe to be real. We miss the simplicity of each instant, each beat and silence of our heart, each thought display and thought disappearance. We lose track of the simple reality that we are nothing other than this wondrous Dance. We lose our real Home and fall into the fixation of a separate self that is divorced from an objective world. We become the lonesome knight clad in heavy armor, fighting against the world. We realize something vital is missing and go into despair and look out into this objective world for something to fill this fundamental wound of our disconnection. We build layer upon layer of thought stories over this wound. Suddenly we are the young man in the street boasting of our self-importance, protecting what we believe to be "mine," mesmerized by our fixation with objects. We overlook the more basic, and stronger, undertow beneath this false sense of self-importance—the loneliness and the longing that our primal wound reflects. We fall into a state of delusion.
In essence, the path of devotion starts here—tapping into this yearning for the Love and Eternal Happiness that we know we are missing. We cannot pursue a path of devotion back to the Divine until we experience this longing deep within our heart. Once we know this yearning, once we get a taste of the Love that we are missing, we can use it as the fuel for our path. When we tap into this fuel, we can use it like a magnet to be drawn quickly back to the Beloved. As Paramahansa Yogananda of the Hindu tradition said,
If the Lord once tempted you with His love, you would want nothing more.1
But our taste of the Divine—assuming we have savored Its sweetness—is only a first step. Just like learning to appreciate an unfamiliar food, we need to cultivate this taste until it becomes our preference over our habitual fixation on objects. In our deluded condition, our attention is constantly focused on objects, seeking each arising form as something to satisfy our sense of a separate, fixated self. We are like a broken record, skipping over the same tune segment, seeking fulfillment from the same thought stories, always seeking the next object or experience to make us happy. We are hopelessly lost in this habit throughout the day, from the moment we wake up in the morning until we drift off into sleep at night, lost in our meandering thoughts. If we could simply stop and see that we are already the Love in which all this takes place, the delusion would be over. We would wake up. Unfortunately, most of us do not know how to just stop.
So, what is the solution? Since we are already in the habit of focusing on objects, we simply take this habit and redirect our focus toward an image of the Divine. It could be a sense of Presence hovering around us, an image of an incarnation of God (such as Krishna, Jesus, or the Guru), or whatever most nearly reminds us of our taste of the Divine. We use the fuel of our craving and longing for this image to focus our attention, breaking attention free from seeking all other objects. We surrender to this image and focus our attention on it ceaselessly, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Riding the wave of yearning, our attention becomes one-pointed. All we want is the Beloved. There is immense power in this practice. Most of us have been romantically in love with another person, and we know how overwhelming our devotion and love for the other person can be (at least in the early phases of the love affair until we realize that not even our beloved partner can ultimately give us complete happiness). We use this same energy to bring us back to the Divine.
It's not surprising, then, that we find as a common thread across religious traditions the practice of saying a sacred word or mantra both in meditation and throughout daily activity. In Hinduism this practice is called japa, in Islam it is called dhikr, and Christians call it unceasing prayer in the heart. We choose a sacred word or phrase that brings to mind our sense of the Beloved and we use this as our object of concentration. We mentally say our sacred word repeatedly. When we are distracted by thoughts or other phenomena, we simply return to the sacred word. We say the sacred word with love, devotion, and reverence. We surrender to the sacred word because it points us to our Beloved. In daily activity we continue to say the sacred word. Our sacred word becomes our anchor.
In addition, we serve our Beloved in all situations. We become a slave to our Beloved. We talk to our Beloved. For instance, throughout the day, when we need to make a choice to resolve a problem we might ask, "What is it that You want in this situation?" Or we might say, "I will act and I will think, but guide my acting and thinking." We experience what the Christian monk Brother Lawrence experienced when he said,
Sometimes I think of myself as a piece of stone before a sculptor who desires to carve a statue; presenting myself in this way before God I ask him to fashion his perfect image in my soul, making me entirely like Himself.2
So, like Brother Lawrence, we meet each situation throughout our day with willingness instead of our habitual willfulness. Instead of choosing what we want, we look at each situation globally and ask, "What does my Beloved want?" More than likely, half of the time what we want will correspond to what our Beloved wants, and we will be happy and joyful and be thinking, "It's so easy and wonderful to be following my Beloved's will." Do we grasp at these situations and the pleasant emotions that accompany them, or is our experience that of an empty mirror of surrender, a silent vessel of expression of the Beloved? The other half of the time, what our Beloved wants will be completely opposite to what we want. Do we avoid these situations and the unpleasant emotions that accompany them or do we, again, become an empty mirror of surrender? Can we fully open and surrender our hearts equally in all situations to what our Beloved wants? Are we at all times an empty vessel through which our Beloved moves?
If we are sincere and surrender completely to our practice, our lives begin to transform—first in small ways and then in larger ways that are beyond our comprehension. Bliss may start to arise spontaneously for no clear reason whatsoever, even in what we may have previously considered adverse situations. For instance, we may be in the midst of a frenzy at work. Our co-workers are all upset about a mistake we made that is costing thousands of dollars and destroying everyone's working lives. We are at the center of blame for the entire problem, because the truth of the matter is we had a major role in making the mistake. We are the center of attention and the situation is not good. We feel the emotions of worthlessness, despair, fear, or other negativity. Rather than escaping the situation and these feelings, or attempting to cast blame toward someone else, we open our heart to these feelings and say to our co-workers, "Yes, I made a big mistake and accept full responsibility for this mistake." We meet the situation with willingness and become flooded in its complete turbulence—but without resistance. We become the clear mirror of our Beloved's expression.
For some inexplicable reason, even in the midst of these terrible circumstances and emotions, in our willingness we may feel a sweet sense of bliss pervading the entire scene as we ceaselessly devote our attention to our sacred word and our Beloved. Where is this bliss coming from? It is Love in action, or form arising out of Stillness; it is the Divine saying, "I see You, and I am You. I am both this continual pool of Stillness and the waves of experience arising out of this Stillness." Life begins to appear miraculous, lovely, and fresh, no matter what the nature of its content. Life begins to move us, rather than us moving life. We start to know directly the meaning of this verse from an old Hindu Bengali chant: "The Life of my life is You."
Notice here that, while our motive is to love and serve out of yearning for our Beloved, we do not suppress our other emotions—we feel these expressions of the Divine ever more fully. This is one of the pitfalls of a path of devotion. Too many devotees gloss over their emotions—especially negative ones—by masking them and thinking they are practicing correctly by surrendering their emotions to God, when, in fact, they are avoiding these emotions through suppression and ignorance. For instance, suppose someone insults us and we feel anger. Rather than avoiding the anger by saying to ourselves, "That's okay, I surrender this to my Beloved," we can fully surrender to that experience of anger and allow it to simply run through us as an expression of the Divine. When we do this, amazing things are revealed. For instance, as we open to the expression of anger, a sense of worthlessness may arise. So then we open to our experience of worthlessness as an expression of the Divine. As we surrender into worthlessness, despair and loss of all hope may arise. Underneath this may be a fear of death. How interesting! From anger we went to fear of death, which is love or protection of self.
Once again, we returned to love. Beneath all emotions there is love, love being the root of all emotions. And why is this? Because our one true desire is to be happy and at peace, even if we have to be in misery to obtain this happiness and peace. Moreover, this desire for happiness and peace is really a reflection of our yearning to return to our Beloved. So we take each situation and its accompanying emotion, surrender into it, find our yearning for love behind the emotion and situation, and direct this yearning back to our Beloved. In short, we transmute everything into our love and devotion for the Divine. At the same time, we experience everything fully as an empty vessel of the Divine; we become that piece of stone that the Divine Sculptor is carving.
As we proceed in our practice, though, we need to drop even our yearning for this Love and Bliss we are beginning to feel, because in essence we are nothing but Love Itself. How can we ever catch Love when we already are this Love? We must let go of everything, including even our desire to surrender to God. This is where the path of devotion gets difficult. We were able to get past our habitual tendency toward seeking objects as the source of our happiness by funneling all our attention, energy, and desire into our image of our Beloved and the beautiful gifts of love, contentment, and bliss that our Beloved bestowed upon us as a result of our devotion. Now we need to let go of our Beloved, even if this letting go makes the Beloved seem far away and we sink into hopelessness, despair, or fear.
So, our next step—once our attention is focused—is to drop our sacred word and yearning for the Beloved and to simply abide in Love Itself, or the Stillness that is there between each beat of our heart. We surrender to this Stillness and simply attend unceasingly to whatever type of form, however attractive or repulsive, arises. As lovers attending and surrendering to everything in Stillness, whether in meditation, in the midst of daily activity, eating, dreaming, or sleeping, we become, as the Sufi Ibn 'Arabi so exquisitely puts it,
...like the clear and pure glass goblet which undergoes constant variation according to the variation of the liquid within it. The color of the lover is the color of the Beloved.3
Form being the color of the liquid and Stillness being the Goblet or the Beloved, we simply attend, even if the story of "I" colors the liquid. There is nothing left for us to do.
Whereas at first it seemed that we were the turning force behind our lives, now the Beloved turns us. Where do we end and the Beloved begin? We fall into Love Itself. We do less than nothing and the Beloved carries us, like a mother holding her newly born infant, casting Her ray of light on all our dark shadows and transforming them into a delicious sweetness. Grace takes over.
And if we truly become naked, if we completely fall into Stillness, if we remain as the Goblet accepting whatever color or liquid appears, an amazing thing happens—our Beloved reveals Herself. We see all along that we were looking right at Her. We see Her playing in Her Divine Dance of Love as the breeze blows through the leaves of the trees against the horizon, as the richness of a chirp of a bird arises out of and sinks back into the space of Stillness, as one thought arises and completes itself going back into the perfection of thoughtless clarity. We see that this path of devotion, this intense yearning for Love, was unnecessary because—all along— we were Love Itself. Yet, we see how utterly perfect our path of devotion and even our own misperception was. We would not change one piece of the entire story. Why would we want to, and how could we?
We are the Divine Goblet with its endless array of colors—even when it manifests as a young adult hiding from pain through boastfulness in the early morning hours. We realize that we ever-always are nothing other than Love Itself. There never was and never will be any other thing that we will ever need or want. Through the grace of the Beloved, our misperception, or clay, is transformed into Truth, or the Beloved's gold. All along, this clay was simply covering the gold. As prodigal children, we return to our one true Eternal Home.
- Tom Kurzka, Center Voice: Winter-Spring, 2003. Tom Kurzka is affiliated with the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.
1. Paramahansa Yogananda, Man's Eternal Quest (Los Angeles, CA: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1975), 195.
2. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, trans. Salvatore Sciurba (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1994), 54.
3. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989), 109.