(Now available from Sounds True Publishing)
As we begin to recognize our I AMness, we learn to let go of how we think it’s all supposed to be—family, friends, and work—and instead allow life to do its thing without our need to be the director in every given moment. This leads to a tremendous experience of freedom and spaciousness. Who couldn’t use more of that? I’m grateful that, often, I’m actually capable of pulling this off, of stepping aside and allowing for a greater wisdom to guide me. I’d also be completely full of shit if I pretended there weren’t still plenty of days that I fell entirely short as well.
In the last chapter, I mentioned how I sometimes feel inadequate as a writer, and there were certain times while I was writing this book that were no exception. I watched myself force words, feeling like I just needed to get something written rather than allow the thoughts and ideas to flow naturally. The result? Well, besides countless moments of highlighting and deleting sentences and paragraphs, I also got a bit frustrated, possibly to the point where I may have contemplated throwing my computer out of the window.
I know a part of that is because I find a false sense of security in the illusion of control. I act as if it’s something tangible, something to grasp and call my own. When, of course, it’s not. Sure, it feels safe and familiar, but the truth is, trying to be the director of all of life’s unfolding’s leaves me completely out of balance.
When I become aware that I’m trying to force things and be in control, I step back for a moment to regroup. I focus on my breath while resting in a place of both letting go and of anchoring. Then, I find myself in a place of peace and equanimity. I rest there for another moment before opening my eyes, and when I do, I generally feel much better, lighter, and more open. It’s like a story Ram Dass told about a teaching his guru, Neem Karoli Baba (or Maharajji, as he was also affectionately known), gave to him while he was in India. Maharajji’s teaching was to “tell the truth, love everyone, serve everyone, and remember God.” Ram Dass distilled this down to “Love. Serve. Remember.”—a teaching that has had a profound impact on my life.
One of the many reasons I find this teaching so important and beneficial is because it helps take me out of the director’s chair and, instead, turn my focus toward the well-being of others, which, as you will see, actually includes ourselves as well.
Okay, so at first glance you may be thinking something like, “Love everyone? Bullshit.” You’d be correct, because it’s virtually impossible to love everyone, especially when we’re coming from the place of ego (which is where we experience most of our days). A healthy ego balances its natural instinct for self-preservation with the well-being of others. That’s great; but for many of us, our ego isn’t balanced. It is rooted in separation, differences, judgments, and opinions. When we’re looking at life through that lens, the things we don’t like about others—appearances, musical tastes, speech, mannerisms, ad infinitum—are all blatantly obvious, thus creating an imaginary boundary that closes them off from us. When we let go of being who we think we are, and stop labeling and judging others for who we think they are, then who we all really are shines through.
So, who are we really? We are the loving awareness that is ever present. We are I AMness. We are Everything Mind. This underlies our thoughts of who others are and who we are at all times. One way of deepening our experience of being loving awareness is to simply place our awareness in our spiritual hearts (the place in the middle of our chest we point to when addressing ourselves) and repeat to ourselves “I am loving awareness” as we go about our days, using it as a mantra that roots us. With practice, we embody this place of witnessing that is nothing but loving awareness so that anything entering that awareness is loved.
Ram Dass talks about his struggle with “loving everyone” while he was in India, and how Maharajji helped remedy it by saying, “Love everyone, there is only one. Sub ek—it’s all one, just love everyone. See God everywhere. Just love everyone. Don’t get angry. Ram Dass, don’t get angry. Love everyone, tell the truth, love everyone, don’t get angry.” So whether I’m watching KRS-One drop knowledge on the mic, or Sarah Palin in one of her nonsensical rants, I do my best to try to look deeper, to “see God everywhere” as Maharajji said. In a Buddhist context, we could also say: become aware of the emptiness of all things that have dependently arisen. This is Everything Mind—seeing and experiencing the interconnectedness, the Oneness, of all beings and of all things.
“Love everyone, there is only one.” We do our best to do just that, but not in some lovey-dovey, rainbows and unicorns kind of way. Just because we’re working with a practice like loving awareness doesn’t mean we’re always going to feel that way. In the Suicidal Tendencies song “You Can’t Bring Me Down,” Mike Muir sings, “Yea maybe sometimes I do feel like shit. I ain’t happy ’bout it, but I’d rather feel like shit than be full of shit!” It’s not that feeling like shit is something to be glorified, but it is just as real a part of the process as the loving awareness aspect, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make you any less spiritual if you’re feeling like shit. Actually, if you’re aware that you’re feeling like shit and doing something constructive to work through it, it doesn’t get much more spiritual than that.
We sit in meditation and work with the “I am loving awareness” mantra. We work on seeing a piece of our self, our true Self, not only in other people, but also in the totality of life itself. Don’t come down on yourself if there are times when you’re not able to do it. Just be real about it and let it unfold naturally.
With dedicated practice, it gets easier; it becomes more of a natural state, and one that I can honestly say is worth spending the time to cultivate. I still fall short a lot of the time and occasionally beat myself up over it. However, the times when I am in the place of loving awareness, the place where I am able to love others unconditionally, I feel nothing short of grace personified in my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
This one can also be tough when taken at face value, but when we remember Maharajji’s words, “Sub ek—it’s all one,” this seemingly impossible task becomes much more feasible. We can start small with something as simple as a guided meditation on mindful awareness or coming home to our breath, because each moment we spend calming our minds helps connect us back to the place where everything is One. (The wonderful author and teacher Tara Brach has an extensive library of guided meditations at her website.) It’s in a simple act such as this—dedicating some time out of our day to consciously come back to the place of interconnectivity with all beings—that we’re serving all beings by serving our true Self.
Being of service to others in the world is just as important as “loving everyone.” And I’d recommend each of us makes it a regular part of our lives. Being of service to others is also known as karma yoga, which is an important part of the spiritual path because, as we give of ourselves to others, we’re simultaneously cultivating the experience of “no us” and “no them,” which turns into an experience in which it’s all just God serving God. I can’t stress enough how powerful karma yoga can be in helping us dismantle our ego nature. Being of service to others, with an attitude of love and gratitude for nothing more than the simple fact that we’re able to be of service in the first place, is a tremendously inspired and loving experience.
No matter what spiritual tradition you’re a part of, being of service is a universally applicable form of spiritual practice. Hell, even if you don’t care about traditional spirituality in the first place, being of service simply for the benefit of humanity as a whole is huge. This is a quality inherent in most human beings, but one often dormant until called upon. For example, just look at the times when there’s a natural disaster or a terrorist attack or any other number of horrors that happen on a daily basis throughout the world. What’s the way most people respond? By helping. By doing whatever they can in the moment, whether it’s digging people out of rubble, tending wounds, or giving away food and water. It’s as if something just naturally guided them to be of service in that moment, to help others, strangers or not. I’d call that something Everything Mind.
The person we’re working diligently to pull out of the rubble after a tornado, a tsunami, or a bombing may have been someone who, only moments earlier, we would have given the stink eye to, based on nothing more than social, political, or religious differences. In the face of disasters, tragedies, and life and death, trivial differences fly right out the window, and our instinct is to help, regardless of whether we consider ourselves spiritual or not.
In his book The Hope, the brilliant mystic Andrew Harvey writes:
I respect—even revere—anyone who wants to help
others, whatever his or her faith or lack of it. In fact, I
have always felt a lot more at home with people who
don’t give a fig for any kind of conventional religion
or even “spirituality,” but who do something practical
to help others, than with so-called seekers who quote
from the Dhammapada and the “Little Flowers of Saint
Francis” with eyes raised to heaven and do nothing to
help anyone. As for those who use a debased and narrow
understanding of karma or of “divine order” to justify
doing nothing in the face of the troubles of our time, I
have to pray for grace so as not to want to hit them on
the head with a saucepan. Give me an atheist activist
over a smug and passive so-called seeker any day.
God bless Andrew Harvey and his wit, which he uses to make an excellent point. What good are all the spiritual practices, phrases, and niceties if we’re keeping them only for ourselves or for the few people in our tribe, our sangha, our church, and so forth? There are many “nonspiritual” people out there embodying true spirituality by offering their selfless services to others, maybe even more so than people who consider themselves “spiritual” but who are focused only on self-improvement. There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, but if that’s the only focus of our practice, what’s really happening is that we’re improving our ego’s version of our spiritual self; and our ego, being the great manipulator that it is, can, and will, keep us locked in that cycle until the day we die if we allow it to.
When we are of service to others—whether it’s volunteering at a soup kitchen or nursing home, speaking at a detox or rehab, or organizing food drives for those less fortunate—and doing so in the spirit of selflessness, we’re taking ourselves out of the equation and, instead, merging with God’s nature in all beings and things. True selfless service means you aren’t doing shit. You are not handing a homeless person a piece of bread, God is offering God a piece of God. Sub ek—it’s all one.
Of Maharajji’s teachings, I think this one is the easiest to grasp. All manifest things in life are born out of a vast, perfect, empty stillness, and thus, at their core, all share the same inherent nature. As we look out at trees, cars, animals, instruments, books, people, and highways, keeping in mind that it’s all born from the same vast emptiness, we’re able to see everything as an integral part and extension of God. And it’s in this way of seeing that we’re able to embrace God in all things and at all times, for God (as you choose to understand Him, Her, It) is just as much in a garbage can as in Christ Jesus, Henry Rollins, Frida Kahlo, PJ Harvey, Buddha, Carrie Brownstein, Christopher Walken, Kuan Yin, Muhammad, Chuck D, Chelsea Wolfe, or Thich Nhat Hanh.
Regarding God, the Indian poet-saint Kabir wrote:
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
Not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around
your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—
You will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
And after those beautifully precise words, I believe there’s nothing more to say, with the exception of one final reminder that sub ek—it’s all one or, in the spirit of this book, it’s all Everything Mind.