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Through the Looking Glass, Part the Second

For the first part of this story, check out my guest post on The Pagan Princesses where I talk about my first brush with the divine, from the perspective of five years after.

Godess Durga painting

Durga, Mother of the Universe

In recent years, with the advent of my marriage and the birth of my child, it seemed as if I had backslid in my spiritual development. I stopped meditating regularly, and just kind of coasted on the faith of what I had experienced before. But during my pregnancy, and when I was suffering from postpartum depression I felt profoundly isolated and alone; I felt abandoned. I still thought God was there, but it was as if It couldn’t reach me, or I couldn’t hear It.

Now I am again at a crossroads in my life. Stress and questions about my identity have driven me back to meditating, back to actively seeking. Five years have passed since my spiritual awakening, and while I still have faith that what I experienced was authentic, that sense of being connected to the source of being has faded leaving only memories and occasional flashes of insight.

As I rediscover and reconstruct my faith, it is clear to me our experience of the Eternal changes as our lives change. When I had my awakening I was unmarried, childless, and between careers. There was a lot of room for God to slip in and make Itself known to me. The Buddhist practice of non-attachment also seemed to make a great deal of sense when my life was in this in-between place.

Now I am a mother, and am totally, inexorably, tethered to this world and this life by my child. Accepting impermanence is so much harder when there is someone in the world whose existence is so crucial to me. When I first started meditating again, I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult. Why was it so hard to let go of my attachments for a little while and just breathe? It is because there is someone in my life whose breath is more important to me than my own. To get a little Pagan on you, I have passed from the Maiden phase of my life into the Mother phase, which I believe is by its nature profoundly attached. In Buddhism, non-attachment means accepting things like sickness and death. As a mother I find that pretty much impossible. I cling; I worry. I entered this phase relatively late, with a strong sense of identity — which motherhood blew to bits. What is the tradeoff for losing my ability to detach? Love. Mind-bending, terrifying, overwhelming love. The ability to love with a ferocity and depth and selflessness I did not have before becoming a mother. And I think that accepting my love, rather than my fear, is the path I need to follow to reconnect with my Spirit.

As I revisit the teachings that resonated with me before, I am also exploring the polytheistic aspects of Hinduism. The Hindu religion is incredibly diverse and varied. Sri Ramakrishna, a Hindu prophet or “Avatar” from the late 19th century was the father of modern Vedanta. He was one of those people with a direct line to God, which made him a little crazy. He was able to reach the divine through almost any path. He could meditate on Kali, or Christ, or Krishna, or just on the breath itself, and ecstatically merge with God. (He also thought he was a monkey for a while. I’m glad I’m not a prophet.) So as I reconcile myself to the changes that motherhood has brought, I find myself looking more to the Hindu goddesses for identification. In the West, female archetypes are very strictly broken up into Maiden, Mother, or Crone. They tend not to share traits – you are in one phase or the other. Remember when Hillary Clinton got all that flack for not wanting to “stay home and bake cookies”? Our society is not so great at accepting that a powerful, intellectual woman can also be a nurturing, devoted mother.

Saraswati

Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge, Wisdom, and Music

The Hindu goddesses are much more complex. When I contemplate Kali, Durga, or Saraswati, I feel more at peace with the multiplicity of my own experience as a woman. I also have taken some inspiration from the Princesses and spent more time communing with my grandmother who passed away shortly after I was married. I’m learning that fluidity and flexibility are traits of the Goddesses, and my birthright as a woman. I find the fullness of contemplation is as useful as the spaciousness of meditation, and I can pass between them as I wish. Goddesses are all about transformation, and I am starting to allow myself to transform.

I will enter yet another phase of my life in the coming year – I am starting a Doctoral program. And while I can’t always look into the sky and see God, certain things resonate in my body and heart in an unmistakable way. This path, the path of the scholar, feels incredibly right to me. Looking into my daughter’s eyes or holding her hand feels as if a hot, beautiful, painful beam of light is penetrating my heart and connecting me to all the mothers and daughters before me. Meditation soothes my soul helps me be more compassionate.

The emptiness of Shambala doesn’t resonate with me as much as the fullness of Vedanta, although the practice of Shamatha meditation is still a good exercise for my busy mind. The Mother phase of my life seems the most tied to gender. I think God is still speaking to me, but that voice is now more female and urges me to embrace my own womanhood fully. Her voice sounds a lot more like my own. In Hinduism, there is a branch called Shaktism, where the highest form of Brahman stems from the feminine instead of the masculine. It is still practiced widely in India and elsewhere, and I find this idea entrancing. In the end, I hope I can be a little like Ramakrishna – that I can find Spirit through many different paths, depending on where I am in my life. That I can be a little less rigid, and a little more fluid with how I connect to my source, and to the people I love.

New Content! For Realz!

Hey, guess what (all three people who still have this blog in their feed)? I’m going to be blogging again! I’m still doing the food blog thing, which I love, but I have a brain full of thoughts so I I’m going to be back here writing about various stuff on occasion. Spirituality, kids and poop, you name it. And this week I’m going to be a guest blogger on The Pagan Princesses! Woo!

So stay tuned. I may even post pictures and things. It will be crazy!

Not So Neutral

I tend to stay off politics on my blog, mostly. I’m a big fan of dialogue between people with different beliefs. I think that tolerance isn’t really tolerance, unless it includes the people you think are intolerant. As a generally raging liberal, I’m dismayed by the massive generalizations I hear other liberals making about people who don’t vote or philosophize or believe as they do. I can never get my brain around how our generalizations and judgments are less intolerant than the generalizations and judgments of those who have different beliefs than us. You know?

So while I do tend to take a Democrat party line on most issues, I try to listen as much as proselytize. But on one issue I get fairly emotional, and that’s gay marriage. The status of gay people has changed massively in my lifetime. From something that was rarely spoken about when I was a kid, we now have openly gay public figures, and increasingly equal rights for gay partners. I am very happy about this. I’m not happy about the fact that my gay friends and relatives and business associates can’t get married in Texas (and possibly California). That their rights are restricted legally and socially.

Homophobia, like any fear of the “other” is something that tests our humanity daily. As human animals, we fear what we don’t understand or what we perceive threatens us. As human beings, we have the ability to transcend those impulses and connect to our kinship with all humans. (And I can’t personally conceive of a God who doesn’t intend that we do just that.) Our recent election showed us and the rest of the world that human beings can evolve and change. That long held, deep prejudice can be replaced with acceptance and love.

So when someone tells me that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry, or that being gay is a choice, or it’s immoral, I think of the people I love who are gay. I have several close friends who have been essentially married to their partners for a decade or more. So to me, it’s like saying, “Your friend, who is in love and happy and leads a fulfilling life, should to be alone or celibate or should force themselves to be with someone who they can never truly connect to. Your friend doesn’t deserve to be happy because I’m uncomfortable with the fact that they are gay.”

That’s what I hear, and I just can’t stomach it. It’s not a broad social issue to me. It’s about the happiness of the people I love, and a deep sense of confusion about how other people I love would wish such a thing upon them. I know that in most cases homophobia isn’t personal. But for me, it always will be. I’m incredibly lucky to have the happiness and love and acceptance I experience in my marriage, and I can’t conceive of wishing less for anyone else in my life.

Anyway, to wrap up my tirade on a slightly wittier note, here’s an all-star cast from Funny or Die bringing you “Prop 8 – The Musical”:

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Suffering and Compassion

Due to some interesting tricky circumstances in my life of late, I’ve given a lot of thought to who I really am, and what I really have to contribute. Being a business owner takes tremendous energy, and selling my services and expertise takes not only energy, but conviction. Without conviction, it sucks your will to live. Seriously.

For me, conviction comes from being as authentic as humanly possible in how I present myself, what I have to offer, and what I value I believe it brings. Maybe there are people can sell anything to anyone, but I can’t.

Getting to this point is the result of many years of soul-searching, study, and most importantly, making lots and lots of mistakes. Often, those mistakes cause me to suffer. Sometimes things I totally can’t control cause me to suffer. And sometimes my own way of dealing with the world causes me to suffer.

I worry a lot. I worry mostly about how other people feel, and how what I do or say affects them. I worry about the things I can’t control like sickness and death, and the things I can, like money and relationships. Worry is really just another word for fear. I experience fear pretty regularly. Being me, and not anyone else, I have not idea of the amount of fear I feel is “normal” or not. I suspect that feeling it is, but admitting it is not.

I’ve found that some people react badly when I’m transparent about the fact that I experience fear or anxiety. I find this strange. The leaders I most admire are the ones that are open about their frailty, their weaknesses, and their fears. I feel I can trust someone who admits they are human, admits that they make mistakes. I don’t trust the people who say they have the answers to questions that only I can answer for myself, and people who claim to know more about me than I know about myself.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I believe that fear, which is a form of suffering has value. We live in a society where emotions like fear, shame, sadness, and despair are considered undesirable at best. But these emotions are part of the palate of our experience. Imagine if food was only salty or sweet. Would we enjoy a lemon bar if it wasn’t a little sour? Or a grapefruit if it wasn’t a little bitter? If music was only consonant and harmonious, we’d be listening to the Grateful Dead for all eternity, and Stravinsky never would have composed The Rite of Spring (that actually sounds like the third ring of Hell to me).

And so I believe it is with suffering, and yet we brand those who can’t hide or escape their suffering as depressive, codependent, reclusive, or anti-social, as if we ourselves do not all experience those feelings too. How much harder is it then for those who seek help coping with suffering to find the courage to ask? And how narrow is our definition of what is healthy? I sometimes think that while diagnosis of mental disorders is immensely helpful for alleviating suffering, it also has been misused as a way for us to externalize emotions that are inescapable and innate to the human experience.

I’ve run across a number of people in my life who essentially told me that I suffer/think/fear too much, and to get over it (often with dire pronouncements about my fate if I fail to take their advice). And then they told me exactly how to do this (usually by emulating them). I have always found these exchanges disconcerting and kind of scary. I try so hard to be empathetic and open that sometimes I let people in way further than is healthy for me, and when I get scared sometimes I can temporarily lose my ability to draw healthy boundaries.

This has happened a couple times in recent years, and in spite of the fact that I have much better boundaries and self-esteem than I used to, it’s still thrown me for a loop. It’s gotten me thinking about my emotional world and its value to myself and to others. There is no doubt, I tend to worry, and when things upset me I often hang on to them for a while. If I’m feeling anticipatory of some unpleasant event, I’ll imagine possible scenarios even though I can’t predict what is actually going to happen. When something bad happens, I’ll often replay it mentally, imagining how I could have prevented or changed it. When my feelings are hurt, they hurt a lot, and it sometimes takes a while for the physical symptoms to leave my body. Basically, I feel things very strongly.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think that feeling things strongly and struggling with fear is bad or wrong. Is it pleasant? No, not really. But does it have value? Absolutely.

The fact that I struggle with these feelings and behaviors means that I experience them fully. I don’t just taste fear, I chew on it, go for a swim in it, and take it out to the movies. I know the dimensions and colors and smell of my fears, and that means that when I see someone else suffering from fear, I know how hard it is for them, and I also have faith that they can get past it. Because I do, every day. Every time I fully face my fear, or guilt, or shame, or sadness, I get a little nugget of compassion for myself. And those nuggets become the ground upon which I continually realize how little separates me from other people. We all suffer. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is suffering. And without suffering, there would be no compassion, and no joy, and no love.

So the next time someone tells me I’m neurotic, and difficult, and that I should just “get over it” or “let it go”, I’m going to remember all my feelings have value. I’m going to remind myself to have faith in my internal process. That fully experiencing uncomfortable emotions is courageous, not weak. That compassion, one of my core values, means connecting to others through our shared humanity, which includes suffering. And that my ability feel compassion for that suffering is a gift, not a disease.

Spirituality and Chocolate

One of the things that confirmed my former distrust of religion took place when I was in the second grade. My best friend was a little girl who lived near me. She and her parents were very Christian, and my parents were very not. I didn’t ask my friend about what she believed, but I knew that I, and my family, did not hold the same beliefs. My friend decided one day that she couldn’t reconcile the fact that we were best friends and that I didn’t believe in God. She told me that if I didn’t start believing, we couldn’t be friends. With infallible seven-year-old logic, I told her that that was absurd, and it would be like me telling her she had to stop believing to be my friend. This did not go over very well, and we stopped talking for a few days. Her parents subsequently convinced her that she should make up with me and stop pressuring me to have the same beliefs as her.

Until recently, I have steered very clear of discussions pertaining to religion with people who adhere to a specific church. But in the last few months, since my own spiritual awakening, I have cautiously stuck my toe back into the theological discussion pool. This is because my own experience has caused me to reframe how I interpret a lot of my past experiences, and to reconsider the judgments and assumptions I made about others’ beliefs.

The first few discussions I had were very validating and open exchanges with other people whose path to spirituality had also been fairly winding and not always conventional. But more recently I’ve had some conversations with people who are stricter adherents to one specific religion or another, and those conversations have been frustrating and confusing.

Let me preface this by saying that I experience what many call God as a universal consciousness that, if I clear my head enough (or sometimes even if I don’t), I can recognize is part of me, and that I am a very small part of it. The sense of “I” that separates me from everyone and everything else seems less substantial than it used to, and I also am capable of feeling more compassion and acceptance of myself and others than I did previously. Most religions, including Christianity, have something to say about God as the unnameable, unfathomable source of all existence. They also usually say, at some point, that God is love, and that God is accessible to everyone without any external help. So I think that the major religions have much in common, and are different culture’s ways of interpreting what is a universal experience. That is why the same themes, archetypes, and stories show up in totally different regions at different points in history.

So to me, and many others, one religion does not invalidate another. Experiencing a profound sense of connection to the Virgin Mary does not mean that someone who connects to Ganesha is wrong and is worshiping a false God. It just means that the Virgin Mary is a symbol that resonates most closely with your experience of Spirit, while Ganesha is what provides that connection for someone else. Others connect to spirit through nature. Some religions don’t anthropomorphize God at all, claiming that doing so may limit our ability to experience spirit.

The thing that is really giving me trouble these days is this very idea, that one path to spirituality is “better” than the next. And in this age of diversity and political correctness, it is rare that someone would come out and say that their religion is the only way. But I’ve had some conversations lately where that has been the not so subtle subtext.

So substitute “Chocolate” for your specific religious institution of choice, and the conversation goes something like this:

Me: I’ve discovered ice cream lately. Boy, is it great! I’ve tried several flavors, and I like home made vanilla the best so far.

Them: I was raised with Hershey’s chocolate ice cream, and it makes me really happy. I don’t know that much about your vanilla, but I’m sure it’s fine.

Me: I don’t object to chocolate, there are qualities I enjoy, but vanilla is what really works for me. I’ve also tried coffee and pistachio so far. I’m going to try some other flavors too, and see how I like them.

Them: But Hershy’s chocolate is the original flavor, you can’t really like ice cream unless you like chocolate.

Me: Actually, there were flavors before chocolate that shared similar qualities, and all ice cream is made of the same basic components, they just have different flavors.

Them: Just try some more chocolate. I’m sure you’ll come to love it the way I do, and then you’ll understand. All those other flavors are just poor imitations, you can’t really love ice cream unless you love chocolate ice cream.

Me: Check, please.

After a while, I find myself wondering why the fact that a different flavor of ice cream (spirituality) is most appealing to me (after a lifetime of searching for one I like) should be so difficult for someone else to accept. The conclusion I tend to jump to is that the fact that I believe in something that on the surface seems different (or really just less clearly defined and dogmatic) is unsettling to them and may call into question their own beliefs. Which is weird to me, because I can’t imagine telling someone that their connection to God isn’t as strong, or valid, or advanced as my own. That would just be lame. I’m not questioning the validity of their relationship with God, why should they question mine?

And to get back to the chocolate metaphor, who can say what anything in this world smells, tastes, looks or feels like to another. One of my ex-boyfriends was red-green colorblind. He literally and provably saw the world differently than I did. Does that make what he saw a lie? Of course not. What I respond to and how I experience the world is not exactly the same as anyone else, and is not subject to debate. It just is. Perception by its nature can not be anything but individual and subjective.

So I guess I’m a little sad that I haven’t been able to have a more constructive conversation regarding religion so far with people who are less universalist than I am. But I’m also kind of amused that in some ways, those conversations have born a striking resemblance to the one I had with my friend in the second grade. I’m just glad that her parents’ take on their religion left room for people with different views, so we could still be friends.

I told you there'd be more

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is a woman in a film that one of my professors showed us. She had advanced leprosy, had lost facial features and limbs, but when someone asked her how her life was, she said she was full of joy because life was beautiful and God was with her. At the time it was incomprehensible to me, I saw it as delusional – a defense mechanism against the harshness of reality.

But now I think something else entirely. Life can be physically and emotionally ecstatic when we’re connected to ourselves and to our source, and I think that we are capable of remaining connected even when we’re in terrible physical, emotional, or mental pain. Even if my foot is aching, the rest of my body can still feel good. Breathing feels good. My aching foot doesn’t nullify that experience. Some pain is probably more insistent, but I think it’s amazing that this woman whose life was unbelievably terrible by most “standards”, had an ecstatic experience of life.

I think that pain is most frightening when we are cut off from our source (which I can only reach from within myself) and feel totally alone. Some people find that suffering strips them of belief – if God loves them, why do the innocent suffer?

Innocent or not, I have experienced emotional and mental pain, all the more because I didn’t believe in anything beyond my awareness. For me the key word is “believe”. I did not reach this different place in my spiritual journey by changing my beliefs. My experience of existence changed. I don’t believe in God, I am experiencing God. For me, experience is not contingent upon a belief or lack of belief. Hopefully this means that as my awareness expands, I don’t have to fight my own self-imposed boundaries. I don’t believe, I experience. That means I also don’t have to argue with anyone else about the validity of my experience, since it’s entirely subjective. If I share my experience, some people will find it interesting, some will label me deluded, and with others it will resonate. This doesn’t change my experience, and it is not meant to change anyone else’s.

All the same, I wonder if belief is easier to maintain during difficult times. I’m finding that when I’m stressed out or depressed, my connection to spirit is tenuous at best. I find myself grasping, trying to re-capture the sense of happiness and peace I’ve experienced lately. It turns out that a shift in my perspective does not obliterate all of my baggage in one fell swoop. Damn.

Instead of grasping, I’m trying to remember a few basic things: I can only find peace within myself, it does not come from externalities. I don’t have to cling to suffering, I can let it go when it’s told me whatever it’s there to convey. I can let go of the illusion that I can control things that I cannot. The ego is a tricky thing — it sneaks back into the equation when you’re not looking, and convinces you that your limited awareness is the sum of reality.

Last week I got into Baylor Law School for the spring. My ego, tricky little bastard that it is, told me that this meant I was destined to go there, and that everything was working out because of my newfound spiritual resonance. Silly rabbit. Then I found out that Baylor was giving me exactly nothing in scholarships, and to pay for it I would have to max out my student loans for thee years and take out additional supplemental loans. The degree would cost me 90k. Suddenly Baylor did not look like my pre-destined path. And my ego decided that it must be because I did something wrong – didn’t study for the LSAT enough, got over-confident. It felt like my fate was rejecting me, and it stung.

But here’s the thing: it’s always a trap when you think good things happen to you because you’re good, and bad things happen to you (or someone else) because you (or they) are bad. If the Universe is guiding us through multiple incarnations to enlightenment, as the Upanishads say, or God has a plan, as many Christians believe, the point is we’re really not going to see the point when we’re up close to it. Our egos like to feel like they understand, that they’re in some kind of control, but they’re not. My ego wanted to believe that Baylor was the plan, because my ego really dislikes the unknown, but the flip side of that over simplification is the emotional smackdown I end up taking when things do not go as I desire them to. I feel that, as the Upanishads say, God or Self is beyond duality, and our egos are all about duality. Something I need to remember the next time I convince myself that suffering=punishment and pleasure=reward.

Pema Chodron says that life is a big, smelly, interesting mess of experiences, and that none of them, whether they are pleasant or painful, are intrinsically bad. They’re just the stuff of life. Literally.