To The Zoo Fence: Why are we here? Is there a purpose to life?
Our response: Your question goes to the heart of it all. Our answer, in a word: To know God. Which requires, to know one’s self. Which, in our experience, is to become a seeker, to undertake a spiritual path, a sadhana.
What path to take will vary with each of us. It may be active or contemplative; for example, in Christian terms “Mary” or “Martha”, and in the Hindu tradition, karma yoga or jnana yoga or bhakti yoga, and so on. Whatever it is, do it with enthusiasm, confidence, and earnestness.
But, and here’s the inevitable paradox, do it without purpose.
That is, be a seeker “simply because I am a seeker”, not for any other reason, not with any anticipation of accomplishment, not for any expectation of reward. To do otherwise reinforces our current separative egoic condition (”I am me, and you aren’t”), the sense that we would rather be at some “there” than “here”. And in a Universe in which God, the Infinite One, is all there is, any sense of preference (”better me than you, better that than this”) clouds our knowing.
Thus, to achieve our purpose we must commit ourselves to it while at the same time we must abandon it. Seek without seeking any thing, know without knowing any thing, be without being any thing.
In the end, your question elicits a koan: What is the purpose of a purposeless purpose?
To The Zoo Fence:What’s the point of meditation?
Our response: There are probably as many answers to your question as there are spiritual traditions, as there are teachers.
The egoic body/mind perspective that defines (limits) us by its perception that “I am me, and you aren’t” is the product (or the symptom) of our thoughts, memories, and expectations. To paraphrase Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), we think, and therefore we seem to be.
That is what generates our sense of being separate and apart from one another, from everything else, from God, even from life itself. Our thinking convinces us we are some body in a Universe in which there is no such thing as “a body”, in a Universe in which there is only one, the One. (For more about this general idea, please see “The Simple Way”.)
The practice of meditation can help to extricate us from that position. As a spiritual practice, meditation is intended to focus and then to quiet the mind, and eventually to silence it altogether. There, what we perceive as many (me-you-them, these-those, now-then, here-there) is known to be One, the One. Truly being there, spontaneously and effortlessly, is Self-Realization, the goal of virtually every spiritual tradition.
That said, consider this. To the extent that we assign a purpose and a goal to our meditation practice, it will almost certainly fail, because our desire and ambition to achieve our objective will keep the mind active and thinking (measuring, comparing, anticipating). So, perhaps the best bet is not to think of meditation as having a point. Instead, think of it as being the one truly, wholly pointless thing you do.
Sitting still, doing nothing, for no particular reason, as long as it takes.
To The Zoo Fence: I don’t understand your maxim, “I don’t know, and I can’t find out”. The first part is okay, but if we cannot “find out”, then what is the point of being a seeker?
Our response: In the end, that’s the real question, isn’t it!
Here’s the thing. Who is it that wants to know? Who is it that can’t find out? Who is it that seeks? Surely, it is the separative “I” that each of us perceives ourselves to be (”I am me, and you aren’t”), and which lives in its own separative environment (”my life, not your life”).
That’s the “I” we perceive ourselves to be when we set out on the path, and that’s the “I” we perceive ourselves to be as long as we perceive ourselves to be some body. It is that “I” that is the seeker, the “I” that seeks to know and to achieve Self-Realization.
But it will never succeed.
The separative “I” cannot know Self-Realization, and cannot be Self-Realized. It can imagine self-realization, it can theorize self-realization, and it can believe it will someday achieve self-realization. Indeed, if it were unable to do so, none of us would ever become seekers, for surely it is the hope of accomplishment that drives us on. But, in the end, the separative “I” cannot go where there is no room for “me, not you”, but space only for One.
Here, consider the image common to many traditions of water contained by a sieve. As long as the sieve remains in place, the water can never “know” its identity with the surrounding ocean, for the sieve creates the illusion of a separate identity (”I am the water inside the sieve, not the water outside the sieve”). The instant the sieve is removed, the “contained” water seems “re-united” with the ocean, but simultaneously, it ceases to exist as “contained” water, so there is no “contained” water left to realize the transformation. There is no “contained” water to observe “I am re-united” (realized). And in the end we observe there really never was any “contained” water, just the appearance (illusion) of contained water.
So, do we seek in vain? Clearly, the “I” we perceive ourselves to be, does. But if whatever there is, and whatever we perceive ourselves to be, and wherever we perceive ourselves to be, are all part of a Single Whole (”There is no God but God, and God is All There Is”), then the separative “I”, the illusion, the seeking, the Realization, and all the rest, are perfectly flowing, perfectly being, perfectly perfect; so the question again becomes, who cares!
To The Zoo Fence: The endless news of terrorism and war makes me very sad. What do you think an individual seeker can do about these kinds of problems that plague the world?
Our response: It is true, the world seems a particularly sorry place these days. On the other hand, we wonder if it has not seemed so to all generations throughout history.
All the same, each of us perceiving it today can barely escape the sense that there must be “something” we can do, something we should do, and so, depending upon our skills and our means and our circumstances, we do what we can.
On the other hand, in words found throughout The Zoo Fence, as seekers we know somehow that to change the outer (the world) we must change the inner (our self-perception).
After two-plus decades on the spiritual path, it is clear to us that the world you and we perceive is not “out there” but our selves seen outwardly. And that includes the body each of us seems to be inhabiting, as well as the personality each of us considers to be “me, not you”. And the only way to change any of that meaningfully and lastingly is from the inside out.
So, our suggestion to you is, first, follow your instincts, and do for the world on the outer what you are moved and able to do. Any other course will only make you more uncomfortable, which accomplishes nothing. But all the while, remain true and committed to your chosen path, seeking self-awareness and awakening, ever enthusiastically confident that somehow somewhere sometime, in a way you and we cannot predict, generate, or even understand, you will know your self and the world as they are in Truth, which will free you and the world simply to be, beyond fear and anger and disappointment and conflict and frustration and regret and desire.
To The Zoo Fence: You mentioned the value of “seeking holy company” — that is, being in the presence of other people who are also trying to live a spiritual life, or better yet, of a Teacher. But such people are hard to find.
Our response: Make your yearning known to the Universe — in your prayers and meditation, and by the evidence of your daily activities — and the Teacher will find you. But try not to predetermine what he or she will look like or sound like, otherwise you will surely miss the first couple of passes. In fact, you may have already done so! We all do.
While you are waiting, bring some Teachers into your home in the form, say, of books by or about them, such as: JESUS THE SON OF MAN by Kahlil Gibran, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A YOGI by Swami Yogananda, FRANCIS OF ASSISI by C. K. Chesterton, KRISHNAMURTI by Pupul Jayakar, THE GOSPEL OF SRI RAMAKRISHNA edited by Swami Nikhilananda. Having those folks as house guests will surely lift your spirit. And keep alert for activities at local churches and other, similar organizations. Don’t worry too much about the form those take. Instead, listen for a heartbeat.
To The Zoo Fence: Your response to the [preceding] letter about “holy company” sounds like you’re saying the Teacher any of us finds must be a living human being. Why do you exclude Teachers who have died? Like Ramana Maharshi, or even Jesus?
Our response: There is no such thing as a dead Teacher, and both Jesus and Ramana Maharshi (among many others) make that point day after day. No Teacher is the body he or she may seem to be inhabiting, anymore than you and I are. When the body dies (as does everything which is born, death being the opposite of birth, not of life, which has no opposite), the Teacher seems to us to die, too. But that is only because we perceive everything through the body’s physical senses which detect only physical activity. So, we make a fuss over the event, but in Truth, nothing has happened. Ultimately, of course, there is only one Teacher, which is God, who, being infinite, is everything there is.
God may appear to us as many Teachers, and we may refer to the Teacher as many (Christ, Buddha, the Prophet, Moses, Krishna, your Guru, my Roshi, etc.) but that is because everything appears to us as many. Indeed, that’s the function of the Teacher, to correct that optical illusion! As the Teachers themselves tell us, reality appeared to them that way too, until they remembered the Truth of their Nature, which is Identity with God (as in, “I and the Father are One” John 10:30, “thou art not thou: thou art He, without thou” ’Ibn Arabi). Their apparently separate body then became to them what this morning’s reflection of our body in the mirror ought to be to you and me: Interesting, sometimes useful, even perhaps amusing, but not really significant, and never determining or defining. And so, when TZF says things like “Look for the Teacher,” we do not mean with the physical eyes alone. The Teacher already and always resides within us. Therefore, we do not actually have to look any further than there. But for those of us who are unable to see anything there yet, the Teacher will appear to us otherwise, in a guise more easily recognized by the senses we take so seriously. Fortunately, knowing each of us intimately, God knows the best way to reach everyone of us. In sum, if any of us thinks we have not yet seen or heard or smelled or dreamed or in some other way encountered the Teacher, we should think again. The Teacher is here, wherever we are, right now, this very instant. So, whatever else you may be doing, anywhere, any time, learn to be still within, and there to listen very carefully, constantly alert to the Presence around you. As a practice, that’s a fine, readily available meditation. And, as your physician will tell you, it’s good for your body. Not to mention, it’ll do wonders for your day. But, best of all, it will reveal the Teacher, in whatever form (or formlessness) is right for you at that moment, after which you will almost certainly realize the Teacher was there all along.
To The Zoo Fence: The picture you paint of God and the purpose of human beings is almost identical to that painted in the “Conversations with God” books. Did they influence you?
Our response: As it happens, we have not read those books, but we have heard wonderful things about them. All the same, it should not surprise you that you find a similarity of views. That will occur more and more often. Remember, there is only one Source in the Universe working through all of us, regardless of who or where we are, or what we are doing. So, as the spiritual practices each of us is following “take effect,” and clarify our vision, we are going to find that, more and more, things look the same, even things which used to appear to us as very different.
Consider a “house of mirrors” at a carnival. There is a huge room with dozens of mirrors in assorted shapes and sizes and colors. The customer walks in, and, because the mirrors are all different, the reflections are all different. In some, the customer looks tall, in others short, in another fat, still another skinny, and on and on. But despite all the apparent differences, the source of all the reflections is the very same person. So it is with us and everything going on in our lives. We, and everyone and everything else, including every word ever written or spoken by anyone anywhere about anything, are all a reflection of the very Same One.
At the carnival, we find this effect amusing and fun — we even pay good money to experience it — and that’s because we remember what is going on. Just so, whenever we find that we “are not amused” by our lives, the answer is to Remember What Is Going On!
To The Zoo Fence: I really like your virtual prayer hall. [The writer’s reference is to “The Quiet Room” on The Zoo Fence website.] But, all the same, I ask and ask, and nothing seems to happen. Any suggestions?
Our response: Yours is a common complaint among seekers, for there is not a one of us who has not spent some time where you are now. In fact, if the ground beneath you feels a little soggy, it is undoubtedly from the tears of the multitudes of us who have knelt there beside you!
From what little you wrote, it is impossible to speak to your specific situation. However, we can make a few general observations on the subject of asking prayer; hopefully, one or another will strike home. (By “asking prayer” we mean prayer that begins, in effect, “I want … ”)
First, you do not know that nothing is happening. All of the important work in the spiritual process is done on the inner, out of sight of the body’s eyes. To be sure, transformations effected there manifest on the outer as changes in your life, but often we do not recognize them, at least not initially. Partly, that is because we are too distracted to notice a little more light here or a happier sound there. We are interested only in the big stuff, and the bigger the better. But growth is an incremental process, occurring bit by bit. So, what we ask for may come, but over time, not all at once.
In this context, remember that what each of us calls “my life” is simply, and literally, a reflection of our sense of ourself, and that is what the spiritual process alters. So, as your sense of yourself improves (enlightens), and your life reflects that, the manifested changes may seem “normal” and “natural” to you, because that is then who and what you think you are, and so you hardly take notice of them. In a word, you no longer consider yourself to be the you who would have noticed the difference!
Second, if you have truly committed yourself to the spiritual path — that is, said to yourself and to God, in these or other words of your own choosing, “Above all else, I want to know my True Nature,” and meant it, then the process is underway, and that commitment preempts everything else. What that means is that if you now ask for something which clashes with that commitment, it will probably not happen. That is, working for you, the Divine Function which we call the Teacher intercepts inappropriate requests, and either erases them or rewrites them for us. Thus, our experience has been, ultimately to our great delight, but at times to our temporary regret, that in God’s Eyes, the words “Above all else” sincerely delivered, actually do mean “above all else.”
Third, in asking prayer, we have found that the best course is to leave the details to God. None of us can see beyond the horizons of our daily lives, and so we do not know what is best for ourselves or for others. Thus, what we are asking for may be totally inappropriate. Even our prayers to intercept apparently “bad things” may be out of place. Consider how often you have heard another say, “Disastrous as it was at the time, in retrospect that was the best thing that ever happened to me.” In which case, good thing none of our prayers to avert it were heeded! Perhaps the most we can do in prayer is call God’s Attention to what we think needs it, and leave it at that; then, visit the need we perceive, and shower it with our love.
Fourth, and of all the rest, this one may be the most important, asking prayer, like all relationships, is a two way street. In order to receive, we must give. An essential part of the process of asking for something is giving something. Indeed, in a very real sense, giving-and-receiving is one word, and our failure to recognize that, and to act accordingly, dooms our attempts. Consider that the texts of virtually all spiritual traditions teach, and tell stories which teach, this point: It is those who give something of value to them who are the most likely to receive what they ask; while those who give nothing, or nothing of value to them, receive nothing. Here, it is not that God is greedy, and wants our stuff. Rather it is that our sincere giving opens our heart, thereby allowing entry to God and to God’s Solutions. So, if you really do not seem to be receiving, it might be time to ask yourself whether, and what, you are giving.
In the final analysis, asking prayer reflects our misunderstanding about Who and What we Are. We believe ourselves to be in need because we do not know Who We Are. Address that question — Ask for Help in addressing that Question — and your prayers will surely be Answered.
To The Zoo Fence: What advice can you offer someone who is trying to learn to sit in meditation?
Our response: There exist as many meditation techniques as there are paths, possibly more. A good beginning is to go to a public library for books on the subject. Reading those should give you a sense of what direction you want to start in. Then, you can check out local churches and other religious centers for groups that practice and teach the technique that seems to appeal to you.
Speaking for ourselves, we believe the function of meditation is to “be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalms 46.10) That is, as long as we are distracted by our illusions about ourselves, our nature, and our reality, we will never know our True Nature, which we take to be Unity and Identity with God. So, to hear, we must listen; to listen, we must become quiet. Thus, meditation is about getting quiet.
We suggest setting aside a specific period at least once every day, preferably at the same time every day, to sit still for a short time — start with five minutes, and as that becomes comfortable, increase the duration. Do not attempt to silence your thoughts. You will almost certainly be unable to do so, and the failure will only make you frustrated. Instead, let your mind think whatever it wants, but do not attach yourself to the thoughts as they arise. Just watch them, without comment or opinion, as they pass by, as if they were bubbles rising in water. What you are reaching for is not to be the thinker of the thoughts, but an unattached, disinterested observer of them. Then, eventually, as they get no energy from you, they will cease, and you will be quiet.
Another way is to choose a specific “spiritual” thought or focus — say, an image or name of a Teacher, or of God, or an inspiring word or set of words — and concentrate on that while sitting silently. The idea here is to employ a selected, uplifting thought to crowd out the others. That is, as long as you are going to think anyway, choose to think one positive, highly focused thought. In the words of the Bhagavad Gita, “Fix your mind on Me” (9.34). As we are what we think, so that effort must bring us to where we want to be.
All of these ways are very simple and logical in theory, but frustrating and arduous in practice. Do not expect to see results easily or quickly. Our minds are accustomed to running free, and they chafe at every attempt to control them. Also, we are addicted to our thoughts, and we identify with every one of them, dramatizing them, and experiencing all of the emotions associated with each. There is a part of us which does not want to give any of that up. But with determination, it will come.
You will frequently forget your quiet period at first; and even when you do remember, you will come up with wonderful excuses for not observing it. Be firm, but not angry, with yourself. You will not regret it. In fact, you will find in time that you look forward to this moment, and that you want to extend it beyond five minutes, and even schedule more than one a day. Finally, you will come to live every moment in this way, quietly, gently observing, without attachment. There, your life and your meditation become one and the same.
To The Zoo Fence: What church, if any, do you attend and recommend?
Our response: As we see it, the principal function of church (or synagogue or temple or mosque or etc.) attendance is to remind us Who and What we are in Truth, and thereby to reinforce our commitment to the Reach for Self-Realization. Most of us live such distracting and enervating lives the other six days of the week, too often in the shadow of people who have little or no spiritual interests, that we desperately need the few hours of forced, concentrated, uninterrupted focus, accompanied by a healthy dose of fellowship (encouragement and reassurance), which church attendance offers (or should offer). That is what the Sabbath and “a day of rest (re-Creation)” is all about, and we recommend it. Without it, we run the risk of facing death after sixty, seventy, eighty, or whatever years, without a clue as to what we were doing here, and therefore having to do it all over again, here or wherever.
Specifically, as regards which church: There being only One God, and that One being Infinite, the design of the church matters little compared to the sincerity and depth of the seeker’s aspiration. If you really mean to do this, and are truly looking for God, God will find you wherever you are. Speaking for ourselves, our own choice has been to surrender our lives to the spiritual process, and so we consider ourselves to be in church all the time. We do not make a distinction between spiritual activities and other activities. We consider everything we do, every event, every relationship, everything, to be spiritual. It is in this sense that we consider ourselves to be monks. We like the Greek root of the word, suggesting as it does single-pointedness.
To The Zoo Fence:I was raised a Roman Catholic. Now, I think of myself as what you call a seeker. Naturally, this has put my childhood faith and its sacraments into question, particularly communion. I just wanted to say that.
Our response:Our experience has been that the best way to confront, analyze, decipher, and finally defuse, most if not all of our fears, concerns, and questions, is to put them into words. Curiously, they always seem more imposing, even more terrifying, hidden in our minds, than they do once they have been voiced into the air. The earth’s atmosphere seems to have a leveling and healing effect on things, which is nice. So, you write that you just want to say it. You may find that will be enough to put the issue into perspective for you.
Speaking for ourselves, our suggestion would be that you consider making a distinction between your “childhood faith” and Roman Catholicism. For us, a lot of our youthful religion was about illustrated bibles in Sunday School, church picnics, wanting to be one of the wise men in the Christmas pageant, and ice cream sundaes on the way home afterwards. All of that undoubtedly served a purpose, but now, to borrow from Paul, it is time to put away the things of our childhood, and consider as adults.
Like all the world’s great religions, Roman Catholicism has had its ups and downs, but it is nonetheless an abundant source of spiritual wealth, and under most circumstances, we believe a seeker is ill-advised to throw all of that out simply to avenge a few long-past childhood experiences. But by all means put it into question. In this instance, we suggest you go to its source, the Gospels, and read them as if you were reading them for the very first time, and as if you were the very first person on earth ever to read them. Thus, do not let yourself find the passages familiar, and do not entertain any memories which they may trigger. Consider Jesus and the Teachings there as if they were absolutely unknown to you. Savor each verse carefully, deliberately, asking yourself what it means to you, what its other meanings might be, what its implications are. Remember, as a Teacher, Jesus was not speaking to your mind, but to your heart. Therefore, learn how to make your heart participate in, and eventually lead, this discussion. Bit by bit, seek out the teachings of the saints, to see how they understood what you are now beginning to understand anew for yourself. Here, for starters, consider the writing of Saint Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, the Cloud of Unknowing, Practising the Presence. Consider too the gospels which the early church sought to destroy; here, a good start is the so-called Nag Hammadi Library. Also, reach out to saintly writings from other traditions, and observe how similar they seem to be at base, and consider the implications of that. All of this will be far more difficult than it sounds. Indeed, it may be years before you even fully understand the task you have set for yourself. But the rewards of consistent, determined, and enthusiastic effort will be bountiful and wonderful, even perhaps miraculous.
As regards the sacrament of communion specifically, for us that biblical event (see Matthew 26.26) is about a Teacher explaining that His Identity (and ultimately ours, as well) is the One, and that what you and we perceive as the manifested universe (our lives) is in Reality nothing more or less than That, the Very One Itself. So, he says to us, “this bread is my body” and “this wine is my blood.” In other words, I AM the world, and we can partake in a conscious relationship with Him, with the Infinite One, whenever we wish to do so, simply by addressing our lives, the world, and its things in that manner. Thus, when we eat bread, the Teacher says to us, recognize that it is the One, the Very Self. Likewise, when we drink wine. But, at TZF, we do not think Jesus or any other Teacher meant for us to stop there. Rather, we believe, and our experience confirms, that they would have us do the same when we eat cabbage, split firewood, honk a car horn, type on a computer keyboard, answer the telephone, pat a pet, curse a thief, smell a rose, do the laundry. I AM THAT means I am that, with absolutely no exceptions, in every direction.
So, we consider our lives to be a Sacrament, and every activity, inner or outer, imagined or real, past, present, or future, good or bad, happy or unhappy, tall or short, fat or skinny, to be Sacred Communion. For us, “This Is My Body, This Is My Blood” is one of the most powerful spiritual Teachings ever uttered.
… more to come …