Two Books on Liberation

Sabrina MisirHiralall recommended Krishna Dass’ autobiography, Chants of a Lifetime,  a wonderfully positive and uplifting book about the celebrated kirtan singer’s journey from jaded Western young person to lifetime devotee.  Like Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now and many other teachings, Krishna Das is a disciple of Sri Neem Karoli Baba, viewed by his followers as an incarnation of Lord Hanuman.  I can relate to Ram Das and Krishna Das when they speak about their beloved guruji:  I often had the feeling when listening to Swamiji’s talks that he also had the energy of Sri Hanuman.  There was just something about the intensity of his voice and his untiring nature that made me think of the monkey god.  And my tradition, too, is steeped in devotional songs, drawn from Shree Maa’s Bengali tradition.  I often think about how Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna would go into ecstasy just from hearing a kirtan singer in the precincts of Dakshineshwar.

chants of a lifetime

Krishna Das, in recounting his journey from what often sounds like self-loathing to contemplative release, recommended another book called Radical Acceptance, by psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach. I found Brach’s book to be a welcome break from the flood of new age literature that recommends a sort of bootstrapping approach to self-improvement.  She leads the reader through a series of exercises in which, rather than trying to escape from our flaws, we simply look at them, as they are, without judgement.  This is a difficult discipline that is so much more kind to the ego self than the usual advice to just muscle through our shortcomings to a supposedly better state of being.  Buddhists and Hindus agree that the ego self is essentially fictitious and illusory, but that doesn’t mean we should run roughshod over it.  If we further shame the inner child, we may just make the situation worse.  Brach offers a gentle path out of the trap that is close to the Buddha’s original teachings.

radical acceptance

To just speak in a casual and off-the-cuff sort of way, we usually have in mind some sort of Ideal Life for ourselves, whether that Ideal is working as a stockbroker on Wall Street or meditating in a cave somewhere.  So far so good: we probably need some sort of goal in order to get out of bed in the morning.  But then it gets more pernicious.  We compare the life that we want to the life that we have now and perceive a massive gap between the real and the Ideal.  This gap or lack is so disturbing that we immediately set about trying to rectify it through mental and emotional gymnastics.  Blame and anger come into the picture.  If I am not living as I think I Should, there must be someone to blame.

The blame and anger can be directed inwardly or outwardly.  We can blame our parents, our children, our life partners, God, or the government.  This is a great trick because it gets us off the hook, but it comes at a tremendous price.  We walk around feeling disgruntled all the time, swearing and muttering under our breath at the slightest provocation.  So peace goes out the door right away, and it is even worse if we direct the blame inward, at ourselves.  This is where self-hatred comes into play, leading to depression and even suicide if it goes unchecked.  All of this is so painful that there is likely to be some self-medication along the way.  This is likely some form of addiction, ranging from mild and socially acceptable to severe and socially censured.

But maybe the real tragedy lies in missing the beauty and joy right in front of our faces.  We are so busy blaming and hating and medicating that we lose sight of the present moment, those little flickers of divine brilliance in everyday life.  We lose the ability to actually pay attention.  We buy into our own propaganda so much that we don’t actually make very much contact with reality.  Our filters, our sh*t-tinted glasses (pardon the expression–I can’t think of a better one) get so convincing and habitual that we can’t take them off.  We mistake our self-written scripts for reality itself, and that becomes a very difficult cycle to break.

So this is why we foolish people who still believe in the spiritual life practice sadhana.  We want to see the world as it is rather than believing in the very convincing (and very depressing) alternate realities that we have constructed for ourselves.  But the old Ego is very wily and can play the spiritual game as well, manipulating most any tradition into blame and anger.  So we must be very alert and pay attention very closely to the game being played between our ears.  The Hindu tradition views that game as a war between the demons and the devas.  Think about the Bhagavad Gita or the Chandi Path.  These are basically texts that teach us how to quell those ugly voices, those dark thoughts.  They are such simple texts in some ways, and yet they are the work of a lifetime.  We have to keep learning their lessons over and over again.

So I suppose it’s okay to have a goal in life and it is okay to fall short of that goal.  We must let the matter drop there and not crank up the blame engine.  We must have a moderate amount of ambition in life in order to function as human beings, but we must not let our shortcomings gnaw at us.  That was one of Ramakrishna’s only criticisms of the Christian tradition, that he felt it led people to concentrate on sin, sin, sin rather than the inner divinity.  Perhaps if we are more gracious with ourselves and with each other, we can find a less tortured way to liberation.