April 23, 2017: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump

Peaceable Kingdom
Though the unwise cling to their actions,
watching for results, the wise
are free of attachments, and act
for the well-being of the whole world.  [3.25]

APRIL 4, 2017, BHAGAVAD GITA TALK #8: “THE WISE MAN DOES NOT UNSETTLE THE MINDS OF THE IGNORANT. QUIETLY, ACTING IN THE SPIRIT OF YOGA, HE INSPIRES THEM TO DO THE SAME.”

Yesterday being Earth Day and my birthday, I took some time off from thinking about politics and spirituality.  A lovely respite as we approach the 100-days point in the Trumpian debacle. I only wish they would take some time off. Like the rest of their lives…

If you’re a member of MoveOn, you most likely received email from Al Franken last week. For those who did not:

Dear MoveOn Member,

It’s Al Franken, and I’m writing you today because I’m worried. Not about what Donald Trump has tried (and, so far, failed) to do already, like Trumpcare and the Muslim ban. But about the storm that’s coming.

You see, we’re just 90 days into the Trump presidency. Fortunately, we’re also 90 days into a powerful resistance movement. Up until now, we’ve been doing surprisingly well stalling Trump’s agenda. But the thing is, he’s just getting started—so we can’t let up for a second.

There are so many more fights to come: Stopping Trump’s tax breaks for rich people like himself. Standing up to Jeff Sessions’ deportation force. Resisting attacks on Medicare and the environment. And we still have a year and a half before we’ve got a shot at taking back Congress.

Trump governs by chaos. He wants us to get tired and slow down, but we can’t let him win.

After Trump was elected, there was a huge spike in grassroots energy—the biggest I’ve seen in my entire political career. Record-setting numbers of people flooded the streets. It was impossible to get a call through to Congress (believe me, I know, because my office phone lines were ringing off the hook). And while my Republican colleagues are trying to put on a brave face, I can tell that they are under stress. (And that stress helped defeat their first attempt at Trumpcare!)

But here’s what has me worried: We’re fighting on so many fronts. And if energy drops off, we’ll start losing.

I share Franken’s concern. It’s what compelled me to begin this “Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump” project. It just seemed an excellent manual to read side-by-side with Democracy NowMoveOnIndivisible — whatever your preferred news and action alert portals. There is so much work to do and as Franken says, we have to fight on so many fronts. Along with Trump’s horrible appointments and policy agendas, he creates mind-blowing chaos that defies us to grab hold and make order. This is what makes him so dangerous. We have got to stay grounded in wisdom (and a sense of humor) else we risk profound overwhelm and burnout.

We also have got to hold onto our humanity. We can never allow ourselves to become like them.

Here’s my opening dharana and dharma talk from Monday, April 4th:

 

Here are the verses I read from the Gita:

Though the unwise cling to their actions,
watching for results, the wise
are free of attachments, and act
for the well-being of the whole world.

The wise man does not unsettle
the minds of the ignorant, quietly,
acting in the spirit of yoga,
he inspires them to do the same.

Actions are really performed
by the working of the three gunas;
but a man deluded by the I-sense
imagines, “I am the doer.”

The wise man knows that when objects
act on the senses, it is merely
the gunas acting on the gunas;
thus he is unattached.

Deluded by the gunas, men grow
attached to the gunas’ actions;
the insightful should not disturb
the minds of these foolish men.

Performing all actions for my sake,
desireless, absorbed in the Self
indifferent to “I” and “mine,”
let go of your grief and fight!

Men who constantly practice
this teaching of mine, Arjuna,
who trust it with all their heart,
are freed from the bondage of actions.

But those who, mistrustful, half-hearted,
fail to practice my teaching,
wander in the darkness, lost,
stupefied by delusion.

Even the wise man acts
in accordance with his inner nature.
All beings follow their nature.
What good can repression do

Craving and aversion arise
when the senses encounter sense-objects.
Do not fall prey to these two
brigands blocking your path.

It is better to do your own duty
badly, than to perfectly do
another’s; you are safe from harm
when you do what you should be doing.    [3.25-35]

ARJUNA SAID:

What is it that drives a man
to an evil action, Krishna,
even against his will,
as if some force made him do it?

THE BLESSED LORD SAID:

That force is desire, it is anger,
arising from the guna called rajas;
deadly and all-devouring,
that is the enemy here.

As fire is obscured by smoke,
as a mirror is covered with dust,
as a fetus is wrapped in its membrane,
so wisdom is obscured by desire.

Wisdom is destroyed, Arjuna,
by the constant enemy of the wise,
which, flaring up as desire,
blazes with insatiable flames.

Desire dwells in the senses,
the mind, and the understanding;
in all these it obscures wisdom
and perplexes the embodied Self.

Therefore you must first control
your senses, Arjuna; then
destroy this evil that prevents you
from ever knowing the truth

Men say that the senses are strong.
But the mind is stronger than the senses;
the understanding is stronger
than the mind; and the strongest is the Self.

Knowing the Self, sustaining
the self by the Self, Arjuna,
kill the difficult-to-conquer
enemy called desire..   .   [3.36-43]

 

And here are two audio clips of class chanting. The first is Om Tara Tuttare Ture Swaha; the second is Namo Kuan Shih Yin Pu’sa. With apologies for sound quality. We’re working on a recording upgrade.

 

HAPPY EARTH DAY WEEKEND TO YOU ALL

Peaceable Kingdom

April 16, 2017: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump

He Qi, Easter Morning, painting

MARCH 27, 2017, BHAGAVAD GITA TALK #7: TRAVELING FROM THE OUTER LIMITS OF THE THINKING MIND INTO THE DEPTH OF INNER STILLNESS.  “PERFORMING ALL ACTIONS FOR MY SAKE, DESIRELESS, ABSORBED IN THE SELF, INDIFFERENT TO “I” AND “MINE,” LET GO OF YOUR GRIEF, AND FIGHT!

Easter Sunday. Ironic that this day of rebirth and resurrection ends another bizarre week in the Age of Trump. Bombs, bombs, and more bombs. I did wonder if the bombing spree was an attempt to distract us from the Russia-connection arrests rumored to be coming this week. Probably so. This is from the 4/13 Palmer Report...

Donald Trump dropped the “Mother of all Bombs” today in Afghanistan, but it appears to have been a mere attempt at distracting from the mother of all bombshells. Reliable sources, who have proven themselves correct in the past, are now pointing to U.S. intel agencies working with the Attorney General of New York to begin imminently dismantling Trump’s inner circle. In fact the big major arrests may come as soon as next week.

(Click here for the entire article.)

Let us hope the dismantling has begun. And that the Democratic Party can actually get its act together, win the next round of elections, and bring some semblance of sanity and humanity back to governing. In the meantime, can I just say that nicknaming a bomb “mother” is really sick. Especially one that resembles a ginormous phallus. And the acronym MOAB. Seriously? It makes this hideously destructive bomb sound like a pet guppy.

The Bhagavad Gita maintains that desire drives the psycho-pathology of men and women like Donald Trump. In the more integrative perspective of Tantra, we would say that it’s actually attachment to and/or identification with desire. But we need not bog down in philosophical hair-splitting. The bottom line is, desire, its near relative greed, and their offspringsdisplaced anger, cruelty, and the need to dominate and controlhave wreaked havoc on this planet for thousands of years…

Although we didn’t read these verses at the March 27 class, they’re so relevant to this moment, I thought I’d include them.

ARJUNA SAID:
 
What it is that drives a man to evil action, Krishna,
even against his will,
as if some force made him do it.
 
THE BLESSED LORD SAID:

That force is desire, it is anger,
arising from the guna called rajas;
deadly and all-devouring,
that is the enemy here.
 
As a fire is obscured by smoke,
as a mirror is covered by dust,
as a fetus is wrapped in its membrane,
so wisdom is obscured by desire.
 
Wisdom is destroyed, Arjuna,
by the constant enemy of the wise,
which, flaring up as desire,
blazes with insatiable flames.
 
Desire dwells in the senses,
the mind, and the understanding;
in all these it obscures wisdom
and perplexes the embodied Self.
 
Therefore you must first control
your senses, Arjuna; then
destroy this evil that prevents you
from ever knowing the truth.
 
Men say that the senses are strong.
But the mind is stronger than the senses;
the understanding is stronger
than the mind; and the strongest is the Self.
 
Knowing the Self, sustaining
the self by the Self, Arjuna,
kill the difficult-to-conquer
enemy called desire. [3.36-43]

 

Here’s my dharma talk from March 27th.

 

I read only two verses from the Gita during this talk. We’ve read these before but they’re well worth repeating…

The wise man does not unsettle
the minds of the ignorant; quietly
acting in the spirit of yoga,
he inspires them to do the same. [3.26]

It is better to do your own duty
badly, than to perfectly do
another’s; you are safe from harm
when you do what you should be doing. [3.35]

Here are the Mary Oliver poems that, as always, beautifully and ecstatically mirror what the Gita is teaching. The first we also read last week. Like the Gita verses above, it too bears repeating…

TODAY

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really, I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

GREEN, GREEN IS MY SISTER’S HOUSE

Don’t you dare climb that tree
or even try, they said, or you will be
sent away to the hospital of the
very foolish, if not the other one.
And I suppose, considering my age,
it was fair advice.

But the tree is a sister to me, she
lives alone in a green cottage
high in the air and I know what
would happen, she’d clap her green hands,
she’d shake her green hair, she’d
welcome me. Truly 

I try to be good but sometimes
a person just has to break out and
act like the wild and springy thing
one used to be. It’s impossible not
to remember wild and want it back. So

if someday you can’t find me, you might
look into that tree—of course
it’s possible—or under it.

 

I’m including two audio clips of class chanting, with apologies for less than stellar sound quality. During this Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump cycle of class, we’ve been chanting Tara and Kuan Yin mantras. I’ll write more about why I chose these mantras (or more accurately, why these mantras chose me) within the next few weeks. For now, suffice to say they are excellent medicine for moving through these times. They foster the ability to  hold the nightmare of the Trump regime without getting lost in our outrage, disgust, revulsion, fear, even hatred. And in that holding, we can channel these powerful energies into the fierce determination and wisdom necessary to keep fighting for truth and loving kindness to the world.

Here is the Tara mantra we chant at the opening of class.
OM TARA TUTTARE TURE SWAHA

Here is the Kuan Yin mantra which resolves into Om Namah Shivaya
NAMO KUAN SHIH YIN PU’SA 

April 12, 2017, Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump

Equinox w.o axis

MARCH 20, 2017: BHAGAVAD GITA TALK #6: THE YOGA OF PAYING ATTENTION “IN THIS WORLD THERE ARE TWO MAIN PATHS: THE YOGA OF UNDERSTANDING FOR CONTEMPLATIVE MEN; AND FOR MEN WHO ARE ACTIVE, THE YOGA OF ACTION.”

As I sit here writing, we are 84 days into the Age of Trump. If there was not so much at stake, we could chalk the madness up to dark comedy. Alas, it is actually happening. And the dizzying, psychotic mess that is the Trump regime is overwhelming at best, terrifying at worst, and just plain crazy-making in between. If you’ve spent time in the company of people at this end of the psychological spectrum, you know how easy it is to lose yourself in a twisted dance of wrong is right, down is up, and 2+2=5. While it’s good to see things from all sides, when one of those sides is bat-crap crazy, the balance is seriously disturbed.

It’s been extremely gratifying to see the pushback and results coming from the Resistance Movement. And we cannot let up for a moment. What we need to guard against however, is being pulled into the vortex of reactivity. We have to get really real inside of ourselves, pushing hard against unconscious motivation and drives. We need to act from truth, clarity, and a huge depth of wisdom. And thoughtful reading of the Bhagavad Gita is very helpful in this regard. At its core, this text reminds us to wake up, pay attention, and act for the benefit of all. It’s a powerful message that is, I know, much easier said than done. Nevertheless, if we are to right the nightmare of the Age of Trump, and I include in that nightmare all the wrongheaded agendas that brought us here, it is essential.

Here’s my dharma talk from March 20th. It was the Vernal Equinox so this talk opens with a short dharana welcoming Spring and constellates around Chapter 3 of the Gita.

 

Here are some verses from the chapter:

The superior man is he
whose mind can control his senses;
with no attachment to results,
he engages in the yoga of action. 3.7

The whole world becomes a slave
to its own activity, Arjuna;
if you want to be truly free,
perform all actions as worship. 3.

Without concern for results,
perform the necessary action;
surrendering all attachments,
accomplish life’s highest good. 3.19

Only by selfless action
did Janaka and other wise kings
govern, and thus assure
the well-being of the whole world. 3.20

Whatever a great man does
ordinary people will do;
whatever standard he sets
everyone else will follow. 3.21

Here are the Mary Oliver Poems I read:

TODAY

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really, I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

THE MOTH, THE MOUNTAINS, THE RIVERS

Who can guess the Luna’s sadness who lives so
briefly? Who can guess the impatience of stone
longing to be ground down, to be part again of
something livelier? Who can imagine in what
heaviness the rivers remember their original
clarity?

Strange questions yet I have spent worthwhile
time with them. And I suggest them to you also,
that your spirit grow in curiosity, that your life
be richer than it is, that you bow to the earth as
you feel how it actually is that we—so clever, and
ambitious, and selfish, and unrestrained—are only
one design of the moving, the vivacious many.

If you’d like to read the NY Times article by Joel Whitebook I referenced in my talk, click here.

And a PS to my previous post. Here are some beautiful verses from the Jnaneshwari commenting on the Gita’s teaching on stitha prajna, steady wisdom.

O Arjuna, if you want to have the vision of wisdom, pay attention to Me.  I will explain to you how to recognize wisdom.

You may recognize wisdom in a person who has patience without intolerance.

He patiently bears all things, just as a person wears his favorite ornaments.  Even if calamity should come to him, he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by it.

His attitude is one of glad acceptance, whether he obtains what he wants or what he doesn’t want.

Be bears with equanimity both honor and shame, he is the same in happiness and sorrow, and he isn’t affected differently by praise or blame.

He isn’t scorched by heat, nor does he shiver with cold.  He isn’t intimidated by anything.

Just as Mount Meru doesn’t feel the weight of its own peaks, nor does the boar feel the burden of the earth, and just as the entire creation doesn’t weigh down the earth, in the same way, he doesn’t sweat under the pressure of the pairs of opposites.

Just as the ocean swells to receive the water of all the rivers flowing into it, similarly, there is nothing that such a person cannot bear with equanimity, and he has no memory even of what he has suffered.

Whatever happens to his body he accepts as his own, and he takes no credit for what he suffers. 

O Arjuna, he who practices such quiet endurance adds greatness to wisdom.

 

April 7, 2017: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump

MARCH 6, 2017, BHAGAVAD GITA TALK #5: WHEN A MAN GIVES UP ALL DESIRES THAT EMERGE FROM THE MIND, AND RESTS CONTENTED IN THE SELF, BY THE SELF, HE IS CALLED A MAN OF FIRM WISDOM. [2.55]

Steady Wisdom3

It’s been a dizzying week in the Age of Trump. Kushner up, Bannon down. Gorsuch in, filibuster out. Nunes falls, Conaway rises. Not to mention North Korea, China,  Syria, and Russia. I started writing this post last night, concerned that with Trump’s approval numbers plummeting, he’d be looking for a war. But I never thought he’d move so quickly. I tend to keep a pretty cool head, but honestly, when I saw the news last night my heart stood still. I have not agreed with American policy regarding the nightmare in Syria, but starting World War III is not the solution…

Which brings me back to the Bhagavad Gita’s teachings around stitha prajna, what I’ve always referred to as “steady wisdom.” Mitchell translates stitha prajna as “firm wisdom” and since we’re using his translation, I’ll defer to that language. First though, let’s have a look at the Gita’s succinct definition of what firm wisdom is not:

If a man keeps dwelling on sense-objects, attachment to them arises; from attachment, desire flares up; from desire, anger is born; from anger, confusion follows; from confusion, weakness of memory; weak memory—weak understanding; weak understanding—ruin. [2.62-63]

Needless to say, this pathology is perfectly embodied in Trump and his administration. And what can we do in the presence of rampant delusion and cruelty but keep pushing back. Arm ourselves with stitha prajna and as Krishna instructs Arjuna at the beginning of the Gita, stand up and fight…

When a man gives up all desires
that emerge from the mind, and rests
contented in the Self by the Self,
he is called a man of firm wisdom. [2.55]

Though the unwise cling to their actions,
watching for results, the wise
are free of attachments and act
for the well-being of the whole world. [3.25]

Cultivating stitha prajna is the work of a lifetime. And it certainly requires focused committed inner work alongside focused committed outer work. But every time we push deeper inside ourselves, unravelling the knots of psycho/emotional wounding and clearing the debris of the past, we create more space for our innate stitha prajna, our steady wisdom, to breathe. And that is a great and noble weapon. Every exhalation sends a flare of sanity into the world.

Here’s my dharma talk from March 6.

April 3, 2017: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump

Setting sun on the daffodils.francoise_gilot

As I marvel at the scandals, ethics violations, incompetence and subterfuge dominating the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, I keep thinking of the stories of the Mahabharata that form the backdrop of the Bhagavad Gita. There we have a horrendous war between two dynasties with a tangled web of betrayals. Betrayals that include really bad treatment of women, cheating, jealousy, revenge, and backroom deals. By the end of the war, both sides have been decimated. Sound familiar. I could be writing about our current political landscape.

And in the midst of the Mahabharata, right there on the battlefield of a war to end all wars, comes the Bhagavad Gita. It’s  astonishing really when you think about it. Before the first arrow has been loosed, we’re given a complete exposition of the yogic path, shown step by step how we become truly human.

Coming as it does at this moment in the epic gives even more potency to the possibility inherent in the teaching. That even in the midst of greed-driven madness, we can hold onto ourselves, retain our equanimity, and stand up for dharma. In fact, we must. And to those who distort the meaning of the Gita, seeing it as a handbook for domination and war, I think this single verse sets that record straight:

Though the unwise cling to their actions,
watching for results, the wise
are free of attachments, and act
for the well-being of the whole world. [3.25]

If you ever need a standard for right action, there it is. “The wise are free of attachments and act for the well-being of the whole world.”

Since I’ve been unable to keep this blog current, I’m doubling up audio and poems from the last two February classes. I’ll try to get all of March up in the next week…

FEBRUARY 13, 2017, BHAGAVAD GITA TALK#3: “THE WISE MAN WHOSE INSIGHT IS FIRM, RELINQUISHING THE FRUITS OF ACTION, IS FREED FROM THE BONDAGE OF REBIRTH AND ATTAINS THE PLACE BEYOND SORROW.”

All the verses from the Gita are from Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Here are the Kabir poems I read in this talk:

1.
I don’t know what sort of God we have been
talking about.

The caller calls in a loud voice to the Holy One at
dusk.

Why? Surely the Holy One is not deaf.
He hears the delicate anklets that ring on the feet of an insect as it walks.

Go over and over your beads, paint weird designs on
your forehead,
wear your hair matted, long, and ostentatious,
but when deep inside you there is a loaded gun, how
can you have God.

2.
Friend, please tell me what I can do about this world
I hold to, and keep spinning out!
I gave up sewn clothes, and wore a robe,
but I noticed one day the cloth was well woven.

So I bought some burlap, but I still
throw it elegantly over my left shoulder.

I pulled back my sexual longings,
and now I discover that I’m angry a lot.

I gave up rage, and now I notice
that I am greedy all day.

I worked hard at dissolving the greed,
and now I am proud of myself.

When the mind wants to break its link with the world
it still holds on to one thing.

Kabir says: Listen my friend,
there are very few that find the path!

3.
The spiritual athlete often changes the color of his
clothes,
and his mind remains gray and loveless.

He sits inside a shrine room all day,
so that the Guest has to go outdoors and praise the
rocks.

Or he drills holes in his ears, his hair grows
enormous and matted,
people mistake him for a goat…
He goes out into wilderness areas, strangles his
impulses,
and makes himself neither male nor female…

He shaves his skull, puts his robe in an orange vat,
reads the Bhagavad-Gita, and becomes a terrific
talker.

Kabir says: Actually you are going in a hearse to the
country of death,
bound hand and foot!

 

FEBRUARY 27, 2017, BHAGAVAD GITA TALK #4: THE MIND IS A MASTER AT BURNING US OUT… “WHEN A MAN GIVES UP ALL DESIRES THAT EMERGE FROM THE MIND, AND RESTS CONTENTED IN THE SELF BY THE SELF, HE IS CALLED A MAN OF FIRM WISDOM.”

Alongside the Gita verses, I re-read one of last week’s Kabir poems and one other from his canon and one from Mary Oliver’s House of Light. 

Here’s the Kabir:

I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or
resting?
There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no towrope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no
ford!

And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the
soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.

And here’s the Mary Oliver:

Five A.M. in the Pinewoods

I’d seen
their hoof prints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night

under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I

got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under

the blue trees, shyly
they stepped
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even

nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.

This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
Finally
one of them — I swear it! —

would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the
pine needles like

the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,

I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

 

March 20, 2017: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump

FEBRUARY 6, 2017, BHAGAVAD GITA TALK #2: NONBEING CAN NEVER BE; BEING CAN NEVER NOT BE. BOTH THESE STATEMENTS ARE OBVIOUS TO THOSE WHO HAVE SEEN THE TRUTH.

Soon after we began reading the Bhagavad Gita, I was listening to a radio news show, I think it was NPR’s All Things Considered, and learned that Steve Bannon is a big fan of the Gita. Checking this out online, I discovered that Heinrich Himmler was also an admirer. He evidently kept a leather bound copy with him at all times. So we have Bannon, the architect of Trump’s policy agenda, and Himmler, the architect of the Nazi “Final Solution,” twisting the ideal of dharma to serve their twisted worldview. Two sociopaths fixated on the Gita’s notion of righteous war to justify their own pathologies. If you want an example of the dangers of belief, I give you this: Himmler believed Hitler was an incarnation of Krishna. One can only hope Bannon is not similarly deluded about the monster he serves.

It does give one pause.
And begs the question: How do we discern truth from belief?

The Bhagavad Gita may use the notion of “righteous war” to start a conversation. But the conversation is not about war. It’s about consciousness. The conversation between Arjuna and Krishna is a mirror of the conversation that goes on inside of us all the time. The conversation between the small self or ego (what we refer to in Yoga as the “I-maker”) and the Great Self of the Heart. And by “Heart,” I mean the ineffable hugeness that doesn’t speak in words. It’s more like a quivering or shimmering from deep within us. In those miraculous moments when we ground there, we embody everything the Gita teaches. In fact, in those miraculous moments, we are the Gita.

What Bannon doesn’t understand now and what Himmler didn’t understand then, is that we don’t go to war against the “other,” we go to war against that inside of us which creates the idea of “other.” We go to war inside of ourselves against the notion that we are somehow separate from and entitled to destroy that “other.” We go to war against this outmoded paradigm that has always been questionable and has demonstrated over a few thousand years that the only thing it excels at is making a tremendous mess of everything it touches.

We have to read the Gita the same way we should live our lives. We have to slip beneath the surface, read between the lines. We have to probe deeper and deeper, within a text, within ourselves, until the mind becomes so spacious, so still, that the “I”’ that drives the historical, cultural, psycho-emotional, and spiritual narratives that rule us ceases to be. Only in that stillness is the possibility of insight, and only in that insight, the possibility of truth. Anything that comes before that must be questioned.

I was talking with someone recently who was feeling very uncertain about her own gifts, and along with that, judging herself for not being more certain. This is the trap of dualistic thinking. It’s not about hard-edged certainty or soft edgeless uncertainty. Certainty and uncertainty are opposite poles of a stuckness that is quite destructive either way. What we want to develop is clarity. Which is neither certainty nor uncertainty. It’s just clarity. In that koan-like way Verse 2.16 so eloquently sings: “Nonbeing can never be; being can never not be. Both these statements are obvious to those who have seen the truth.’

Here’s my dharma talk from February 6. Which was Bhagavad Gita Talk #2, a rather freewheeling contemplation on the first forty or so verses from Chapter Two, The Practice of Yoga.

Here are the verses from this talk.  (If you’re visiting this blog for the first time, please note we’re working with Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita. See my last post for more on that.)

Although you mean well, Arjuna
your sorrow is sheer delusion.
Wise men do not grieve
for the dead or the living.

Never was there a time
when I did not exist, or you,
or these kings; nor will there come
a time when we cease to be.

Just as, in this body, the Self
passes through childhood, youth,
and old age, so after death
it passes to another body.

Physical sensations—cold
and heat, pleasure and pain —
are transient: they come and go:
so bear them patiently, Arjuna.

Only the man who is unmoved
by any sensations, the wise man
indifferent to pleasure, to pain,
is fit for becoming deathless.

Nonbeing can never be;
being can never not be.
Both these statements are obvious
to those who have seen the truth.

The presence that pervades the universe
is imperishable, unchanging,
beyond both is and is not:
how could it ever vanish?

These bodies come to an end;
but the vast embodied Self
is ageless, fathomless, eternal.
Therefore you must fight, Arjuna.

If you think the Self can kill
or think that it can be killed,
you do not well understand
reality’s subtle ways.

It never was born; coming
to be, it will never not be.
Birthless, primordial, it does not
die when the body dies.

Knowing that it is eternal,
unborn, beyond destruction,
how could you ever kill?
And whom could you kill, Arjuna?

Just as you throw out used clothes
and put on other clothes, new ones,
the Self discards its used bodies
and puts on others that are new.

The sharpest sword will not pierce it;
the hottest flame will not singe it;
water will not make it moist;
wind will not cause it to wither.

It cannot be pierced or singed,
moistened or withered; it is vast,
perfect and all-pervading,
calm, immovable, timeless.

It is called the Inconceivable,
the Unmanifest, the unchanging.
If you understand it in this way,
you have no reason for sorrow.

Even if you think that the Self
is perpetually born and perpetually
dies—even then, Arjuna,
you have no reason for your sorrow.<

Before birth, beings are unmanifest;
between birth and death, manifest;
at death, unmanifest again.
What cause for grief in all this?

Some perceive it directly
in all its awesomeness; others
hear of it and never know it.

This Self who dwells in the body
is inviolable, forever;
therefore you have no cause to grieve
for any being Arjuna.

Know what your duty is
and do it without hesitation/
For a warrior, there is nothing better
than a battle that duty enjoins.

Blessed are the warriors who are given
the chance of a battle like this,
which calls them to do what is right
and opens the gates of heaven.

But if you refuse the call
to a righteous war, and shrink from
what duty and honor dictate,
you will bring down ruin on your head.

Decent men, for all time,
will talk about your disgrace;
and disgrace, for a man of honor,
is a fate far worse than death.

These great heroes will think
that fear has driven you from battle;
all those who once esteemed you
will think of you with contempt.

And your enemies will sneer and mock you:
“The mighty Arjuna, that brave man—
he slunk from the field like a dog.”
What deeper shame could there be?

If you are killed, you gain heaven;
triumph and you gain the earth.
Therefore stand up, Arjuna;
steady your mind to fight.

Indifferent to gain or loss,
to victory or defeat,
prepare yourself for the battle
and do not succumb to sin.

This is philosophy’s wisdom:
now hear the wisdom of yoga.
Armed with this understanding,
you will shatter your karmic bonds.

On this path no effort is wasted,
no gain is ever reversed;
even a little of this practice
will shelter you from great sorrow.

And as often is the case, the final word goes to Mary Oliver:

HOW TURTLES COME TO SPEND THE WINTER IN THE
AQUARIUM, THEN ARE FLOWN SOUTH AND
RELEASED BACK INTO THE SEA

Somewhere down beach, in the morning, at water’s edge, I found
   a sea turtle,
its huge head a smoldering apricot, its shell streaming with
   seaweed,
its eyes closed, its flippers motionless.
When I bent down, it moved a little.
When I picked it up, it sighed.
Was it forty pounds, or fifty pounds, or a hundred?
Was it two miles back to the car?
We walked a little while, and then we rested, and then we
   walked on
I walked with my mouth open, my heart roared.
The eyes opened, I don’t know what they thought.
Sometimes the flippers swam at the air.
Sometimes the eyes closed.
I couldn’t walk anymore, and then I walked some more
while it turned into granite, or cement, but with that
   apricot-colored head,
that stillness, that Buddha-like patience, that cold-shocked
   but slowly beating heart.
Finally, we reached the car.

                                                       ***

The afternoon is the other part of this story.
Have you ever found something beautiful, and maybe just in time?
How such a challenge can fill you!
Jesus could walk over the water.
I had to walk ankle-deep in the sand, and I did it.
My bones didn’t quite snap.

 Come on in, and see me smile.
I probably won’t stop for hours.
Already, in the warmth, the turtle has raised its head, is
   looking around.
Today, who could deny it, I am an important person.

–Mary Oliver, House of Light

March 14, 2017: Reading the Bhagavad Gita in the Age of Trump

daffodils and snow

JANUARY 30, 2017: BHAGAVAD GITA TALK #1. “ON THIS PATH NO EFFORT IS WASTED”

In the weeks between the November election and January inauguration, the great majority of us on the other side of madness were in shock, beginning to mobilize, but also holding out hope that somehow, some way, this political nightmare would be averted. Time seemed to stand still, and then, it was done. We found ourselves waking up in a whole new reality, waking up in an America we did not recognize, waking up in the age of Trump.

And now it’s March. In just six days it will be Spring. Although here on the East coast we’re being slammed by winter weather we barely had all winter. Last week, sixty degrees and daffodils blooming. Today they’re buried under the snow. The sweet promise of new life and renewal postponed for the time being.

Which brings me to the Bhagavad Gita. When I was younger in my journey, I devoured texts like this one. I couldn’t get enough. These last years though I’ve mostly stayed away from them. Partly it’s the patriarchal language, partly what sometimes seems a jungle of verbiage. At this stage of my life, I way prefer the naked simplicity of Mary Oliver’s poetry and Robert Bly’s Kabir.

And yet, the Bhagavad Gita is a powerful compendium of the yogic system. And has a great deal to say about waking up, about the difference between authentic power and something that pretends to be. About true greatness of soul and that empty charade that is grandiosity and smallness. Like so many of India’s ancient wisdom texts, no one knows for sure when this one was written. Scholars date it sometime between the fifth century B.C.E and first century C.E.The wonder of it is, it’s incredibly relevant for now.

Because along with articulating the philosophy and psychology of Yoga, the Gita offers a rather precise technology for strengthening ourselves from the inside out, so we can not only meet, but act effectively, to counter the dangers of this time. There is so much work to do. So many moving parts. So many different voices and needs to attend to. It’s easy to lose focus, burn out, numb out, and feel overwhelmed. Working with the Gita offers a steadying, sobering, and heart-drenched medicine for standing strong in the face of that and those who dare to cause harm…

The edition we’re using is Stephen Mitchell’s Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. My scholar friends will thumb their noses, but I do like his version. Perhaps it’s Mitchell’s long training in Zen. True to the text and written with great respect and reverence, there’s a spareness in his writing I respond to. The Introduction alone is superb. Mitchell really gets it! Here’s how he opens:

One of the best ways of entering the Bhagavad Gita is through the enthusiasm of Emerson and Thoreau, our first two America sages. Emerson mentions the Gita often in his Journals, with the greatest respect…

It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake to us, nothing small or unworthy but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.

What a revelation the Gita must have been for minds predisposed to its largehearted vision of the world. And what a delight to stand behind Emerson and Thoreau, reading over their shoulders as they discover this “stupendous and cosmogonal” poem in which, from the other side of the globe, across so many centuries, they can hear the voice of the absolutely genuine. Here is a kinsman, an elder brother, telling them truths that they already, though imperfectly, know, truths that are vital to them and to us all. In the Gita’s wisdom, as in an ancient, clear mirror, they find that they can recognize themselves….

And here’s how he closes:

The healthiest way to begin reading and absorbing a text like the Bhagavad Gita is to understand that ultimately it has nothing to teach. Everything essential that it points to—what we call wisdom or radiance or peace—is already present inside us. Once we have practiced meditation sincerely and seen layer after layer of the inauthentic fall away, we come to a place where dualities such as sacred and profane, spiritual and unspiritual fall away.

Zen Master Hsueh-feng asked a monk where he had come from.The monk said, “From the Monastery of Spiritual Light.”

The Master said, “In the daytime, we have sunlight, in the evening, we have lamplight. What is spiritual light?”

The monk couldn’t answer.

The Master said, “Sunlight. Lamplight.”

In that place, God is the ground we walk on, the food we eat, and the gratitude we express, to no one in particular, as naturally as breathing.

* * * * *

How’s that for a beautiful (and over the top tantric) definition of God.

Here’s the audio of my first Dharma Talk on the Gita. This is from January 30, 2017. I also want to add that for no rational reason I can articulate, but from the shakti that informs my work, the mantras we’ve been chanting this cycle are Om Tara Tuttare Ture Swaha and Namo Kuan Shih Yin P’u-Sa. This talk opens with a just shy of 3-minute explication of the Tara mantra.