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Eight: The Seventh Limb: Meditation (Dhyana)

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If we know the divine art of concentration,
if we know the divine art of meditation,
if we know the divine art of contemplation,
easily and consciously we can unite the inner world
and the outer world
.

Sri Chinmoy

 

Before meeting with potential donors, Steve spends a few minutes in meditation, concluding with an intention that helps him connect to purpose:

May [this person] be happy and peaceful
May she be free from all inner and outer harm
May her mind and body be healthy
May she be happy with things as they are
May she live with the ease of well-being

Steve, the physician/fundraiser at a major west coast university medical center, is charged with raising money to support the goals of the institution—at least on paper. But he likes to turn that description on its head. He considers himself an advocate for donors and in service to connecting the donors’ passions and motivations to the needs of the institution.

One of the things meditation practice does for him is remind him that the focus of his work is not the transaction, but building relationships. “When I am able to quiet myself and turn my focus toward understanding and advocating for the donor, I know I am not going to take actions that are coercive or manipulative. The meditation has been a way to bring the potential donor to the front of my mind. I can think about their needs instead of ‘How do I get them to do something I want them to do?’ Using manipulative selling techniques may get you something in the moment, but it won’t get you a lasting relationship.”

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Mountain Music

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On a June morning high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, snowy peaks rose before me like the promise of a world without grief. A creek brimful of meltwater roiled along to my left, and to my right an aspen grove shimmered with freshly minted leaves. Bluebirds kept darting in and out of holes in the aspen trunks. Butterflies flickered beside every puddle, tasting the succulent mud. Sun glazed the new grass and licked a silver sheen along the boughs of pines.

With all of that to look at, I gazed instead at my son’s broad back, as he stalked away from me up the trail. Sweat had darkened his gray T-shirt in patches the color of bruises. His shoulders were stiff with anger that would weight his tongue and keep his face turned from me for hours. Anger also made him quicken his stride, gear after gear, until I could no longer keep up. I had forty-nine years on my legs and heart and lungs, while Jesse had only seventeen on his. My left foot ached from old bone breaks and my right knee creaked from recent surgery. Used to breathing among the low muggy hills of Indiana, I was gasping up here in the alpine air, a mile and a half above sea level. Jesse would not stop, would not even slow down unless I asked; and I was in no mood to ask. So I slumped against a boulder beside the trail and let him rush on ahead.

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The Story of Kats and His Bear Wife

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During our exploration in 1985 of the Chiltan posture, the one about the forty-one girl knights whom the Uzbeki shamanesses call on to help them in curing (see Chapter 9), there were two reports that did not seem to fit the picture. One of them was Belinda’s:

Even during the breathing exercise I began seeing bark figures dancing. When the rattle started, I realized that I was flying very high; the ground was very far away. Then I approached a scene that was brown and green. There was a little pool of water that was like a mirror, and in it I did not see my own reflection, but a stick figure in the shape of a Y. There was a tree, and through it flew a little bird. In place of the pool, there was now a nest with three eggs. The little bird invited me to sit on the nest and intimated that to do that was very important. I stayed on the eggs for a long time, feeling intensified. Then I saw a totem pole, and was embraced by it, by the spirit in the wood. On the other side, there was snow, and pine trees. A hand moving a feather was making marks in the snow. An enormous she-bear appeared; she stood upright and we danced together. I grinned because she made me feel so light. She sat down and embraced me from behind, giving herself to me and penetrating me, and I felt greatly moved. My Lioness came and brought some twigs for the fire and then left. There were the horns of a mountain goat; everything felt high and cold.

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Chapter 6. The Horticulturists

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The history of horticulturalist settlements varies greatly according to geographic location. Judging from the archeological record, it flourished only briefly in Central Europe, and disappeared from the scene well over five thousand years ago. Traces of it can still be found in fairy tales and legends, but the absence of a historical memory of this cultural form contributed to the tragedy of native populations that got in the way of European conquest: It was not agriculture, and therefore it was despised as ignorant and savage. Only around the Mediterranean did some of the central concepts of its religion, especially that of metamorphosis, survive into the time of classical antiquity, as we know from ancient Greece and Egypt. But the ability of humans to change shape and become animals or plants was no longer generally accepted and became the attribute of deities in Greece. Zeus changes into a bull or a swan in order to further his amorous pursuits and seduce beautiful girls. And in Egypt, where many deities appear in a combined human and animal form, the entire metamorphosis complex apparently became part of the esoteric knowledge of the priestly caste. Japanese Shinto, the “Way of the Spirits,” is the only example of a large, modern industrial society retaining a horticultural religion. Horticulturalism as a way of life survived into the present in New Guinea, in parts of Southeast Asia, in Africa, and among Amerindian societies in both North and South America.

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Appendix: Some Practical Points

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—If you would like to try any of the postures I have described, you will need rhythmic stimulation. With some practice, you can record a tape for yourself, using either a drum or a rattle. The beat should be even and rather fast. Mine is timed at 200–210 beats per minute, and one session should last about fifteen minutes.

—Familiarize yourself with the posture first, then do a breathing exercise. It consists of fifty light, normal, complete breaths, with inhaling, exhaling, and pause constituting one breath unit. At the conclusion of this exercise, assume the posture once more, close your eyes, and start listening to the beat of the instrument. After a while, you may no longer hear the soundtrack. Do not worry about it. Your nervous system registers it anyway, although out of awareness. If you try to get back to the sound, you may interrupt your vision.

—As soon as the soundtrack stops, and provided you are clinically healthy, you will return to ordinary consciousness. Once in a great while a person does not manage this transition well. For this reason, a beginner should always have a companion. If the companion notices that the trancer does not come to right away, the first thing to do is to call his/her name. Gently releasing the trancer’s posture is also a good strategy, and providing a glass of water will help, too. As the group leader, you will occasionally go into a light trance yourself. One of my participants told that as she was rattling, her Indian spirit friend appeared before her and rattled along with her.

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Introduction

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My first reaction at rereading my notes about Edeltraut’s account of her experiences during the posture of the Feathered Serpent was amazement. Through the magic of the posture, the burning of a witch, the obscene crime perpetrated against uncounted women in centuries past, had here undergone a miraculous, a redeeming transformation. But at closer scrutiny, there seemed to be even more to it. As though witnessed from the inside, the event assumed an eerie reality. Joan of Arc might have experienced her trial this way, the Inquisitors tormenting her like the bothersome insects whose buzzing she could not stop; the distorted mask of the heretic that had been forced on her, and which hid the gentle girl who used to dance around the trees at her father’s homestead; the battering of the endless hearings that bruised her day after day. Finally there she is, standing naked at the stake, burning and yet not in pain, and flying through the blackness toward the light, a free spirit at last, an invisible companion of white birds.

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Speaking for the Land

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At the dedication ceremony for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in June 1934, the pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold began his remarks by declaring: “For twenty centuries and longer, all civilized thought has rested upon one basic premise: that it is the destiny of man to exploit and enslave the earth. The biblical injunction to ‘go forth and multiply’ is merely one of many dogmas which imply this attitude of philosophical imperialism.”

Leopold was not shy about making such grand claims, especially when, as in this brief talk, he wished to distill a complex argument into a few words. One could cite many examples of “civilized thought,” including the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Native American cultures, that do not advocate enslavement of the Earth. And one could cite biblical injunctions that urge us to be caretakers rather than exploiters of the creation. Still, there was ample evidence in Leopold’s time that the majority of his fellow citizens regarded the Earth as purely a source of raw materials, to be mined, dammed, deforested, plowed, paved, and otherwise manipulated to suit human needs, without regard for the needs of other species and with scant regard for the needs of future generations. This attitude of “philosophical imperialism,” which wrought so much damage in the Dust Bowl years, remains powerful in our day, and is now wreaking havoc on a global scale.

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The Uses of Muscle

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When I was a boy growing up on the country roads of Tennessee and Ohio, the men I knew all earned a hardscrabble living with the strength of their hands and arms and backs. They raised corn and cows, felled trees, split wood, butchered hogs, mortared bricks and blocks, built and wired and plumbed houses, dug ditches, hauled gravel, overhauled cars, drove bulldozers and backhoes, welded broken parts. They hunted game for the table in season, and sometimes out of season. Some of them had once mined coal in Appalachia or trawled for fish in the Great Lakes. Many had fought in Europe or Korea. They arm-wrestled at the volunteer fire department, smacked baseballs over fences at the schoolyard, and at the county fair they swung sledgehammers or hefted barrels to see who was the mightiest of the lot.

A brawny, joking, red-haired southern charmer who often won those contests was my father. He had grown up on a farm in Mississippi, had gone to college for a year on a boxing scholarship, had lost the cartilage in his nose during a brief Golden Gloves career. After moving north to Chicago, where he met the woman who would become my mother, he worked by turns as a carpenter, a tire builder, and a foreman in a munitions plant, until he eventually graduated to wearing a white shirt and sitting all day at a desk. He never liked the fit of a desk or a starched shirt, however, so as soon as he came home from the office he would put on overalls and go to work in the shop, garden, or barn. He could fix every machine we owned, from the car to the camera, and he needed to fix them, for we rarely had enough money to buy new ones. Although he grumbled when the tractor threw a belt or the furnace quit, as soon as he grabbed his tools he began to hum. He took pleasure in using his strength and skill, and I took pleasure in watching him. Around our house, whenever anything heavy needed lifting or anything stubborn needed loosening he was the one to do it. He could tame a maverick horse, hoist an oil-slick motor out of a car, balance a sack of oats on his shoulder, plow a straight furrow in stony ground, transplant a tree with its root-ball bundled in burlap, carry my sister and me both at once in his great freckled arms.

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Chapter 7. The Agriculturalists

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The Agriculturalists as State Societies

The agriculturalist has assured subsistence. All good things come to him, as we read in the Popol Vub, as a blessing from the “House on the Pyramids,” from agencies “on high.” But in order to have them, he has to work hard, earning his daily bread “by the sweat of his brow.” To pay for those good things, all members of the group have to be drafted into a continued and sustained effort. There is no room anymore, as the Popol Vuh tells it, for the venturesome and the proud. What the tillers need to inculcate in their young is conscientiousness, compliance, humility, and obedience.

With permanent settlements, agriculturalists can no longer avoid the problems of conflict by picking up and leaving: Conflict resolution, in other words, cannot be brought about by fissioning. Chiefly, authority comes into being as one avenue of solution. There is more personal property, and the concept also intrudes into the position of women. A man wants exclusive rights to his spouse, and his elevated status leads not only to her eventual disenfranchisement, but also to her ritual inferiority.

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Seven: The Many Faces of Divination

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Divining is as old as humanity. The hunters developed it as a ritual to discover the location of game, a matter of vital importance to them. As other types of societies arose, divination was adapted to the changing circumstances, but it continued to serve important societal goals. It is regrettable that in the Western world divination has been decried as irrational, antirational, or a fraud perpetrated on the ignorant and the superstitious, because divination is not that at all. It is soothsaying, that is, revealing the truth. What the diviner does is uncover to his clients some hidden truth about themselves, or about what is going on around them. There are certainly situations in everyone’s life where such insights could be of overriding importance. This is why within and outside the Western orbit, divining continues to play an important role, exposing that which is hidden, soothing anxiety, and aiding in decision making.

In Western-type societies, ours among them, quasi-mechanical means such as tarot cards are frequently employed for “fortunetelling.” However, the repository of much of divinatory knowledge is the alternate reality, and access to that treasure trove can best be gained in trance, and in the appropriate posture.

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Two: The First Limb: Universal Morality

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We are here to awake from
our illusion of separateness
.

Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Most religions or philosophies speak to some aspect of the morality contained in the words of the Sutra referencing the yamas. Robert Johnson’s classic treatise on Patanjali’s Sutras explains that “The commandments [yamas] form the broad general training of humanity. Each rests on a universal spiritual law.” Patanjali says that the commandments are not limited to any “race, place, time, or occasion.” They are to be integrated into daily living.

Often called the moral restraints, the precepts in the yamas are universal, and are framed as the “do nots” in life’s list of moral do’s and don’ts. The precepts contained within this First Limb are:

Ahimsa—non-violence

Satya—non-lying

Asteya—non-stealing

Brahmacharya—non-squandering of vital energies

Aparigraha—non-greed, non-hoarding

Put into positive wording, ahimsa asks that you eschew all forms of violence and treat all living things with respect and compassion. Satya is a commitment to truthfulness and transparency. Asteya means we take only that which is freely given. Brahmacharya is about controlling our senses and energies so we can cultivate our inner life, and aparigraha is about living simply by taking or using nothing more than what we truly need.

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The Common Life

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One delicious afternoon while my daughter, Eva, was home from college for spring vacation, she invited two neighbor girls to help her make bread. The girls are sisters, five-year-old Alexandra and ten-year-old Rachel, both frolicky, with eager dark eyes and shining faces. They live just down the street from us here in Bloomington, Indiana, and whenever they see me pass by, on bicycle or on foot, they ask about Eva, whom they adore.

I was in the yard that afternoon mulching flower beds with compost, and I could hear the girls chattering as Eva led them up the sidewalk to our door. I had plenty of other chores to do in the yard, where every living thing was urgent with April. But how could I stay outside, when so much beauty and laughter and spunk were gathered in the kitchen?

I kept looking in on the cooks, until Eva finally asked, “Daddy, you wouldn’t like to knead some dough, would you?”

“I’d love to,” I said. “You sure there’s room for me?”

“There’s room,” Eva replied, “but you’ll have to wash in the basement.”

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House and Home

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When our first child was born, a rosy wriggle of a girl we named Eva, my wife and I were living in a second-floor apartment on the noisiest avenue leading east and west through Bloomington, Indiana. Trucks grinding their gears, belching buses, howling ambulances and squad cars, unmufflered pickups and juiced-up jalopies roared past our windows, morning, noon, and night. What little dirt we could find between pavement and weeds in our tiny yard was slimed with engine oil.

To begin with, Eva weighed only six and a half pounds, all of them fidgety. Like any newborn she was pure appetite. With a stomach so small, she hardly seemed to close her eyes between feedings. Even when those brown eyes did fitfully close, they would snap open again at the least sound. Ruth nursed her to sleep, or I rocked her to sleep, and we’d lay her in the crib as gingerly as a bomb. Then some loud machine would come blaring down the street and Eva would twitch and wail.

Once an engine had frightened her, mere milk would not soothe this child, nor would a cradle endlessly rocking. Only songs would do, a rivery murmur while she snuggled against a warm chest, and the chest had to be swaying in rhythm to a steady walk. Fall silent or stop moving and you had a ruckus on your hands. Night after night, I worked my way through The Folk Songs of North America, cover to cover and back again, while carrying Eva in circles over the crickety floorboards. It took hours of singing and miles of walking to lull her to stillness in my arms, and then a siren or diesel could undo the spell in seconds.

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Honoring the Ordinary

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For years, I could ignore the charges raised against the memoir, just as I could ignore the charges raised against burglary, because I had no intention of committing either offense. But then the circumstances of my life and the sad state of my country prompted me to write a book called A Private History of Awe, which I thought of as an extended essay about my lifelong spiritual search, but which my editor informed me was, indeed, a memoir. When the book was published in 2006, it bore that label on the jacket for all to see. And so, having joined the suspect company of memoirists, I began to take a personal interest in the accusations leveled against this literary form.

The most common accusations often appear in the guise of two blunt questions: How could you write a whole book about yourself? And how much of it did you make up? The questioners assume that a memoir must be an exercise in narcissism, and that it is likely to be dishonest to boot. One can easily find published examples that would justify either suspicion. There has never been a shortage of egotists or frauds, so it’s no wonder that some of them compose and peddle books. Although these two human failings often go together, for the sake of clarity I’m going to separate them, speaking first about the dangers of deceit and then about the dangers of narcissism.

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The Spirits and the Wounded Tree of Life

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Mystery in the Museum In addition to books on native art, museums often yield tantalizing representations of postures. This presupposes, of course, that what you think you see on that rack or shelf is actually there. In this business, you cannot always be sure.

The story I should like to tell next started in a museum. The School of American Research in Santa Fe had asked me for a luncheon lecture. Afterward one of the associates of the institution took some of the guests and me on a guided tour of its private museum, which possesses an outstanding collection of Amerindian art. The first spacious hall contained a great number of the most magnificent ollas, large clay vessels no longer made today. This hall had a door that opened to the right. The other members of the party had already walked through, when my attention was caught by still another shelf to the left of the exit. Instead of ollas, this one contained an exhibit of figured pieces, the likes of which I had never seen on the Indian markets. Always on the lookout for new postures, I immediately noticed a male statuette in an unfamiliar stance. It was only about five inches high, made of yellowish clay with red-brick markings, and it stood on a small pedestal which carried the inscription “Calling the Spirits.” I carefully noted the posture, how the hands were positioned on the groin with fingers spread, and how the head was tilted back slightly and the mouth was open. I wanted to sketch it, but the young woman who acted as our guide came to close the door, so I quickly jotted down a brief description and did not even check if the figurine had a number or some other identifying code.

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