Thursday, January 05, 2012



Two traditions have anchored my personal spiritual practice since laying down college teaching at the millennium, returning to Appalachia to work for the healing of the earth – and myself. The first set of practices clusters around enlarging my field of awareness to honor the entire earth system, Gaia, as a divine whole and in her particulars, both saying thanks for participation in the exquisite natural world in the Southern Highlands and in grieving what we are losing here and elsewhere. This practice, which still feels like an apprenticeship after 10 years, grows out of my encounters and training with Joanna Macy and her process of accepting the despair which we all carry for the earth, then moving through it to empowering our place in healing the earth. All of this is framed by prayers of thanksgiving, both for what the earth gives us, and for the opportunity to speak and act on her behalf. Joanna Macy's training is in Tibetan Buddhism, which honors the natural world and a host of divinities who embody natural forces and characteristics. It incorporates elements of Himalayan shamanism as well as pre-Buddhist India, both Vedic and animistic. Though the modern term for this approach, following Arne Naess, is “Deep Ecology,” I name it as shamanistic: practices that honor the divinity shot through all of creation, mirroring each aspect through our own consciousness and ritual.

The second set of practices grows out of Advaita Vedanta. Historical circumstance threw me into the midst of a religion that accepted and accommodated every practice in South Asia, including yoga, animism, as well as priestly brahmanism and polytheism. Though I was taken by everything about the Hindu culture in 1968, it was self-inquiry as taught by Ramana Maharshi that affected me most deeply. He took the ancient practice of the jnana yogi, neti, neti – which recognized the ineffable quality of the divine by saying “not this, not that” to every experience or formulation of God, turning it into the simple inquiry, the vichara, “Who am I?” For every experience, including the customary practice of dividing experience into body-mind (the “self”), the world, and god, is at root only the emanation of the Self, (Brahman), the ultimate creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. The I thought is primary, and no other thought or image is possible without it. This primal thought itself arises as an epiphenomenal miracle from the Self, which is all that exists.

After a couple of years of intermittent practice as a young adult, I quit, frustrated with my lack of progress. Then, a few years ago, I discovered, virtually in my backyard, a community that trains folks in the Maharshi's self-inquiry. Turns out that the practice which the ashram authorities forbade to be transmitted at the Maharshi's ashram in South India has been taught since 1978 in NC, first in Greensboro at a storefront, now at a rural ashram near Asheboro, home of the NC Zoo. The center calls itself AHAM (Association for the Happiness of All Mankind), and its training in self-inquiry is authentic, augmented by a highly supportive structure for thoroughly incorporating the teaching in one's life.

Since re-encountering self-inquiry through the AHAM community, I have prioritized this practice. As the Maharshi said, one must always come to this in the end, no matter what practice one follows initially. But I sense that I am not sufficiently honoring the Tibetan-shamanistic practices I learned from Joanna. I am not moving through despair to an affirmation of the essential joy of our true creative nature that the Maharshi says is our natural state, and which I usually re-experience when I do the deep ecology exercises. Instead of using the sympathetic identification of shamanism, I merely glance outdoors and retire to my meditation cushion, where I struggle with the endless stream of thoughts. They occasionally cease long enough to dive within to the questions, who's experiencing, who's thinking, to the gateway question, “who am I?” There is rarely very much energy in the process (maybe I should do more yoga first, or pranayam {breathing exercises}, I ask myself). I struggle to get beyond a deadening apathy, stalked by despair over the state of the earth that I hold at bay long enough to engage in the effort at meditation.

Occasionally this works, ending despair by letting it in, going through it, and simply cutting off the feeling by retracing the I-thought, undoing karma. Despair, and any other feeling or thought, is totally destroyed as soon as one asks, “who's thinking ..who's feeling? But when the vichara is working, even with the eyes open, the world feels unreal, like an image, a mirage. When the shamanistic practice works, on the other hand, I enter into identification with the world as plant, creature or natural feature, and what starts to feel unreal is experiencing myself as a separate entity. The practice takes me outside of myself, beyond experiencing that self as encapsulated in my body, breaking down boundaries, rendering them more fluid. I expand my identity, beginning to experience what Naess called the ecological self.

So it feels like the two practices are moving in opposite directions. It is true that each of them moves beyond the ego, the little tyrant who converts everything to his dominion. Shamanism moves beyond the ego through identification with wider and wider circles of being. I am that too. Advaita, especially through the Marharshi's self-inquiry, moves beyond the ego by going through it more deeply within, moving into identity with the Self who creates the world, including Gaia in all her multifaceted being. The “I” disappears into its source, like waves into the ocean. I am only That.

I deeply honor both of these practices, and have had remarkable experiences using each method. Shamanism feels closer to my experience, because I am an embodied being. But Advaita feels fundamentally true, however fleetingly I experience its core: I am that I am. To choose one over the other feels fundamentally wrong. What eludes me is integrating them.

NEXT: Thoughts about integration of the two practices.

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