At the beginning of time
I declared two paths of spiritual discipline:
jnana yoga, the path of spiritual wisdom,
and karma yoga, the path of action.
Those who shirk action do not attain freedom;
nor can gain one perfection by abstaining from work.
Indeed, no one is inactive even for an instant;
all creatures are driven to action by their own nature.
(Bhagavad Gita 3:3-4)
There’s an upside and a downside to the self-help culture in which we live. The upsides are actually many––folks getting a sense of their own worth and dignity, a sense of an inner power that is transformative, inspiration toward greater healing and fulfillment. The downside is that we can focus too much on ourselves. I find the same thing happens often when people initially get focused on the so-called mystical traditions––Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, for instance. I’ve been working on some new chapters for Universal Wisdom (there are 30 online now, by the way: see the Sangha Shantivanam website), and once I cross over the dividing line between Buddhism and Judaism I can feel a whole change in the cabin pressure. The texts from the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Dhammapada, are very inward focused (the exception being certain passages from the Gita, as the one quoted above about detached action). Part and parcel of this is a criticism of Christianity, especially of Western Christianity (how often I heard this in India, from Christians!) for being so extroverted, outwardly focused on God and others instead of cultivating the cave of the heart. Of course, once the polemics die down and we can see the contrast non-judgmentally, we can also see what a beautiful marriage it would be if East and West were to really meet and complement each other, like breathing in and breathing out.
I am constantly trying to cultivate for myself and teach to others a holistic, integral spirituality, that is, care of the body, the soul and the spirit: health of body, which includes care for our environment, care for the soul with its multiple layers of consciousness from emotional intelligence and psychological health through cultivating the intuitive minds of the artist and mystic intuition, opening up to the higher realms of consciousness and ultimately to spirit itself. But when I end the retreats that I offer on Spirit, Soul and Body, I often draw a circle on the board divided into four quadrants, one for each of the above and a fourth quadrant for––what? Along with my confrere Bruno I don’t always know what to call this fourth quadrant: incarnation, insertion, participation? Usually I wind up calling it simply “service.” What the Ur self-help program––the 12 Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous––teaches is that service is an intrinsic part of recovery. In other words, we don’t wait until we get it all together before we start being of service; no, service is one of the tools for getting it all together. I love the phrase that Karen Armstrong uses in her book on the Buddha: the Yoga of Compassion. There is the Yoga of Knowledge, the Yoga of Meditation, the Yoga of Devotion, the Yoga of Sound––and there is the Yoga of Compassion, the Yoga of Action. Again reaching toward an integral approach, it seems as if we are trying to put some element of each of these Yogas into our personal practices, and one essential element is inserting ourselves in the world, participation, incarnation, service, and not just after we’ve been enlightened and gotten it all together. There will always be a place for withdrawal and silence and solitude, but inserting ourselves in the world is one beneficent practice toward our enlightenment. Service itself is a spiritual practice. In Catholicism it is referred to as the “corporal works of mercy.”
Why? Because it gets us out of our small self. I like the image about pratyahara in the eight limbs of Yoga that I learned, sense withdrawal. It’s like a tortoise pulling its head into the shell for a time. I remember a teacher saying, “It’s not because the world is bad; it’s just that we need to rein in our senses every now and then and make sure they are connected with that deepest part of ourselves.” Yes, yes! That’s it. But then what? We find the inner light and that inner light shatters our shell, like the light from Jesus’ heart that blew the stone off the tomb in the garden of the Resurrection.
Often in our tradition we hear a reading from the Jewish scriptures and then hear a reading from the Gospel that is like Jesus doing an exegesis on it. For once, the opposite is happening. This past week the reading from the prophet Isaiah put Jesus’ teaching from the Gospel in context. Those glorious passages from the Sermon on the Mount: You are the light of the world! You are a city built on a hill! A lamp on a lampstand! I could say my whole ministry as a priest has been based on trying to convince people of this, about themselves. But as a minister and a teacher, I find that I am always walking that fine line, trying to know when to build people up and when to challenge then to do something about it. The whole point of being beautiful and radiant and shiny is not to stand around looking beautiful and radiant and shiny. The whole point of being a city built on a hill is for people to live there, feel welcomed there. The whole point is to participate in this cruel crazy beautiful world. Our friend Huxley writes that no religion does any one any good but so far as it brings the perfection of love into us. So “true orthodoxy can nowhere be found but in a pure disinterested love of God and our neighbor.”
What does this mean practically? In a beautiful prophecy from Isaiah he tells his co-religionists in exile:
Share your bread with the hungry!
Shelter the oppressed and homeless!
Clothe the naked when you see them!
Do not turn your back on your own!
Remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech.
Satisfy the afflicted…
And here for me is the important word: “Then…”
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
Then you shall call and I will answer.
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness.
Then the gloom shall become for you like midday.
We crawl into our shell, the beautiful cave of the heart, in meditation and prayer. We find the light, we die to our outer selves in prayer and meditation, and we also do it in service. And then then then… the light bursts our shells, our caves open and we shine. Remember that song I quoted last week from Daisy May Erlewine? "There is work to be done, so you got to shine on!"
This of course is the example of Jesus too, who as St Paul tells us, did not cling to his godliness, his holiness, who never seemed to be mind being pulled out of his solitary retreats in the mountains abiding with his Abba to heal the sick or preach. Rather, he emptied himself, took the form of a slave. And then he taught his followers, The greatest among you will be the ones who serve; and the first ones among you must meet the needs of all. Then our light will not just glow in our hearts: it breaks forth like the dawn!