The Poignancy Of Barrenness And Death

I didn’t see them and something felt deeply, unmistakably wrong.

Two nights ago, while on a walking meditation in the backyard, Alexandra and I stopped to remark upon what appeared to be the flapping of a small wing. Alexandra also swears that she recalls hearing squawking or squeaking. Maybe we also imagined a small mouth opening while pinprick eyes remained shut.

Over the course of several weeks, we’d watched the mother and father slowly build the nest. They’d do it in the mornings, with one flying off to gather a twig, then stumbling into the tree, then crawling clumsily on top of the other, then dropping the twig, and then leaving to do it again. Meanwhile, the builder, the one on whose back the gatherer had gropingly climbed, would move the twig to where it would add greater stability to the nest. The whole thing was quite comical, almost farcical.

In the afternoons, they rested.

And then they stopped and were nowhere to be seen. To us, the nest seemed half-finished and was not an altogether pretty sight. No high sides to speak of. No firm base. A rather flimsy affair, in our opinion. “That’s going to hold multiple eggs? Please.”

No matter because some weeks after they pronounced it done, they had come back. We could observe them taking turns, each sitting in the nest for perhaps 8 or 12 hours at a time. Were they guarding over it to ensure that no other mourning doves would take it? (Why would any dove want to steal that ramshackle thing?) Pray, what were they up to? We didn’t know.

For we couldn’t make out any eggs–not until one morning maybe a week or so ago when I saw a cracked eggshell lying on the ground. So, she had had them after all and had lost one already. I could notice a dull, mild ache somewhere inside me. She was still up there, unaffected.

Every time we were outside, she or he was up in the tree, looking unperturbed. I grew accustomed to checking on her, or him, from out of the master bathroom window, from a few viewpoints in the backyard, at different times of day.

“I was so looking forward to seeing the fledgling in the backyard,” Alexandra lamented. She said this yesterday when, peering up at the nest, we could only make out a disheveled mess. No mother. No father. And no baby.

What broke our hearts were three episodes spaced out in uneven intervals that morning: one dove returned to the nest and in great distress looked around, sensing that something was terribly wrong. A little while later, the same or another dove did the same, its head jerking around in pain, in shock, in disbelief as if asking: “My God, what the hell happened here? And where, where, where’s the baby?” Plain to see is that the mother or father was freaking out. Once more a similar scene replayed itself.

And now as the morning sunlight gleams through the tree, it’s clear that the nest is empty and that the ones who remain have gone elsewhere. Together? Alone?

Was it a hawk, a thief in the night, that turned their life upside-down? A sly roadrunner? To them, it can’t matter. It can’t matter because this year no fledgling, thumping down to the ground, will sit in the corner of our backyard, opening her eyes to the vast Southwestern sky, looking dumbfounded and scared, learning to fly haphazardly, not knowing–maybe never–what all this is all about. It’s all gone.

Any feeling person must ache with the shattering poignancy of barrenness and death.

Ayam Atma Brahma

To be sure, The Upanishads, shimmering in beauty and draped in mystery, are known for their arresting formula, but the muscular directness gives to this one the feel of the highest koan: “ayam atma brahma.” That is, “The Self is Brahman.”

I suggest that this formula has “the feel of the highest koan” just because it nicely combines two basic koan. The first is: “Who am I?” or more simply “Who?” It certainly seems as if I am a separate self, a jammed-together bodymind. For aren’t these desires my own? Aren’t these hands mine and mine alone? Do I feel your pain? And aren’t my thoughts private? Plain to me is the idea that I was born and plainer still is the idea that I will die. Equally plain, it seems to me, is my own limitations in time and in space. To say that I am a creature of finitude is to say, quite reasonably methinks, that I am limited. QED.

Not so, rejoins The Upanishads. In the second verse of The Mandukya Upanishad, we find: “Brahman is all, and the Self is Brahman.” Atman is the answer to the first koan: “Who am I, really? Well, I am Atman, the True Self.” Somehow, this means that I am not the bodymind after all; that I am not finite and, because finite, limited; that I was not born and therefore that I cannot die.

How can this be? In Verse 17 of “Reality in Forty Verses,” Ramana Maharshi writes,

To those who do not know the Self and to those who do, the body is the ‘I.’ But to those who do not know the Self the ‘I’ is bounded by the body; while to those who within the body know the Self the ‘I’ shines boundless. Such is the difference between them (The Complete Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 95, my emphases)

It is not the case that the one so enlightened–the one who knows that she is the Self–is presently without form and thus is–I don’t know–flying about or like ether. True, in the deepest samadhi, there is formlessness, but with sense organs and mental sense ‘online,’ the perceptible apparent world appears. It’s not as if, while the body we ordinarily identify with Ramana Maharshi while said body was in existence, Ramana Maharshi was some kind of spirit or celestial being or whatever. No, he was “within the body,” and yet he knew that he was not the body. Thus, for the one for whom “Brahman is all, and the Self is Brahman,” there ceases to be any identification with the bodymind (“not me, not mine,” as the Buddha would say) even as “the body is the ‘I” insofar as everything is “I,” for the “‘I’ shines boundless.” The question really turns on bondage born of ignorance and on boundlessness clear due to apprehension of the Truth.

The second basic koan is: “What is?” or simply “What?” What makes this question more fundamental than “Why is there something rather than no-thing?” is that answering this second basic koan gives one the ability to answer the second one. Said differently, the “why?” question naturally falls away upon realizing the truth of the first.

The answer supplied by The Upanishads is that what truly is is Brahman, the nature of Ultimate Reality. And that Reality is “one without a second”: it is always one and there is no second reality. Thus, this reality must be transcendent in the sense that it goes beyond (a) the limitations of finite minds of all kinds, (b) the limitations of all kinds of embodiment, and (c) the limitations of all kinds of worlds, universes, multiverses, etc. This Ultimate Reality is “supreme” in that it stands alone (All One) and in that from Brahman tumble forth all manner of temporary names and forms. Wonder of wonders, the Unmanifest also manifests; the Uncreated also creates; the Unconditioned also conditions.

What is so startling about this formulation, then, is that via the copula (“is”: isness) the subjective character is yoked together with the objective character. They are so intimate as to be identical. Who I truly am is exactly what truly is.

For one tending toward skepticism, this discussion can’t but raise red flags. The simple reply to the skeptic is that he is rutted in the assumed identification with the finite mind. Insofar as he hasn’t even begun the existential inquiry into what is ultimate, his doubts can’t be taken seriously. He is on the sideline, unwilling to budge. His fear is as palpable as his pride.

‘The Indication Of Your Progress Is Your Disinclination To Associate With Normal People’

Near the end of his life, Nisargadatta is in a satsang with a student who asks: “What is the yardstick to measure the progress of the seeker” (Prior to Consciousness: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, p. 45)? His answer may surprise you.

Maharaj: “The indication of your progress is your disinclination to associate with normal people; your desires and expectations get less and less. When out of intense hunger for Self knowledge, the door, or the floodgate is opened, then you start rejecting everything, right from the gross state to Iswara state, your own consciousness, you reject everything” (pp. 45-6).

Does this sound peculiar to you? Harsh? Impossible? Well, it’s none of these. It is plainly true and being true, it is marvelous.

That disinclination can be hard to put into words. It could be said, quite concretely, that you decline various, almost all social engagements. They have no flavor. It’s not just that you’re disinclined to engage in small talk, and it’s not just that you cease taking any interest in promoting–directly or indirectly–the ego-self. All of this just stops of its own accord. You have zero interest. Nada. Keiner.

Maybe the word disinclination is a touch misleading. There’s just nothing “registering” when you’re asked to associate with normal people. It is neither attraction nor aversion. It’s like being told that you can eat as much fruit as you like when you’re on a Keto diet. The fruit simply ceases to “show up” as food.

Make no mistake: Maharaj is not speaking only of renunciation here. He is also pointing to the fact–the lived fact–that the “hunger” for Self knowledge has become singular, concentrated, the most real inquiry there is.

At this point, nothing can sway or divert you from your inquiry. In fact, every happening becomes more “grist for the mill,” a gift that miraculously pushes the inquiry forward. For surely the “doubt sensation” (in the language of Chan) has arisen and it’s as if What Is is carrying you Home–in its own time, according to its own rhythm, in its own way.

Nothing can stop this unfolding. There is nothing here to impede it. It is an inevitability of the kind that we might, drawing from Zen, call Great Trust. Of course, to say all this is to say much too much. The labels–the need for labels–melt away and everything becomes sanctified.

Deft Spiritual Instruction In The Shvetashvatara Upanishad

Tucked between verses containing soaring lines on the Absolute, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad includes very practical, and sagely, spiritual instruction on how to meditate. It is worth reading closely and bears deep contemplation.

Be seated with spinal column erect

And turn your mind and senses deep within.

With the mantram echoing in your heart,

Cross over the dread sea of birth and death.

Train your senses to be obedient.

Regulate your activities to lead you

To the goal. Hold the reigns of the mind

as you hold the reins of a restive horse.

Choose a quiet place for meditation that is

Clean, quiet, and cool, a cave with a smooth floor

Without stones or dust, protected against

Wind and rain and pleasing to the eye.

In deep meditation aspirants may

See forms like snow or smoke. They may feel

A strong wind blowing or a wave of heat.

They may see within them more and more light:

Fireflies, lightning, sun, or moon. These are signs

That they are well on their way to Brahman.

Health, a light body, freedom from cravings,

A glowing skin, sonorous voice, fragrance

Of body: these signs indicate progress

In the practice of meditation.

As a dusty mirror shines bright when cleansed,

So shine those who realize the Self,

Attain life’s goal, and pass beyond sorrow.

The instructions on seated meditation are excellent. Sit with spine erect and turn inward, replacing the outward-going attention on sense objects and on mental objects with the inner light of awareness.

So are the words about having certain visions or experiences. Sometimes Zen overemphasizes the unimportance of visions, calling them “illusions.” While this is strictly true, it can be heartening for the spiritual aspirant to know that such visions (yes, mind-concocted and hence not the True Self unadorned) can be regarded as “signs of progress,” signs of greater clarity, depth, and direction. “Yes,” one might say afterward, “I am going the right way.”

The poem in no way suggests, however, that it is wise to grab onto such states, visions, or experiences. Doing so is a sure sign of lack of progress, and a surer sign still that you have embraced spiritual materialism. Anything less than Truth is a poor substitute and a tempting danger.

Thus, as in Zen, so in this Upanishad: clean the mirror, polishing it until it is so spotless that only the light of Reality can be reflected here.