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Reflections On Satyagraha

Activating our soul isn’t easy, and finding a way to change the world through soul-power (God we need it) can be even harder. This is the meaning of Satyagraha, the term first introduced by Mahatma Gandhi to describe his campaign in South Africa, now made into an opera by Philip Glass. Satyagraha the opera places Gandhi’s life in a mythological context, showing how Gandhi was first inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and the figures of Tagore and Tolstoy, and how he in turn came to be an inspiration to others, notably Martin Luther King.

At the start of the opera we see Gandhi inhabiting the mythical battlefield between the Pandava and Kaurava clans, together with the hero Arjuna and the god Krishna. Just as Arjuna is caught between the competing claims of the two clans, towards both of whom he feels loyalty, so Gandhi is caught between the rival claims of the British empire and the Indian people, towards both of who he feels loyalty. Just as Arjuna’s soul (Atman) is activated by Krishna’s wise counsel that he must have the courage to do his duty in the face of life’s conflicts, so too is Gandhi’s. The scene ends with the solemn vow of Brahmacarya, as Gandhi / Arjuna promises to dedicate his life to courageous service.

Mobilising the soul as an active force in human politics and the affairs of the world is no easy task, and Gandhi draws hostility, ridicule and even violence upon himself as he adopts the dress and lifestyle of a renunciate. Yet the ways of the spirit are subtle, and profoundly affect the human sphere through what appear, on the surface, to be simple acts, but which are imbued with great symbolism and resonance. We see this played out  as Gandhi and his followers burn their identity cards (‘passes’) to protest against the racist laws of the time. This simple act is incredibly liberating, both spiritually and politically, and lifts them to a new plane of existence.

Satyagraha is ‘the surgery of the soul’, because it is a method for bringing about a profound change of heart in ourselves and others which leads to political and social change. The Satyagrahi must be courageous and willing to sacrifice his or her own well-being in order to demonstrate truth. It is only the courageous demonstration of truth that can touch the soul of the oppressor, and cause him to change or at least relent. This, finally, is the meaning of Satyagraha – that profound, long-lasting change, whether personal or political, must originate from within, and the only method that ultimately works is one based on understanding and harnessing the soul.

Purification Through Patience – part 1

The following is my adaptation of a teaching I received in 2006

Because we are so concerned with avoiding or overcoming any physical or mental discomfort or pain and achieving physical and mental comfort and pleasure, we spend a lot of our time trying to identify the causes and conditions of things happening in our life. We want to know what will give rise to pain and pleasure, and what we can do either to stop such causes and conditions assembling, or to help them assemble. We do this all day long: trying to manage things, adjusting, moving around, pushing, pulling, trying to keep control. It’s so important for us. We need to know what are the causes and conditions leading to certain effects that are taking place in our life, we need to know so that we can maintain some control over our life, so that we don’t have to experience so much suffering, so that things don’t go wrong.

Sometimes it doesn’t work: we’re eating really really healthily, we have a good diet, we exercise, and yet we get sick. Maybe there is something in our diet, we change that and still we get sick. Or I take medicine because the doctor says this medicine works, other people have taken it and say that it works, so I take the medicine . . . and it doesn’t work for me. I want to accomplish a particular result and everything is perfectly in place but the result doesn’t occur, something goes wrong – that doesn’t make sense! There’s some frustration in our mind: “that’s not supposed to happen”. We’ve checked, and it’s still not happening. Why? We don’t know what to do. It’s like when you’ve lit a firework and you leave it and nothing is happening and it doesn’t make sense . . . it’s got the guarantee on the box . . . and you’re afraid to go there . . . is it going to work or is it not? It’s not making sense. What am I going to do?

When we experience suffering or misfortune we look outside for the cause. We may suffer from bad headaches, and we conclude they are caused by eating sugar. We’ve done that haven’t we? “I must cut down on the sugar, I must cut down on the chocolate, I must cut down on the coffee” But if eating sugar was the main cause of headaches, everyone who eats sugar would suffer from headaches, but they don’t. Why is it that some people suffer from headaches if they eat a little bit of sugar when other people don’t even though they have three teaspoons of sugar in their tea every day? Headache arises from the potential for headache. Where is this potential? Is it in the sugar?

When we are experiencing suffering, either physical or mental, when we are experiencing difficulties, when things are going wrong, the first thing we must do is ask ourselves “why?”. Normally when we experience suffering, when things are going wrong we respond or react so quickly, in order to make some changes so that the suffering ceases, so that what is going wrong changes into what is right. Instead, rather than go straight in and sort it all out like we normally do, we wait a minute . . . wait . . . wait. Why is this happening? Where is this suffering coming from, where is this situation coming from? “Now is the time to purify my mind, to purify my soul, now. I accept this suffering, I accept what is happening right now with a grateful mind.” This patient acceptance itself is so purifying, and we can take this practice a little bit further by not just patiently accepting suffering, not just happily accepting things going wrong, but by even allowing these things to take place.

We need to think about the difference and the relationship between acceptance and allowance. It’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that we are practicing patient acceptance when in fact we are not. Imagine something happens that we don’t particularly like so we are quite patient, we experience some suffering, but still we make some changes. There may be some patience in our attitude, but not much. We make changes because we know we can make them. This is typically what we do. We are managing, and we are managing very well; we’re controlling, and we are controlling very well. This indicates that we haven’t given up on the idea that things should be different than they are. In our heart we not only feel they should be different, we believe we should make them different. All I have to do is say something or do something, and things will be different. I’m still working with causes and conditions: removing some, adding some and, hey presto, I’ve got what I wanted, sometimes without having to practice any patience at all. It looks like we have some patience . . . maybe. We know in our own heart if there is patience or not. If there is some difficulty we can change it straight away, so there’s no problem! Patient?

If a fly lands on my head I can just ‘patiently’ flick it away. So you tell me, if I was to do that, would you think that I was patient? I look like I am patient, I can just carry on talking, patiently, as the fly lands on my head, and I just flick it away ‘patiently’. “That fly shouldn’t be on my head”. I’m not accepting it. I know that if I act then the change takes place: where once there was a fly on my head, now there is none. How much do we really allow to take place in our life? Not very much. One way of dividing patience is into accepting that which we can do nothing about and accepting that which we can do something about. We would not say “I’m allowing it to rain”, but you can allow that fly to remain on your head. I would say that patient acceptance in general is very purifying, but allowing things to happen when we could actually do something about them if we wanted to is immensely purifying. We feel so often there is something we can do about what’s happening. What I’m suggesting here is that we don’t do anything, rather we allow whatever is taking place to take place, having given up the idea that things should be different from how they are. I’m allowing something to happen when I could, if I wanted, prevent it from happening or stop it from happening. It’s an acceptance, but I think it’s a very powerful kind of acceptance, allowing something to happen. It is both purifying and difficult.

For example, in respect to mental discomfort, mental suffering, don’t be in such a rush to free yourself from it. If someone is criticising us and there is a bad feeling in our mind, it actually feels quite painful. What we would we normally do is stop that person from criticising us, as if the person criticising us is the main cause of our mental suffering. (Where is that suffering really coming from?) Instead, with a deep breath we just accept that suffering. We allow that painful feeling to remain, and eventually it will go. Normally, because we cannot bear that feeling, we have to do something, we have to say something to that person, we don’t allow them to continue. In fact we should accept that suffering, allowing it to remain in our mind and allowing that person to continue. It’s so purifying. Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourselves the time to discover where these feelings actually come from. When painful feelings arise in our mind there is no need to panic. We can patiently accept them, experience them – and we can only do that if we allow them to remain in our mind – we experience them and investigate their nature and where they come from.

So when things go wrong I’m going to allow them to go wrong. Why don’t we want things to go wrong? What does ‘wrong’ mean anyway? Things are going wrong, and I’m just not allowing that. What does that mean, “something is wrong”? Why is it wrong, what makes it wrong, and why are we in such a rush to put things ‘right’? If you think about it, we’re doing this all the time because mostly things are not right, and things are never perfect, and we want things to be perfect. So we will keep doing something to make things better in the hope that actually they’ll be perfect. We don’t stop. “It’s wrong that the fly lands on my head.” What’s wrong with that? Let’s ask the fly: “Do you think what you’re doing is wrong?” “No I think what I’m doing is right”! Why is it wrong for me, why do I have to do something?

It’s not very often that we just accept or allow things as they are, because we think that we can make them better. We’re given a meal, great! We taste it, “where’s the salt?” We put a bit of salt on. “That’s better.” Because it’s not quite right, it’s not perfect. “That’s better, but still not perfect, a bit of pepper.” And so it goes on and on and on. All day long we’re doing it: an itch. “that’s unacceptable, I’m not allowing that”. It’s gone. The itch has gone now. “That’s better”. We don’t stop do we?

So now you’re thinking: “You’d end up doing nothing”. It’s impossible. You’re always doing something, you can’t stop, but it is what we’re doing and why we are doing it. So please think about just allowing things to happen. We’ve got to be sensible, we don’t need to go to any extreme, of course. If allowing something to happen is going to be harmful in any way then of course we don’t allow it to happen. Our foremost concern should be that neither ourselves or others are harmed either directly or indirectly if we allow something to happen. We have to think carefully about this: if it’s clear that either ourselves or others will be harmed in some way then of course we shouldn’t just allow that thing to happen, instead we should make some changes with a good motivation and a patient mind.

part 2 will follow soon

The Political Instinct

In her book “The Mystery of Numbers” Annemarie Schimmel discusses the innate human mathematical instinct at the root of all systems of numbers and geometry. There is also an innate political instinct at the root of all our political systems and forms. The mathematical instinct governs human relationships to questions of oneness and manyness, controlling how we divide the world into quantities. The political instinct governs our relationship to questions of order, purpose and cooperation.

Humans instinctively feel that we are in this world for a purpose — it takes an extraordinary confluence of cynicism and apathy to knock this feeling out of us — and we also feel that we must cooperate with others to achieve this purpose. All of our patterns of cooperation, modes of persuasion, and our efforts to collectively agree upon goals spring from these initial political instincts.

To call our political instincts innate is to say that they are part of our nature, our soul, which means that they are basically good. Our mathematical instincts too are fundamentally good and useful, are one of the sacred endowments at the root of great human achievements. Yet unfortunately both mathematical and political instincts can be twisted and corrupted by the delusions of greed, hatred, pride etc. The opening scene of 2001 — A Space Odyssey graphically depicts the unfortunate human tendency to turn conceptual knowledge into weapons and slaughter.

One of the great challenges of our time is to rediscover our innate political instinct, before it got corrupted and became just another servant of business. This primordial political energy in our souls can bind us together through love and shared endeavour, and marry us to both ideals and reality.

The Meaning of Life

February 2009

Dear Friend,

You wrote:

We can apply the Zen debate between sudden and gradual awakening to the question of faith, refuge and salvation. My local vicar in Sussex once told me that there is a difference between salvation and sanctification. Salvation is sudden and occurs the moment you give your life to Jesus. Sanctification is the gradual process that follows. Perhaps the act of faith is necessarily a sudden shift to the objective perspective, whereas the assessment of our faith is part of the gradual subjective process. In this sense, in one moment of pure faith we are already outside samsara. Sure some Pure Land teacher must have said this? And if this moment of pure faith occurs at the point of death, perhaps this means we lock into the objective perspective – forever, or until we freely decide we need to work on our subjective side again.

Your thoughts resonate with some of my recent contemplations. In the film ‘The Meaning of Life’ by Monty Python there is a scene in which a group of corporate executives discuss the meaning of life in the boardroom:

Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: “The Meaning of Life” Now uh, Harry, you’ve had some thoughts on this.

Exec #2: Yeah, I’ve had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we’ve come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren’t wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person’s soul. However, this “soul” does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man’s unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.

Exec #3: What was that about hats again?

This idea of bringing the soul into existence by a process of guided self-observation with the assistance of an outside spiritual energy does indeed seem to me to be the meaning of life. Its relationship to salvation and sanctification might be as follows:

Salvation corresponds to initial baptism / baptism of water. At this point one enters religion and receives the protection of God. However, one has not yet been sanctified. Sanctification corresponds to baptism with the holy spirit. This latter baptism is normally associated with the Pentecost. The Catholic Catechism describes what was granted to the Apostles at Pentecost as the “full Outpouring of the Holy Spirit” (i.e. sanctification).

In between initial baptism (salvation) and baptism with the holy spirit (sanctification) is the baptism of fire. This confusing stage is the process of transforming the soul from its raw to its cooked state or, to use Rumi’s specific form of this of analogy, transforming the wheat of the soul into cooked bread:

The heart’s like grain, and we are like the mill.
Say, does the mill know why it whirls around?
The body’s stone, the waters are the thoughts —
The stone says “Oh the water understands!”
The water says “No, ask the miller, please —
He sent the water downhill — ask him why!”
The miller says: “Bread-eater! — should this cease
To move, say then, what would the baker do?”

Perhaps sanctification is when the baker puts his seal of approval on the cooked bread, before serving it to his customers?

Dear Matthew,

I remember the Monty Python scene about the soul from when I saw it in the cinema. It intrigued me then. They almost certainly got it from Gurdjieff. It was an important idea for me at the time, but graudually I found it reinforcing a type of self-grasping and causing tension. What I like about Mahamudra and the wisdom teachings in general is that our fundamental nature is already pure and in a sense enlightened. We need to relax into our enlightened (and eternal) nature rather than create it through effort. Gurdjieff”s teaching on the soul gave me the feeling that I needed to create my own immortal nature, and thus increased unnecessarily the tension an over emphasis on self power creates. I realize now I misunderstood the teaching. Have you heard of the two types of Buddha lineage which Geshela taught in Great Mother of the Conquerors, the naturally abiding lineage and the developing lineage? As the names suggest, the naturally abiding lineage is something we’ve already got, and refers variously to the emptiness of our mind, the clarity of our mind, or the clear light mind. The developing lineage is what grows through spiritual practice. I like to see soul as a pattern or order that gradually emerges out of our chaotic “uncooked” nature, the fully developed soul being symbolized by the Deity within his mandala that embraces the whole universe, having fully transformed chaos into cosmos. I might have got this idea from you. The development of soul is therefore closely related to the accumulation of merit, which I sometimes see as a song or chant that begins with a lone voice but graudually brings together an entire football crowd.

I think you could argue that until our soul pattern has reached a certain degree of stability there is no individuality within us that can reincarnate. Specific actions have been created which lead to specific effects, and on this causal contiuum we can impute an I linking the two, and therefore speak about rebirth, but this is not the same as a reincarnating soul.

Gurdjieff taught that soul is created through self-remembrance and conscious suffering. Self.remembrance seems to correspond to the mindfulness and alertness of vipassana, and concious suffering to the practice of patience as described in How to Solve our Human Problems. These two practices do seem to me to be the basis of any genuine spiritual practice on the self-power side.

Politics and mind are the same nature

Acceptance of the way things are
Although there can be strength in wanting things to be different there can also be weakness. The strength may be compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering – we should all wish that conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness can be because, from our own point of view, there may be much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn. If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Maybe not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working.

Natural Mind
The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged.

Natural Politics
Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations in its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. On the contrary, it means that it *is* working. If the leaders of the country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works. It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, the natural political system is working.

Mind and politics are the same nature

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of peoples’ minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they can be in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any longer so he used all his creative powers to become the Buddha, to release himself and others. When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault as he may have never learnt any other way of responding. His mind is working; can we say in this situation that ‘his natural political system’ is working?

Cybernetics / Systems Theory
The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system, the laws governing systems (cybernetics) apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. The exact output will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10 cents into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way! Either way the system is working, insofar as it is obeying cybernetic law. Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because, quite reasonably, we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work. But we can learn more from how things actually *do* work than from how we think they should work. The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from somewhere else.

Natural Political Flatness
We normally have the idea that political power is a man-made construction, which tends to configure itself like a pyramid with those at the top having most power and those at the bottom least. However, it is possible to consider political power to be a natural phenomenon. According to this view everyone is naturally imbued with an equal amount of political power, because political power is part of the mind. Far from being a pyramid, this power structure is completely flat because everyone is fundamentally equal. From this point of view the man-made, pyramidal political system is a secondary phenomenon superimposing itself upon the natural flatness.

The man-made political system develops when people create it and invest it with their own natural political power. It is, in some sense, an illusion because no matter how much power appears to reside in it, it is nothing other than people’s natural political power in a contrived form. The awe we feel when we meet powerful people within the man-made system is in proportion to the credence we invest in the illusion. We should feel no more awe meeting one person than another, because all of us are naturally powerful and important.

compiled in September 2008 from articles on a previous ‘Politics of Soul’ website.