Some months ago, I began a new morning ritual, of drinking a small cappuccino after my shower, before beginning morning practice, using freshly ground coffee and a one-cup Bialettti to make it. I enjoy it enormously. For quite some time, I was reading the morning news online while drinking the coffee. Then, a couple of months ago, I began reading Ramakrishna in the morning, and definitively not looking at the news before beginning my practice. Once I began with Ramakrishna, I could not imagine how I was allowing myself to look at the news so early in the day, as for almost all of my spiritual practice years I would pay careful attention to what might come my way in the way of input before morning Sadhana.
Earlier this week after finishing the book, I started reading Great Swan all over again, and in the very beginning, when the narrator is taking us along to greet Ramakrishna for the first time, I felt like I was actually there in his presence greeting him. I could feel his love and his accepting me into his circle.
I am also reading three other books. I mostly read two or three books at a time. What is unusual at this time is that they are all quite lovely, each in their own way, spiritually oriented books: “The Forty Rules of Love” (Elif Shafak) about the meeting of Rumi and Shams, the great Sufi masters; “Longing for Darkness – Tara and the Black Madonna” (China Galland); and “Shantaram” (Gregory David Roberts. I just read, today, a deeply moving chapter (The Pilgrimage to the Black Madonna) in “Longing for Darkness,” in which the author describes herself and a million other people on a profoundly physically challenging pilgrimage, two weeks of walking up to 50 kilometers (30 miles) a day. Much pain and suffering, cold, rain, blisters, hunger, fear, and then the author shares the beauty of the camaraderie and love shared with her particular group of pilgrims, which I found deeply moving. There is a photo of some portion of the million people in a square at the monastery, and a sign, in Polish, which translates to, “We Want God.”
“We Want God” – You see I am thinking that I am a highly developed spiritual fellow, although also knowing that I am very much just another pilgrim. So, I had been thinking how blessed I am, and how special it is that is has been given to me to be able to pray, “May I love Thee.” And then here are a million Polish pilgrims whose collective prayer boils down to “We Want God.” I am always astounded to learn the many ways in which I find myself being arrogant and condescending. I was reading about all this pain and suffering of their pilgrimage, and thinking, more or less, “there they go, doing the Catholic suffering thing,” but the beauty of what the pilgrims shared after reaching the end of their pilgrimage, moved right off the pages of the book and into my heart, extending my feeling uplifted today right through the afternoon. So that I am still writing after 4 PM, when I mostly have never been able to write after lunch.
Suffering. I have rejected suffering as a part of spiritual practice. Perhaps it has a greater role than I had thought. I have been in profound physical pain for a substantial part of every day for the last two months. I had been having a problem sitting in my usual meditating posture, a half lotus, for the past six months. There would be sufficient pain after a relatively short time (I had been accustomed to sitting in this posture for long periods of time) that I would have to extend my left leg to get relief. I assume that this is related to that major auto accident I had back in 1980 when I broke my pelvis in three places, as there are often lower back and hip issues that arise upon occasion. While I have frequently experienced pain as a result of that injury, I had not previously suffered from the pain. If it was there, it was there, but it was not a factor to my sense of well-being.
I explored various healing modalities trying to deal with whatever was going on that was limiting my ability to sit comfortably, finally going to see an orthopedic surgeon, who sent me to physical therapy. They did something in physical therapy while going very deep into both the psoas and piriformis muscles that led to a profound irritation of my sciatic nerve on the left side and pain that was exquisite; on a scale of 1 to 10, it was 11. And, it went on and on, until today – I had a Cortisone injection into the area yesterday, which is just beginning to take effect.
The pain in the morning was the worst; just going the half a dozen steps to the bathroom was hellish. It was immediately afterwards that I would struggle into the kitchen to make my coffee – having become a fanatic about it – needing to sit on a chair while doing it. Then I would take my coffee over to the couch, open up Great Swan, and dive into Ramakrishna’s holy presence. This pain was suffering, overriding almost everything, but it would leave my awareness when I was with Ramakrishna, which I followed with morning chanting. Was there a relationship between my physical suffering and the deep place I would go to?
Yogi Bhajan used to lead what he called White Tantric Yoga, where participants would sit in long rows of couples facing one another, generally holding postures while chanting mantra, for 30 minutes or an hour, frequently quite painful, with the overall effect being quite elevating. There often seemed to me to be some correlation between the difficulty of the postures and the resultant elevation at the end of the workshop. And, a totally new thought for me: when we do my healing workshops we go through a valley of suffering while listening to the stories around each persons wounds, emerging at the end into a state of truly profound elevation, with the participants feeling like they are beginning life anew.
I was very grateful to be able to spend some time with Joan Halifax, a wonderful human being, at the recent SVN conference, where she was one of the featured speakers. I brought up the subject of suffering and spiritual practice, and she said; “now you sound like a Buddhist.” How strange that I have sort of blocked out thinking about the role of suffering, when in each Self Worth workshop I lead we have to dive so deeply through each person’s suffering to come out the other side, to the place of forgiveness, self acceptance, and inner peace.