Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving and blessing 2015

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Thanksgiving is a day traditionally associated with two very important and related concepts: that of giving thanks, and that of blessing.

When we first consider these two concepts in conjunction with each other, the immediate connection that will probably come to mind is that we give thanks for the blessings that we have in our lives, including those material needs which we simply must meet in order to stay alive, such as food and some level of protection from the elements.

It is of course entirely appropriate to pause and give thanks for the fulfillment of our material needs -- both on a daily basis and on special days such as this one.

But, even as we depend upon meeting certain needs in order to sustain our physical life, and even as we give thanks for the continued ability to do so, we also would probably agree (if we continued to think about the two concepts of thankfulness and blessing) that the idea of blessing involves more than the mere meeting of our common material needs.

Indeed, previous posts on this subject have argued that the concept of blessing nearly always invokes something in the realm beyond the material realm (reaching out towards the divine realm or the invisible realm), and that in fact blessing can be defined as the raising up or calling forth or bringing out of that aspect of ourselves and others which transcends our merely physical aspect.

Blessing involves elevating the spirit, elevating our awareness of and resonance with the world that is not material in nature, even though it is invisibly present at every point in the material world at all times. Blessing calls out to or seeks connection with that invisible realm which, according to the words of Lakota holy man Black Elk, is in fact "the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world."

Indeed, if we continue to pursue this idea even further, we might come to the realization that all of the material security in the world does not actually convey or ensure this aspect of blessing -- the aspect that involves something which transcends the material world altogether. 

Realizing this does not, of course, mean that there is anything wrong with wanting to secure the physical means of staying alive such as food and shelter, and or with wanting to ensure as much as possible that we will have access to them in the future as well -- but it does mean that unless we also learn about the way that we connect to the other realm, the invisible or divine realm, we will find that no amount of material security can ever fill the gap.

Indeed, there are numerous ancient texts and teachings which indicate that the pursuit of material things which are, in themselves, actually good and necessary can and will become an obstacle to our hope of satisfying that invisible need, if we make them our primary focus.

Dr. Peter Kingsley addresses this subject explicitly in his 1999 book In the Dark Places of Wisdom, when he says:
What isn't there, in front of our eyes, is usually more real than what is.
We can see that at every level of existence.
Even when we're finally where we want to be -- with the person we love, with the things we struggled for -- our eyes are still on the horizon. They're still on where to go next, what to do next, what we want the person we love to do and be. If we just stay where we are in the present moment, seeing what we're seeing and hearing what we're hearing and forgetting everything else, we feel we're about to die; and our mind tortures us until we think of something else to live for. We have to keep finding a way away from where we are, into what we imagine is the future.
What's missing is more powerful than what's there in front of our eyes. We all know that. The only trouble is that the missingness is too hard to bear, so we invent things to miss in our desperation. They are all only temporary substitutes. The world fills us with substitute after substitute and tries to convince us that nothing is missing. But nothing has the power to fill the hollowness we feel inside, so we have to keep replacing and modifying the things we invent as our emptiness throws its shadow over our life.
[. . .]
And there's a great secret: we all have that vast missingness deep inside us. The only difference between us and the mystics is that they learn to face what we find ways of running away from. That's the reason why mysticism has been pushed to the periphery of our culture: because the more we feel that nothingness inside us, the more we feel the need to fill the void. So we try to substitute this and that, but nothing lasts. [. . .]
Western culture is a past master at the art of substitution. It offers and never delivers because it can't. It has lost the power even to know what needs to be delivered, so it offers substitutes instead. [. . .]
Even religion and spirituality and humanity's higher aspirations become wonderful substitutes. And that's what's happened to philosophy. What used to be ways to freedom for our ancestors become prisons and cages for us. 33 - 36.
But, there is a way through this problem, and the rest of the book explores the evidence that it was known in ancient times, before it was lost or deliberately concealed -- the way to what Peter Kingsley calls "the peace of utter stillness" (36).

Exploring texts and clues which only survive in fragments in the West, he points to a poem by Parmenides describing a journey, not from darkness into light, but rather the other way around, from light into darkness and in fact "down to the underworld, into the regions of Hades and Tartarus from where no one usually returns" (52 - 53).

How this journey leads to that place of utter stillness, and "the peace of utter stillness," has tremendous implications for all of the most pressing problems facing us today, in the cultures descended from those that apparently lost or suppressed or marginalized this knowledge at some point in centuries past. The interested reader is highly encouraged to read -- and re-read -- In the Dark Places of Wisdom in order to fully appreciate the ancient message that Dr. Kingsley reconstructs from the clues that remain.

But, interestingly enough, while only scattered fragments of the trail remain in the ancient history of the western European cultures, there are parts of the world where the stream of this knowledge was not interrupted -- and among the sacred texts of ancient India there is a description of a journey to the underworld which speaks directly to this very subject.

The Katha Upanishad (also called the Kathopanishad) is an ancient Sanskrit text which describes the journey of a youth named Nachiketa who journeys to the abode of Yama, the dread king of death.

The entire poem is available in translated form in various places on the web, such as here, and can easily be read in one sitting of about fifteen minutes or less -- but its message, like that of In the Dark Places of Wisdom, is profound, life-changing, and worthy of careful consideration for much longer than a few minutes.

You may want to follow the above link and read the Katha Upanishad in its entirety for yourself before proceeding further.

The plot involves the fact that Nachiketa is granted three boons by Yama the god of death, on account of the fact that when the youth first arrived in the underworld, Yama was not at home and Nachiketa was not welcomed with proper hospitality. Because of this oversight, Yama graciously offers to the visitor three boons -- a word that itself translates to "blessings."

Nachiketa modestly asks first that his father's anger be appeased when Nachiketa returns from the underworld (Nachiketa's father, in a fit of rage, angrily ordered his son to Yama's kingdom at the beginning of the story: a textbook example of cursing, which is the opposite of blessing). 

He then asks that Yama instruct him in the proper performance of the fire ritual, as his second request.

Nachiketa then asks to know whether a person continues to exist after the death of the body.

The back-and-forth between Yama and Nachiketa at that point is extremely interesting to observe, and if you have not actually gone to the Upanishad itself using the above link, you may want to do that now (and continue on to see what Yama says afterwards, in its entirety, for yourself). 

What happens is that Yama asks to be released from that boon, and for Nachiketa to think of something else to request instead:
Ask for sons and grandsons who will live
A hundred years. Ask for herds of cattle,
Elephants and horses, gold and vast land,
And ask to live as long as you desire.
Or, if you can think of anything more
Desirable, ask for that, with wealth and
Long life as well. Nachiketa, be the ruler
Of a great kingdom, and I will give you
The utmost capacity to enjoy
The pleasures of life. Ask for beautiful
Women of loveliness rarely seen on earth,
Riding in chariots, skilled in music,
To attend on you. But Nachiketa,
Don't ask me about the secret of death.
We later learn from a line in the text that Yama suggested all these things as a way of testing Nachiketa,  to see whether he is worthy of receiving the highest spiritual instruction from the god of the underworld. It is extremely interesting to note the similarities to the passage from one of the books collected into what has been labeled "the New Testament," a passage known as the "temptation of Jesus," found in the first thirteen verses of Luke chapter 4.

Nachiketa replies, "These pleasures last but until tomorrow, and they wear out the vital powers of life. How fleeting is all life on earth! Therefore keep your horses and chariots, dancing and music for yourself. Never can mortals be made happy by wealth." He concludes by saying, "Nachiketa asks for no other boon than the secret of this great mystery."

Then Yama unfolds the deepest wisdom regarding the true Self, the higher Self, which cannot be revealed through the intellect alone (Yama explains that the intellect is good for discriminating between dualities, but cannot grasp this deeper truth).

The god says, in words very reminiscent of what Peter Kingsley has discovered in the ancient fragments of a now-lost tradition that was also once taught in the west:
The wise, realizing through meditation
The timeless Self, beyond all perception,
Hidden in the cave of the heart,
Leave pain and pleasure far behind.
Those who know they are neither body nor mind
But the immemorial Self, the divine
Principle of existence, find the source
Of all joy and live in joy abiding.
I see the gates of joy are opening
For you, Nachiketa.
Nachiketa then says, "Teach me of That you see as beyond right and wrong, cause and effect, past and future."

Yama replies:
I will give you the Word all the scriptures
Glorify, all spiritual disciplines
Express, to attain which aspirants lead
A life of sense-restraint and self-naughting.
It is OM ॐ   This symbol of the Godhead
Is the highest. Realizing it one finds
Complete fulfillment of all one's longings.
It is of the greatest support to all seekers.
Those in whose hearts OM reverberates
Unceasingly are indeed blessed
And deeply loved as one who is the Self.
The all-knowing Self was never born,
Nor will it die. Beyond cause and effect,
This Self is eternal and immutable.
When the body dies, the Self does not die.
This knowledge, preserved from ancient times and given to us in the Vedic texts, bears directly on the subject at hand, of blessing and the connection with the world that is beyond the material world, and the aspect of our being that exists beyond the material plane.

We see that the god of the nether realms tells Nachiketa that blessing is not achieved through any of the material things of this world: blessing is clearly shown to be of the spiritual rather than the material realm. 

The imagery Yama uses to describe the mystic who pursues "the timeless Self," not just of meditating but of going down into "the cave of the heart," also resonates strongly with the teaching found in Peter Kingsley's In the Dark Places of Wisdom.

According to the Katha Upanishad, it is when the sacred sound of ॐ reverberates in the heart unceasingly that one is indeed blessed.

The context itself indicates that this sound connects to the highest divinity. In the Bhagavad Gita,  part of a different ancient Sanskrit text, when the Lord Krishna reveals himself to be Infinite, he says to Arjuna, "I am the spirit seated deep in every creature's heart" and that he  himself is the first of all written characters, as well as the OM ॐ of sacred speech (chapter 10). 

Taking this understanding back to the teaching Nachiketa receives in the Katha Upanishad, the words of Yama appear to be saying that blessing involves the internal connection to the Infinite which is available to us inside the cave of our own heart. The reverberation of the OM inside is an expression of the connection to the Infinite: Yama is saying that blessing is found within, when the divine reverberates in the heart.

I believe that we should be grateful and express thanks for the ability to meet our material needs, and that we should work to find ways to help others who are in need. But in addition to the material needs, it is very clear that the ancient texts of humanity teach that there is another need which is found in a completely different direction.

We can be thankful that the human race was given the ancient texts, myths, and sacred teachings which point us towards the inner place where this blessing can be found.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Afterword: So why are these lessons in the ancient texts imparted to the traveler by the god of death? It is obviously not because Nachiketa has to actually die in order to learn these lessons: the text itself makes clear (in the answer to his first boon) that he will be returning to the land of the living after his visit with Yama. I suspect that there may be many layers to the answer to this question, but that one aspect of the answer may well have to do with the concept of detachment, mentioned so frequently by the Lord Krishna in his discourse with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. 

If, for example, we spill an entire jar of milk, which is food that costs money and helps keep us alive, and we fly off the handle into a fit of rage, then clearly we are exhibiting some level of attachment to that food -- which is perfectly understandable for material human beings who require food in order to keep their bodies alive. But, that fit of rage will not undo the spilt milk, so to speak. Krishna's admonition is to do what is right in this life, without attachment -- without becoming attached to the results, either in hope of gain or in avoidance of loss. The only way to overcome the tendency to cry over spilt milk, and many other exhibitions of attachment, is to pursue a practice of detachment.

On another level, however (or perhaps when viewed from a different perspective upon the same deep concept), the fact that these discourses (found across many ancient cultures) take place in the realm of the underworld with gods or goddesses of death may well relate to the otherworldly journey taken by those who are capable of entering into the state of ecstatic trance. Peter Kingsley explicitly makes this connection in his book In the Dark Places of Wisdom, for example on page 121 where he says of the otherworldly journey described in the poem of Parmenides:
The answer to the problem is so simple once you see what he's saying, and what he's doing. As a 'man who knows' he's an initiate -- someone who's able to enter another world, to die before dying. And the knowledge of how to do that is what leads him to the wisdom given by Persephone.