The Empty Boat

The Empty Boat

There are very few poems that you can live your life by. Poems that grow with you as you grow older, revealing a different meaning at different stages of your life. Taoist sage Chuang Tzu‘s ‘The Empty Boat’ is one such for me. As I begin a new phase of my life today, engaging in the world of work, rereading it gives me so much joy and guidance yet again. I hope it does the same for you.

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

The straight tree is the first to be cut down,
The spring of clear water is the first to be drained dry.
If you wish to improve your wisdom
And shame the ignorant,
To cultivate your character
And outshine others;
A light will shine around you
As if you had swallowed the sun and the moon:
You will not avoid calamity.

A wise man has said:
“He who is content with himself
Has done worthless work.
Achievement is the beginning of failure.
Fame is beginning of disgrace.”

Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.

Image Used Under Creative Commons License via Lola Khalfa

Behind The Mind: The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin

Zen Landscape

One of the most beautiful and unknown gems in Eastern non-duality, whom I recently discovered thanks to my mentor GD, is Wu Hsin. Born a hundred years after Confucius, his name literally means ‘no-mind’. And true to his name, there is no trace of him available – no profile, no wikipedia entry, one single image. This is just how he would have liked it I suppose – after all, what is the value in deliberating over the life story of someone who says our life story is a dream?Wu Hsin

Behind The Mind’ is a collection of his short daily discourses, some of them literally just a few sentences long, at the end of which he tells students to ponder over the words till the next day. Like the recent and better-known Nisargadatta Maharaj, Wu Hsin’s words are stark, unsentimental and powerful. “Listen to Wu Hsin,” he says, “but do not expect to benefit in any way. Who is there to be benefitted? Any seeming benefit is only another stitch in the tapestry of the personal narrative.”

A few timeless pointers from this must-read collection: 

An imagined entity desires to become an enlightened imagined entity. What’s the point? It is like trying to measure space. Yet, this will continue until such time as the distinction is made between this that I am and that that I appear to be.

Dismount the pendulum of fear and desire. That ground beneath you is the Source and Support.

See that you create the space in which the world moves, the time in which it lasts. Come to realize that the world is only sand. You may play with it, you may walk on it, but don’t build your house there. There is no journey, as such. It may not seem so, but we are always back where we started. What we were in essence, and what we will be in essence, is what we are in essence.

All thinking is imaginary because the person talking to you is imaginary. There is no self talking to yourself; in fact, there also is no “yourself”. Stay a time in silence. Do not accept these words; look for yourself for “yourself”.

The two great delusions are that life is controllable and that there is an entity, me, who can exercise said control. But if we cannot even control the thoughts that appear to us, how can we possibly believe we can control what occurs to us?

Wherever you go, you carry with you the sense of here and now. This is what distinguishes any present experience from memory. It reveals that space and time are in you and not the other way around. Most people are not acquainted with the sense of their being but only with the knowledge of their doing.

Enlightenment is one more concept to add to your collection, yet another idea regarding improving yourself, discovering yourself, or obtaining peace and happiness.

Don’t take life personally. The sun has no care for what passes through the sky.

* * *

Image used under creative commons via Avard Woolaver

The Change Trap

The Monk & The Executive

We live in the most change-obsessed culture in history. We change our clothes, our hair, our body structure – and sometimes even our noses. We want to change our attitudes, our brains, our marriages – and sometimes even our chakras. We applaud those who take on herculean challenges to shed weight or gain muscle. And we proudly run ourselves on a treadmill of self-improvement every day.

But these days, I am taking a step back. And I am sitting down. Because I am seeing that constant striving to achieve that external image of perfection is bondage. And that everything I want to change about my life makes me a victim of something or someone outside. It’s shockingly big when you see that this applies to spirituality as much as consumerism.

I am learning this from my three-year-old son. Last week, he told his healer mother who was trying to help him recover from a throat infection: “Mama, I don’t want healing now!” It was such an unexpected sentence – I would never say ‘no’ to spiritual support. But he seems to see his life differently. He cannot be controlled even by spirituality because he doesn’t yet have the desire to be more peaceful than he is.

As grown ups, we think differently. We have complex strategies to be more peaceful and happy. We are hooked onto whatever promises salvation. To whoever says our life can be ‘fixed’ for a fee – from affirmation teachers to cosmetic surgeons, from financial advisors to gym instructors, from fashion designers to feng shui experts. In fact, all advertising is based on convincing us why we need to change and showing us the way.

Yes, the rings are all out there; but the hooks are in me. And the hook underlying them all is the belief that I am fundamentally wrong as I am.

What if I could take a deep breath and let go of wanting to change who I am for a while? Not wanting to permanently get rid of sadness and suffering. Not wanting to banish the trembling of anger and fear. Not wanting to perfect the ‘imperfect’ body and silence the mind. Not even wanting to conquer sexuality and unenlightenment. What if I could be fundamentally okay just for this moment?

I would probably be a lot like my 3-year-old. Not always laughing, but not scared of tears either. I would be powerful, not because I created strength, but because I was not ashamed of my weakness. And I would be very silent inside – because the mind would have so much less to do.

The Empty Boat

The Empty BoatMy informal role in the spiritual group which gathers around my spiritual mentor GD (a role appreciated by GD, mind you) is that of the senior student + class clown. Which basically means I keep the energy in the workshops and Sunday sessions light by poking fun at myself and sometimes taking welcome potshots at GD too.

But a few weeks ago, it was different. A weeklong ‘12/12/12’ workshop had organically crystallized around GD. Amongst the 24 participants filling GD’s living room were seven professional therapists, life coaches and healers, and I was feeling a little – I hate to say it but – diminished, even sidelined.

And I didn’t even realize this until the fourth day morning, when GD privately asked me why my energy was sad. I looked at him blankly. Me? Sad? No way! Out of respect for his insight (and past experience with his supernormal empath X-Ray vision), I offered up likely causes – Money? Writing? Missing home? Nothing clicked for him until I mentioned in passing how I felt a little hurt by his comment on day one. His body spontaneously let out a deep breath. “Yes!” GD said. “Talk more on this subject…” And one by one, out came the entire tangle of perceived events, imagined slights and sulky spells. At the end, I could see, as clear as day, the load of heaviness I had been carrying inside for the past few days.

“It’s all about being special,” he suggested quietly. “Can you see that?”

Yes, I could now: I was not getting my chance to ‘shine’, so I was inwardly sulking.

“And when the ego can’t shine,” GD continued lightheartedly, “it throws tantrums to seek attention: either outwardly, by reacting – or inwardly, by sulking. The ego wants to prove its ‘specialness’ at all times… especially in groups. But it fails to see that every time it is seeking specialness, it is missing the Oneness.

“For the remaining days of the workshop, just let go of wanting attention… stop struggling to prove anything… and experience the bliss of being nothing and nobody. Contrary to how it sounds, it is one of the most nourishing and empowering experiences possible.”

Then it struck me even deeper: what had I gotten stuck into! One comes upon the spiritual path to experience oneself, but gets caught in navigating group dynamics. In cementing one’s place in the pecking order. In earning intangible privileges to show off one’s seniority. In seeking symbols to signal closeness with the teacher. And the whole focus moves away from oneself to the teacher and the group.

“It’s great to laugh and interact with the group,” GD reminded me. “But that is tiny compared to experiencing your inner beauty. Can you let go of whatever you have been in the past… and just be… and melt… and disappear?

“Can you be an empty boat?”

Suddenly, I felt a wave of gratitude for the new participants who were drawing the big laughs and doing ‘my job’ so that I could be spared to go within. My sadness lifted. My soul was once again singing – like a bird which had once again regained its connection with the open sky.

Image used with gratitude under Creative Commons via Martin Gommel

The Awake Blogger

A few months ago, when I was just beginning my blogging journey, I had asked my mentor GD for some tips on blogging as a path of reflection and self-learning.

The insights he shared in the form of questions to ask myself while creating a new blog could well be insights one could use while creating anything new. Just replacing the word ‘blog’ with cartoon/artwork/book/poem/screenplay could make the same questions a blueprint for any creative person seeking to tune into a higher and wider inspiration.

Some of the questions overlapped, but each was worthy of being asked again and again every time I sat down to create a new blog.

1. “What tiny contribution can I make to the planet today?”
Beginning with an attitude of being available for service silently opens the doorways of intuition and inspiration.

2. “Who am I being when I am creating this blog?”
GD’s one constant reminder to those around him is to develop sensitivity to who they are being rather than focusing only on what they are doing. Everything we create, he says, carries an invisible energetic signature of our state while we were doing it. The most brilliantly written post about love can have the energy of arrogance, fearful desperation or pushiness. Regardless of whether people consciously pick it up or not, they respond to the energy. So the underlying energy is as critical as the content and the awake blogger must gradually become sensitive to his energy while he is creating a blog post.

3. “Is this blog coming from a state of Flow or is it coming from a should, a must, a need-to?”
Sometimes, the starting point for a blog can come from a mind compulsion – a panic that too many days have passed, a fear that one is going to lose one’s readers, a desire to get validation, a need to project oneself as more evolved. Forget about enlightening others, GD told me once, blog for your own evolution.

4. “Do I have a desire for a specific outcome?”
If there is, GD said, you will manipulate the flow into a fixed direction. You will not be true to the natural impulse in the moment. Sometimes, just like the expensive car and house – blogging can also become another vehicle for self-gratification. Instead, consider approaching it as being an expression of me being fully, simply, me.  So the question to ask is: am I being honest to myself and my deepest integrity? Is there any form of deception creeping in? Is there any subtle greed and fear operating?

5. “Is there any part of me which wants to convert/coerce others into changing their point of view?”
The analogy GD gave to explain this was that of a handsome gulmohur tree. Seeing the tree may inspire us. But the tree is not trying to make us like it. It is just standing in his own truth. As we get into the Flow, blogging becomes as natural, effortless and spontaneous as the bird singing its own song or the flower sharing its fragrance: a spontaneous happening with no thought for the result. Along the way, GD cautioned, don’t become too attached to your point of view. ‘Don’t hard-sell,’ he said. ‘The harder you sell, the more resistance you will face. Don’t take your own wisdom too seriously!’

Finally, GD reminded me: Don’t judge your old writings – your old blogs. That was the best you knew then. Appreciate yourself for going out there and saying your piece. And thank the blog and the readers for giving you an excuse to Flow. Everything in life is a means to return to your true self. Let the blog also become another reason to dive deeper into you!

Image © Aalif Surti 2012

Seeker Punch!

Whenever you feel the urge to take yourself and your spiritual journey too seriously, try a dose of Ram Tzu’s poems. These poems were actually written by advaita teacher Wayne Liquorman who used a pen name because he “didn’t want a bunch of miserable seekers cluttering up his living room”! So don’t expect a shoulder to cry on or a pat on the back. The only thing available here is a knockout ‘seeker-punch’.

Here’s a taste of the beautiful, hilarious and brutally insightful Ram Tzu:

Ram Tzu hears it all the time…
You had a profound, revealing,
Deeply moving spiritual experience. 

Now you’re hooked.
Now you want more.
Now you’re a seeker. 

No junkie has ever been more dedicated
Or more continually disappointed
Or more miserable. 

Once, you might have been satisfied
With a new car
Or a loving mate. 

Now you will settle for nothing less
Than union with God.

Ram Tzu knows this…
You’re fucked.

Advaita Cartoon courtesy Bob Seal