Small Moments, Many Times
I co-led a retreat recently with Rabbi David Cooper, who is both a beloved old friend and colleague, as well as a mentor at times. I have been hearing and digesting David's ideas about "life, the universe and everything" for over 20 years, paying very close attention to his gradual unfolding on the spiritual path. Certainly he is one of the few people I know who has gone to even greater extremes than I have in his search for freedom, truth and understanding of this human dilemma.
I have spent over 30 years exploring and diving into nearly every approach to "waking up" that came down the pike, often going to what some would consider great lengths in my quest. But while I was busy traipsing around the globe collecting exotic spiritual experiences, David was mostly being a disciplined meditator, digging one deep well, as it is said, in contrast to my numerous shallow holes. He would often spend between three and six months of each year on silent retreat, sitting on a cushion, and maintaining an unbelievably austere schedule of arising at two or three in the morning and essentially meditating all day until ten at night, then sleeping for perhaps four hours and beginning again. He would maintain this schedule for up to 100 days at a time.
Beyond his commitment to silent sitting practice, David, like me, was also at times drawn to some extreme experiments on his journey: he did what the Tibetan Buddhists call a "dark retreat," which, like it sounds, involves being in an absolutely dark room for extended periods of time; in his case, 23 days. Apparently, all notions of night and day disappear, the boundary between sleeping, waking and dreaming begins to blur, and one discovers the infinite capacity of the mind to create vast worlds that appear as real. David also did a "homeless retreat" on the streets of New York City, in which the participants were instructed to show up with just the clothes on their backs, no money, food or water, and they were set loose to survive in the city for five days, relying on their wits, grace, and the kindness of strangers.
So if anyone can speak about and exemplify the value of genuine, committed spiritual practice and meditation, it is Reb David. He has more than earned his teacher status, and being 14 years my senior, he has also been at it longer than I have, for about 50 years. At our recent retreat together, however, I heard him say something I'd never heard from him before, and it both startled me and shook me up. After delivering an evening talk one night, he concluded by stating, "And this is the best I can offer this lifetime. These are the highest teachings I've come to after 50 years of practice, and I no longer expect to discover anything radically new or different."
I noticed my heart sank and I felt deflated. Despite the fact that all the Zen-ish people are always saying "This is it, there's nothing to get, it's all here now," I never really thought they meant it! Did they really mean this is as good as it gets? Surely they must be referring to some other version of this that will come along some time later, once I really understand that "this is it, here and now." But right now? Certainly this this can't be it! How many of us are hoping to truly be here now someday in the future? When teachers proclaim, "This is it," it always feels as if their version of "this" is somehow magically filled with luminosity, eternity and wonder, whereas our puny, everyday "this," though equally pervaded by the Glory of God, generally appears to us as nothing special, certainly not awe-inspiring, and even boring sometimes.
I asked David to define his version of "This is it," and he wrote back: "THIS (the entire unfolding universe, and everything that is happening in every moment) IS (the divine, extraordinary revelation of) IT (that which the world has sought to understand and attain for thousands of years)!!! And if THIS is truly and deeply grokked on the most essential level, there is nothing more to seek but to look into the mirror and recognize that whatever THIS BEING is seeing is nothing less than the God-ing process before ITS very eyes. (Wow!)"
We all have brief moments of experiencing our lives like that, of breaking through our fog and seeing our present reality (no matter what it is) in all of its hidden splendor. Such inspiring awakenings can occur when witnessing the birth of a child, coming upon an extraordinary vista in nature, experiencing a high after meditating for 20 days, or really anything at all that triggers a spontaneous glimpse of the Vast Silence that we inhabit. Yet we keep bouncing back into the daily humdrum view of life, like a rubber band that is stretched and snaps back to its original form; we always seem to come back to "just this," and it's often a huge disappointment.
That's why I was dejected when I heard David say that what he has already offered as a teacher is as good as it gets. Because I know that he also gets bounced back. In fact, he has advised us to reframe our expectations about attaining some permanent state of enlightenment that never goes away, and to think more along the lines of "Small moments, many times." But most of us persist in hoping for some big, final moment of epiphany from which we never return, saving us at last from this world of suffering and our relentless human minds that seem to be running, and often ruining, our lives.
I've been watching and waiting for David to get enlightened for two decades now, but here he was, announcing an endpoint of some sort, and yet he was still just my old familiar, all-too-human friend-certainly wise, kind, open and loving, but, according to some unexamined criteria of my own, not enlightened. It took the wind out of my sails. What are we seekers doing here, anyway? If David didn't get it-the great and final It--after a gazillion hours on the meditation cushion, what hope is there for us more casual spiritual dilettantes?
I examined my criteria, and what I discovered was that there are, in fact, certain teachers out there who do "measure up" to my strict enlightenment standards, and that I seem to base it on a certain sense of authority that they convey in their tone of voice, in the clarity of their teachings, and in their absolute confidence in what they are saying and doing. Of course, I have a hunch that Jim Jones and Hitler probably also spoke with confidence and an air of authority (although lacking the "clarity of the teachings" bit.) But David always sounds to me more like a pundit than a guru, demonstrating an extraordinary intellectual grasp of the dharma, presenting it through the lens of his raw and honest human experience, displaying a great degree of wisdom, generosity and kindness, but still, ultimately, so damn ordinary! He remains a regular guy, with regular foibles, striving and schlepping along with the rest of us, in my mind settling for "small moments, many times" instead of spirituality's Grand Prize, a permanent vacation from one's self!
Ironically, of course, again and again, nearly all of the teachers who do carry the charisma that attracts me, and who speak with great power, force and authority, are usually the very people who eventually fall from their thrones in the ignominy of sexual or financial scandals and the abuse of power. I'm still a sucker for someone who acts like they "know." Seekers are a dime a dozen; I want to be around someone who has found, and there is no shortage of such folks eager to take on that mantle, and then more often than not, charge megabucks to be in their presence.
Where does it leave us if it turns out that all of our spiritual emperors have no clothes? If it's really just us here, scrambling to figure it all out and make it work? For every True Believer who will tell you that their Master is the "One" (and usually the Only One), I promise that you can also find dozens or thousands of disaffected devotees who will be only too happy to share their horror stories. And yet, just as we cling to the possibility of a Great and Final Awakening, we likewise still long for that Great One who Really Knows! We want to sit before a pure expression of the Divine in human form, a direct channel of the truth and a beneficent expression of absolute enlightenment and spiritual liberation. In other words, we want to meet the Buddha on the road, but we don't want to kill him, we want to bow at his feet and have him deliver us our freedom wholesale, direct from the manufacturer with a lifetime guarantee.
It's easy enough to find dead saints to believe in. I'm still under the impression that Ramana Maharshi, Neem Karoli Baba and Ramakrishna, not to mention Buddha and Jesus, were the real thing. It's just so frustrating that living teachers always turn out to be flawed and merely human. We're drawn to their charisma, and then are subtly or overtly asked to assign to them perfection and an infallibility that would leave even the Pope salivating. It is always an all-or-nothing proposition with such teachers; you can't partially believe someone is a Divine Incarnation. You can't filter out what you like or don't like when someone is "speaking the Truth." Devotees in scenes like that are never permitted to have a different point of view, for neither the teacher nor the group mind will permit it.
When such a Master is eventually caught with His pants down, the group usually divides in two: one half limps away, wounded, whimpering, disaffected and angry. The other half is somehow able to twist the truth into a version that allows them to stay and carry on, with their teacher's often bizarrely inappropriate behavior justified as "crazy wisdom," intended for everyone's growth. It is, I'm afraid, absolute delusion, sustained because some of us simply cannot tolerate the loss of our favorite object of reverence and devotion, the one who allowed us to feel we had found our way, that it was the right way, (and usually the only way) and that our spiritual progress was ensured, on schedule, and under the direct supervision of a top representative of God Itself! Not merely a "representative," though, because such groups tell us that we are presumably sitting in the actual, Living Presence of the One and Only God, the Source of the Universe, appearing in our midst in human form!
Of course it is also true that we are in the same actual, Living Presence of God every second of every day, whether we are sitting before a blade of grass or sitting on the toilet. So when one particular manifestation of the Living God becomes somehow ultra-special, we either have a genuine prophet among us or a psychopath, and usually some weird combination of both that never turns out well.
That said, the non-dual tradition of Advaita, a branch of Vedantic Hinduism, does in fact, insist that "Tat Tvam Asi": Thou art That. And physicists draw much the same conclusion from another angle: life is all energy, just molecules dancing a rhumba, and it is one energy that is manifesting as separate objects that appear to be real.
So if it is true that We are That, doesn't it follow that there must be somebody, somewhere, who really knows that truth through direct experience and is more or less able to remain in constant contact with that Realization? Yes, perhaps. And like I said, such people, like Ramana Maharshi, usually tend to be dead.
But while we're waiting for such Messiahs to show up, in the meantime we need to be thankful for the David Coopers of the world, those who generously give over whatever insight and knowledge they have accumulated on the spiritual path, while remaining transparently human, stubbornly real and ordinary, and collecting no devotees or large sums of money in the process. Nor demanding we prostrate ourselves at their feet or think of them as God, unless we include ourselves and everyone else in that formulation. (In David's teachings, it wouldn't even be that we are all God, but rather, that we are each God-ing, i.e., we are a process, not a thing.)
We can and will certainly continue to have mentors, coaches, teachers, and peer-counselors, but perhaps it would be more useful to think of all of them, ultimately, as-imagine this-friends! It might just be time for us to let go of our hunger for Divine heroes and once again uncover the heroic in ourselves and others, and accept that this this really is it, and recognize also that this, the ever-present home of the All-in-All, paradoxically does appear to get better over time as we more and more let go of our me-centered outlook and rest more often in our primordial identity, impartial witnesses to the whole catastrophe.
Image by lakerae, courtesy of Creative Commons license.