Out of an unhappy marriage, after a tough divorce (it took place in New York and she addresses briefly how unpleasant it is to get divorced there, as if we did not already know from painful personal experience) and having discovered anew a desire to explore her spiritual side, Gilbert sets off on a three part journey of self-discovery in this memoir. These things can get on my nerves as they usually portray the idle rich wandering about contemplating their navels and marveling at the local cuisine, sights and boasting of their passing sexual conquests. There are, I suppose, elements of this, but I was taken with what I believe to have been the honesty of her quest.
When you’re traveling in India—especially through holy sites and Ashrams—you see a lot of people wearing beads around their necks. You also see a lot of old photographs of naked, skinny and intimidating Yogis…wearing beads too. These strings of beads are called japa malas. They have been used in India for centuries to assist devout Hindus and Buddhists in staying focused during prayerful meditation. The necklace is held in one hand and fingered in a circle—one bead touched for every repetition of mantra. When the medieval Crusaders drove East for the holy wars, they witnessed worshippers praying with these japa malas, admired the technique, and brought the idea home to Europe as rosary.
Europe was once a pandemonium of numberless Latin-derived dialects that gradually, over the centuries, morphed into a few separate languages—French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian. What happened in France, Portugal and Spain was an organic evolution: the dialect of the most prominent city gradually became the accepted language of the whole region. Therefore what we today call French is really a version of medieval Parisian. Portuguese is really Lisboan. Spanish is essentially Madrileno. These were capitalist victories; the strongest city ultimately determined the language of the whole country.
I’ve heard it said that prayer is the act of talking to God, while meditation is the act of listening.
We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you’re craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet. If you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony, god will provide the grace, And that is why we need God.
P 196 [ re turiya]
During typical human experience, say the Yogis, most of us are always moving between three different levels of consciousness—waking, dreaming, or deep dreamless sleep. But there is a fourth level, too. This fourth level is the witness of all the other states, the integral awareness that links the other three levels together. This is the pure consciousness, an intelligent awareness that can—for example—report your dreams back to you in the morning when you wake up. You were gone, you were sleeping, but somebody was watching over your dreams while you slept—who was that witness? And who is the one who is always standing outside the mind’s activity, observing it’s thoughts? It’s simply God, say the Yogis. And if you can move into that state of witness-consciousness, then you can be present with God all the time. This constant awareness and experience of God-presence can only happen on a fourth level of human consciousness, which is called turiya.
Here’s how you can tell if you’ve reached the turiya state—if you’re in a state of constant bliss. One who is living from within turiya is not affected by the swinging moods of the mind, nor fearful of time or harmed by loss. “Pure, clean, void, tranquil, breathless, selfless, endless, undecaying, steadfast, eternal, unborn, independent, he abides in his own greatness,” say the Upanishads, the ancient Yogic scriptures, describing anyone who has reached the turiya state. The great saints, the great Gurus, the great prophets of history—they were all living in the turiya state, all the time. As for the rest of us, most of us have been there, too, if only for fleeting moments. Most of us, even if only for two minutes in our lives, have experienced at some time or another an inexplicable and random sense of complete bliss, unrelated to anything that was happening in the outside world. One instant, you’re just a regular Joe, schlepping through your mundane life, and then suddenly—what is this?—nothing has changed, yet you feel stirred by grace, swollen with wonder, overflowing with bliss. Everything—for no reason whatsoever—is perfect.
…Your treasure—your perfection—is within you already. But to claim it you must leave the busy commotion of the mind and abandon the desires of the ego and enter into the silence of the heart. The kundalini shakti—the supreme energy of the divine—will take you there.
The Indians around here tell a cautionary fable about a great saint who was always surrounded in his Ashram by loyal devotees. For hours a day, the saint and his followers would meditate on God. The only problem was that the saint had a young cat, an annoying creature, who used to walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone during meditation. So the saint, in all his practical wisdom, commanded that the cat be tied to a pole outside for a few hours a day, only during meditation, so as not to disturb anyone. This became a habit—tying the cat to the pole and then meditating on God—but as years passed, the habit hardened into religious ritual. Nobody could meditate unless the cat was tied to the pole first. Then one day the cat died. The Saint’s followers were panic-stricken. It was a major religious crisis—how could they meditate now, without a cat to tie to the pole? How would they reach God? In their minds, the cat had become the means.
Be careful, warns this tale, not to get too obsessed with repetition of religious ritual for its own sake. Especially in this divided world, where the Taliban and Christian Coalition continue to fight out their international trademark war over who owns the rights to the word God and who has the proper rituals to reach that God, it may be useful to remember that it is not the tying of the cat to the pole that has ever brought anyone to transcendence, but only the constant desire of an individual seeker to experience the eternal compassion of the divine. Flexibility is just as essential for divinity as is discipline.
If humanity never evolved in its exploration of the divine, a lot of us would still be worshipping golden Egyptian statues of cats. And this evolution of religious thinking does involve a fair bit of cherry picking.
…the Hopi Indians thought that the world’s religions each contained one spiritual thread, and then these threads were always seeking each other, wanting to join. When all the threads are finally woven together they will form a rope that will pull us out of this dark cycle of history into the next realm.
The word amok, as in running amok, is a Balinese word, describing a battle technique of suddenly going insanely wild against one’s enemies in suicidal and bloody hand-to-hand combat.