Tag Archives: religion

So Hard To Find The Words

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I was in Sweden for a week, participating again in one module of my on-going training in Zen coaching.

Since coming back home it has been difficult to return to writing.

“Don’t touch me with your words, don’t reduce me to your concepts”, a voice inside me has been saying.

And yet, I have a need to say, an urge to share. So I’ll try to write. After all, I have in my use this limited, yet rich variety of symbols and metaphors, the words to convey my thoughts and feelings, ideas and experiences.

What is it then that is so hard to put into words?

… It’s all about life… it’s all about allowing myself to be vulnerable and showing my vulnerability.

… Looking back from where I am now – which is already one full life – I can see how there has been one big passion guiding me and my choices. I have wanted to dig deeper, to look beyond the apparent. I have yearned to see that I am part of something larger than just my small personal life. I have travelled all kinds of roads to explore my questions. Some of the roads I have walked have also turned out to be attempts to escape rather than find and face my personal truth.

There was theology. There was a ten-year odyssey exploring the world through journalism. Some twenty-year long journey of art and painting. Explorations of Buddhism and Raja yoga. An intense period of time devoted to working on my psychological wounds and scars.

And now there is something new dawning on me. A new connection, a fresh link between areas that I have considered separate until now.

I realize how deeply meaningful my journey has been! How wonderful has been the hidden intelligence that has been at play in everything.

Here are some of the insights that have been close to my heart during the past  weeks:

  • I understand that religions are not the answer. They may be useful because they refer to something important, but they can’t replace your own inner authority that you have to find, in the end, in yourself, and in and through your own experience.
  • I have also understood that you can’t use religion – or, for that matter, any spiritual or ideological approach – to escape the work that you have to do with your own psychological conditioning. You can’t skip the pain of exploring those hard shields, those clever masks under which you had to hide yourself as you grew up, to survive in the world you were thrown into when you were born.
  • The wonderful human body! It is the place where I can look at my feelings and really FEEL everything. It is the body through which I am in contact with the world and with myself. It is only through the fragile body that I can experience the present moment. I can lie to myself, but the body doesn’t lie.
  • Our definitions of ourselves are often too small, just as our definitions of “God” are too small. My inner level of Being – or, if you like, my Authentic Self, my Essence, my Supreme Self, my buddhanature – is a relevant, true dimension that is common to all human beings.
  • The gate into a larger or deeper understanding of life is not outside myself – it is inside me. There is no external authority to say how I should explore that  field of experience. Therefore, I am free to use any means and walk any paths that I like, to get into contact with my inner Being. The important thing  to remember is this: You can’t get there without having to face your personal pain.
  • To describe our inner level of Being we have to use metaphors and symbolic language. Therefore, mystics and poets touch these dimensions of our being better than official dogmas of organized religions, or scientific language of psychology.
  • It is only through contact to our Being, to our Authentic Self, that we can be free, and we can accept our fate and life as it is, with compassion and love. We no longer need to defend ourselves, because there is nothing to defend; we see our “personality” with its emotions and feelings as waves or ripples on the surface of life; whether as our inner Being – that transcends our psychological history – is characterized by unshakable peace, love and joy.

*

I’ll finish with a poem that speaks about a mystic experience, described in words that refer to earthly love. The writer is Spanish St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Crux) who lived in the 16th century.

On a dark night,
Anxious, by love inflamed,
– O joyous chance! –
I left not seen or discovered,
My house at last completely quiet.

In the darkness, with light,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
– O joyous chance! –
I left in the darkness, covered,
My house at last completely quiet.

On that joyous night,
In secret, seen by no one,
Nor with anything in sight,
I had no other light or mark,
Than the one burning in my heart.

This light guided me
More directly than the midday sun,
Where waiting for me
Was the One I knew so well, my delight,
In a place with no one in sight.

O night! O guide!
O night more loving than the dawn!
O night that joined
Lover with beloved,
Beloved in the lover transformed!

Upon my flowering breasts,
Which I had saved for him alone,
There he slept,
While I caressed his hair,
And the cedars’ breeze gave us air.

As I spread his tresses,
The fresh wind from the turret,
Wounds me in the neck as it presses
With its serene hand,
Suspending all my senses with its caresses.

I lose myself and remain,
With my face on the Beloved inclined;
All has come to rest,
I abandon all my cares
There, among the lilies, to die.

Truth Is A Pathless Land

“A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do it, it becomes dead, crystalized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do.”

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This weekend I want to share with you a text that has had a deep impact on me. It is one of those texts that I read over and over again. It describes in a magnificent way what happens when we try to create an organization around a belief. The text is part of a talk given by Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1929. Krishnamurti was an Indian speaker and writer on philosophical and spiritual subjects. In his early life he was groomed to be the new World Teacher, but he later rejected this mantle and disbanded the organization. Here is part of the talk that he gave on that occasion.

“I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do it, it becomes dead, crystalized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down; rather, the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountaintop to the valley. If you would attain to the mountaintop you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices. You must climb toward the Truth, it cannot be ‘stepped down’ or organized for you. Interest in ideas is mainly sustained by organizations, but organizations only awaken interest from without. Interest, which is not born out of love for Truth for its own sake, but aroused by an organization, is of no value. The organization becomes a framework into which its members can conveniently fit. They no longer strive after Truth or the mountaintop, but rather carve for themselves a convenient niche in which they put themselves, or let the organization place them, and consider that the organization will thereby lead them to Truth.”

The whole talk can be found here.

Krishnamurti talks about religious or spiritual organizations. I think, however, that the idea he presents can be used to understand some other phenomena, too. Let’s imagine a bit: Somewhere, someone has a fresh, original idea. To advocate and support that idea an organization is created. As time passes and the organization expands, the original, fresh idea gets diluted or withers away, and the sustenance of the organization becomes the main goal of the organization. Can you see any examples of this if you look around?

Krishnamurti’s biography, Krishnamurti 100 years by Evelyne Blau is probably the most fascinating life story that I have ever read. Another interesting book: Total Freedom; The Essential Krishnamurti, by J. Krishnamurti.

Walking through The Swamplands of The Soul

It happened one evening some years ago. I was quite tired after a long day and I had already gone to bed. I was in that misty, indefinite area between waking state and sleep – just about to fall asleep – when all of a sudden I saw a beautiful face in front of me; introverted, eyes closed, as if in deep meditation.

For a moment the face was still, and then the closed eyes opened slowly and looked deeply into mine. The look was very gentle and aware, and it awoke me from my near-sleep state.

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, "The face of my dream" (1)

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, “The face of my dream” (1)

I sat up and thought: “What on earth was that?”

At that time I was preparing works for my next art exhibition. The vision that I had just seen was so powerful that I decided to try to paint it. Eventually it became the theme of the whole exhibition that I would name “Beyond The Faces”.

But there was much more to that mysterious face than just an inspiration for my art exhibition. I believe the face was saying: “Time to wake up. Time to come back to yourself.”

Prior to that evening I had been on a four-year long journey of spiritual inquiry. I had become an active member of an Indian spiritual group. I had adopted the same goal as the other members. I tried to become nothing less than an angel – a pure, bodiless, spiritual being. I tried to follow the same principles, the same daily routines and practices as others. I was very happy that I was accepted in a company of very friendly, like-minded people, a big spiritual family.

For quite some time life felt great. I thought I had found my place and people in this world.

But then a nagging doubt entered my mind, and my heart began to feel odd, empty and cold. A huge void, like an infinite desert, settled inside me.

I had lost contact with myself, and my soul was crying for me to come home back to myself.

Harsh terrains

What had gone wrong in an endeavour that had started so well?

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, "The face of my dream" (2)

Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, “The face of my dream” (2)

One reason was in my psychological history. My own unrecognized wounds had lured me into a trap. My parents divorced when I was six years old. The divorce left me traumatized, and the years that followed were not easy.

Therefore, from this early age on my life was marked by an aching longing for acceptance and belonging. Of course I wasn’t aware of that, and so my unconscious forces eventually threw me into the lap of this spiritual group.

Now I want to make it very clear that I do not consider all spirituality simply as escapism from unresolved psychological problems. But I do want to note that in mature spirituality (and for that matter, in life in general!) it is necessary to become aware, at least somehow, of the pain and shadows of one’s psyche. We can’t reach the vast skies of our soul unless we also walk through the harsh terrains of our personal history. Or, to put it in another way, to get hold of the gold that lies within, we first have to scrape all the mud from its surface.

So I had bought the acceptance of a friendly, always-smiling spiritual community with the price of losing contact with my true self. I believed the acceptance was unconditional, but of course it wasn’t. Like in all human relationships there were rules I had to play by. And of course at some point I started to question them.

Cutting off portions of the self

Another reason for my life reaching a crisis was the imbalance in the teaching that I tried to follow. It was not downright denying the shadowy corners of being human, but it emphasized and focused so much on the spiritual, immaterial, and positive-only, that it automatically slipped into a very polarized view of life.

For me this meant that I ended up living in some sort of nebulous plane of existence, somewhere inside my head or, should I say, several centimeters above my head. Everything below that level became unclear, and even a bit scary. No wonder also my heart felt empty and hollow, and my body alien and lifeless.

Now seeing reality and life in opposing pairs of right-or-wrong, good-or-bad, mind-or-body, spirit-or-matter is certainly not characteristic of spirituality and religion only. It happens in all areas of life.

But like I already said in my first blog, nature knows no borders. Borders are a product of the human mind. What often seems to happen in spiritual approaches is that, as they aim to rise to the “higher” realms of consciousness, they begin to consider “lower” ones something bad and inferior.

Ultimately this leads to slicing off integral parts of being human. Being human means, among other things, being part of nature by having a physical body that, in many ways, bears resemblance to that of animals. It also means having a wide range of emotions and feelings from the most altruistic love to hate and rage. Therefore, true healing and wholeness can only be achieved by integrating even those parts of our being that seem contrary to each other.

Seduction of easy answers

I have tried, in this very condensed form of a blog post, to cover a topic that is broad, complex and deep. There is so much more I could say. But I’ve tried to give at least a glimpse into my own experience and to the lesson life has given me. I know my spiritual odyssey is by no means unique, and it most certainly isn’t over, but I hope that sharing about it might help others who are right now on a similar journey and feel lost.

“Swamplands of the soul” is a very apt expression to what I went through. I no longer think that my adventure with an Indian spiritual group was a mistake that I should somehow regret. I needed to go through this particular swampland. It is an integral part of my life history and it definitely made me a bit wiser. At least I hope so.

I finish with a quote of Jungian analyst James Hollis:

“Added to this fantasy of transcending our natural reality is the understandable desire to avoid what I call ‘the swamplands of the soul’, those dark places where fate, fortune, and our own psyches frequently take us. No amount of right thinking or right conduct  will spare us swampland visitations. Much so-called New Age thinking has seeped into general public consciousness, and this populist philosophy offers seductive, ungrounded spiritual practices that seek to finesse the question of suffering. — If we are free of suffering, we are less likely to engage with those questions that ultimately define who we are. The rigor and depth of questions raised by suffering jar us out of complacency, out of the casual reiterations of troubled life, and bring us to the daily dilemma of enlargement or diminishment.”

P.S. In addition to some fantastic people who have given me support in my journey I have also had great books and texts that have traveled with me. To mention but a few:

  • Krishnamurti, Total Freedom
  • Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart: Perils and Promises of A Spiritual Path
  • Charles Bentley, A Journey by Coach: the way back to personal authenticity
  • James Hollis, Finding Meaning in The Second Half of Life
  • And last but not least Ted Hughes and his little masterpiece, a description of our Inner Child, at Brain Pickings.