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Absorption, Digestion, and The Search

©Copyright 1996, by Phil Servedio

Whenever I want to breakup a relationship with
a man, it's quite simple. All I have to say is "I love you.
I want to marry you. I want to spend the rest of my life
with you. I want to carry your baby."...sometimes
they leave skid marks.
-Rita Rudner, Comedienne

Availability Land

Last year I read a somewhat poignant article in the paper about a member of the San Jose Sharks hockey team, a Russian native who moved his mom from Russia here to California. The first time he took her to a Safeway supermarket, seeing the aisles and aisles filled with an untold number of products, she burst out crying. She realized that she was living a lie her whole life, that the system in which she had lived for her whole life was a failure and its propaganda wasn't true. Another story is about my first Guru, Guru Maharaji, upon coming to America at the ripe old age of 12, proceeded to go on an outing to a K-Mart store in L.A. Traversing the aisles, he became overjoyed and quite manic, which quickly spread to his devotees - "This is incredible! I can get everything here!". So he had his devotees racing through the aisle to pick up all sorts of K-Mart junk - meanwhile he sneaks out of the store and gets driven home, leaving his excited students in the store with no way to pay for their stuff. Practical joker.

The above stories point out a basic fact about life in these United States, something a former teacher of mine calls, "availability land". You can buy anything here, including politicians, provided you have the cash. We have witnessed, tasted and experienced a range of things that were previously unheard of (and we're still notsatisfied!). All things are possible here, this is the land of promises and dreams coming true.

The same thing holds true in the spiritual arena, particular in various places such as Northern California, Santa Fe, Boulder, etc. It is just like a big old spiritual supermarket, with aisles and aisles of possibilities: practices, teachings, books, gurus, teachers, weekend workshops, retreats, study groups, ashrams, vision quests, etc., from every tradition that has continued to exist to the current time, including a host of roll-your-own teachings and teachers that fill magazines such as Common Ground, Open Exchange, Heart Dance, etc.. It is exciting and mind boggling at the same time. Obviously, due to the new world order of Westernized global communications, isolated, culture bound and previously hidden esoteric teachings and practices have now all been "outed", ready to be experienced vicariously by a simple purchase from your local Open Secret spiritual bookstore.

At the same time, while this paradigm of openness continues to unfold, another paradigm has become quite fashionable, and also perhaps necessary, due to the sins of the past, one that can be described as anti-group-think. The seventies and eighties found many of us in various spiritual communities, devoting our lives to our spiritual practice, guru, organization, icon, etc. And now, in the nineties, we've seem to come around full circle to the wild, experimental sixties - only this time, it is not in the arena of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but in forms of the spiritual search. The nineties are a similar reaction to the buttoned-down qualities of the discplined, ashram lifestyle, just as the the sixties were a reaction to the psychic and sexual suppression of the fifties. Needless to say, our spiritual naivet and " spiritual materialism" of the past two decades, to use a phrase coined by Chogyam Trungpa, caused large numbers of people to be exploited, emotionally fractured or suppressed, burned badly. The word "cult" arose in the mainstream mindset with awful connotations.

This has resulted in an even heightened sense of mistrust and non-commitalness, so that we don't fall into the "mistakes of the past", getting caught up in some weird-oh cult, group-psyche, organization.

Non-Commitment, Playing The Field

Due to the preponderance of spiritual teachers and teachings here in Northern California, a new kind of spiritual paradigm has arisen, which in its most pathological form, results in "the professional seeker". We can sit with a teacher, attend a workshop, attend a talk, etc., practically every night of the week, without having to make any commitment to any teaching or teacher in particular. It is as if there is a taboo these days towards making a commitment to a lineage, teacher or practice, that it is something beneath us, something dreadfully confining or constricting to our freestyle spiritual seeking, just like the proverbial groom with cold feet. The possibility of sitting with just one teacher, taking a vow to one lineage or school, is much too threatening to our "freedom". Leaving open one's possibilities and alternatives becomes a sacred idol that can become the fundamental definition of one's spiritual search. It's not that seeing a variety of teachers is inherently wrong, as there is a time when spiritual shopping is a vital necessity, but as a lifestyle it can have serious drawbacks, in my opinion. Chogyam Trungpa states from The Heart of The Buddha:

There is a general tendency to be involved with all kinds of fascinations and delusions, and nothing very much takes root in one's being. Everything in one's life experience, concerning spirituality or anything else, is purely a matter of shopping. Our lives consist of problems of pain, problems of pleasure, problems of points of view - problems about all kinds of alternatives - which makes our existence complicated...There are hundreds and millions of choices in our lives - particularly in regard to our sense of discipline, our ethics and our spiritual path. People are very confused in this chaotic world about what is really the right thing to do...We try to combine all kinds of traditions together, sometimes they conflict, sometimes they work together harmoniously. But we are constantly shopping and that is actually the basic problem.

...The difficulty is more our own personal conflict arising from wanting to have and to be the best. When we take refuge [commit] we give up some sense of seeing ourselves as the good citizen or hero of a success story. We may have to give up our past, we may have to give up our potential future. By taking a particular vow, we end our shopping in the spiritual supermarket. We decide to stick to one brand for the rest of our lives. We choose to stick to a staple diet and flourish on it.

We no longer have to run after this person and that person. We no longer have to compare our lifestyle with anyone else's. Once we take this step, we have no alternatives; there is no longer the entertainment of indulgence in so-called freedom. We take a definite vow to enter a discipline of choicelessness - which saves us a lot of money, a lot of money and lots and lots of superfluous thinking.

The making of a commitment can be frightening - I remember an all-consuming fear arising many years ago from an invitation to move into an ashram, with all its ramifications relative to the loss of "freedom" and choices. I've made two traditional commitments to teachers in my spiritual life, one in the seventies and one in the eighties, and over time, gradually increased my commitments to the point where there was not even the question of a choice. I was at one point a premie of Guru Maharaji and at another point I was a devotee of Adi Da. For both these teachers and their teaching, I ate, slept, breathed, meditated, burped, shit, inhaled and exhaled what they had to offer. And yes, I was totally defined by those school, and (in retrospect) their obvious limitations. And I was at times a real cultic asshole! But I learned a valuable secret about the depths of commitment: the absorption of a teaching and transmission totally to the point of its taking root in me, body, mind and soul. Just as the freewheeling playboy stereotype will never know the depths of love in a committed relationship, our spiritual bouncing around actually prevents us from what my friend Lawrence calls "digestion". As the title of the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones indicates, we can taste Zen Flesh by dabbling in Zen Buddhism, but to experience Zen Bones, so that the teaching penetrates to one's bone marrow, that is another matter, one that takes a complete commitment over time. As my former teacher Adi Da once said, "it's like being really married.".

Of course, simply joining an organization or becoming a student of a teacher does not necessarily mean that one is fully committed - I know that one from my experiences with Adi Da - he would frequently criticize his students of being double minded, wanting to be in and wanting to be out at the same time (though I can't blame anyone for feeling that way!).

Malabsorption and Indigestion

Besides the new openness of various Eastern and Western traditions, the fact that there are now American individuals who have Awakened and begun teaching is really a wonderful thing. There is a large experiment going on in the West as traditions begin to integrate with the Western psyche, and it remains to be seen as to what is the optimal kind of situation for Westerner's spiritual sadhana. The experiment is going on for each of us individually and collectively, and it reminds me of the expansion of Buddhism to Tibet, SE Asia, Japan and China. Each one of those regions adapted and moderated Indian Buddhism to fit their particular psyche and world view.

But I see a downside to this abundance of possibilities. This bouncing around from Gangaji to Andrew Cohen to Lama So-and-So to Leslie Temple-Thurston to Arjuna to Swami Watchamacallit to Saniel Bonder to Mother Meera to Barry Long to Jean Klein to Jack Kornfield to Poonjaji to Lawrence and Ardeliza to Thich Nhat Hanh to Deepak Chopra to U.G. Krishnamurti to Sylvia Boorstein to Suzanne Segal to Zen Master blah-de-blah to Ammachi to God knows who else can turn the spiritual search into a serious case of indigestion. What is meant by indigestion is that the reception of a particular transmission, instead of leading to a more profound sense of freedom and clarity, can lead to its opposite, a greater level of confusion, imbalance, emotional turmoil and ungroundedness.

We seem to know very clearly, usually from bad experiences, that excessive food combining can lead to gastric distress, but somehow this never carries over into other areas of life, particularly the spiritual. The tossing about of disparate energies from various transmissions can be just another form of bad "guru-combining". Of course, the more mature the individual is spiritually, the more capacity that person has to work with and test out various transmissions and teachers, but from what I've seen, the individuals who do the most bouncing around are the ones who could really use the freedom of real commitment to one teacher and one teaching only, for a period of time. (Conversely, those who are a bit too rigid, cultic and narrow-minded in their one-pointed commitment could use a bit of loosening up by visiting and experimenting with other teachings.)

One thing that I've learned is that our worst nightmare of " choicelessness" is actually the doorway to really seeing our true nature. The truth is, that due to the nature of the moment to moment arising of objects, we apparently don't have a great deal of choice in a lot of what appears in our "inner" and "outer" lives. Science is continuing to find more genetic evidence to the hard-coding of personality structures, despite our attempts to change ourselves. The point of really seeing that we are just stuck as we are, that we've hit a wall, that the search for freedom is utterly fruitless, to the point of exhaustion (for ordinary individuals like myself who have to learn the hard way) represents in some traditions a significant rite of passage known as "hearing". Something drops in that moment, and in that dropping, our seeking comes to rest and the possibility of really seeing our nature becomes greatly enhanced.

Another side-effect of excessive food combining is malabsorption. In other words, we are taking in a lot, but not getting much benefit, or not as much as could be. We understand that it takes several years of really studying and sweating and committing oneself to one major in college just to get a Bachelor's degree, never mind a post-graduate degree. But this kind of understanding doesn't seem to be applied to the spiritual realm. The movie-theater approach of sitting in front of the big screen, where some teacher comes on and does his or her show is a far cry from truly absorbing oneself in one teaching or tradition. Again, for someone who is ripe, all it may take is one word from the right teacher at the right time, but this cannot be applied to everyone at all times. What happens is simply malabsorption, the teaching does not sink in deep enough to effect the changes necessary at the root level of being. It only penetrates through to several epidermal layers, perhaps to some outer organs, but not to the bone marrow. When one takes something on, for real, for a distinct period of time, in good moods and in bad moods, sickness and in health, etc., one really learns and absorbs the teaching into the body, not just the mind or emotions. One becomes a living, breathing, walking expression of a transmission. And then one can fully examine its effect in one's life. From my experience, I've gone through two traditions where I literally went all the way through to the back of them, seeing both the magic and the failures and limitations of each tradition, and made life choices accordingly.

Teaching vs. Energy

One of the errors made by individuals, particularly those with a yogic disposition (such as myself), is that one thinks that by just receiving the energy of a particular teacher, that they have received the essence of the teaching. When I used to read the stories of various Buddhist masters, such as Marpa, Naropa or Milarepa, I was puzzled why they were so intent on getting the teaching. They were already in the physical presence of the teacher and obviously receiving some energetic transmission. So what's all the fuss? Well, it has become clear that the essence of a teaching transmission lies not merely in its energetic effulgence but in the enlightened View or philosophical framework from where it originated (and in its modification to keep it alive and current). The point of freedom is one of realization, summary insight, not of becoming energized, though the energetic transmission is the vehicle which can create an atmosphere of intensity to bring forth insight and clarity. The most profound transmission, according to the Buddhists, is from the mind of the master to the student. This used to sound silly to me, but it makes perfect sense. A significant part of the mechanics of Awakening is the uprooting of mental "obscurations" or "defilements", in other words the very presumptions of separation and independency that are buried in our minds, but rooted in the heart. As Adi Da has recently stated:

And then an additional insight is that in any case this self that is clinging to what is even changing and unsatisfactory has no substantial separate existence as a being. There is no such existing being as the separate one. Rather, what you notice as yourself, as the basis of your presumption of a separate being, a separate person, is a conglomeration of arisings that are constantly changing and do not amount to a permanent self. In other words, what is conditional is conditional. But you are presuming a permanent self somehow, or maybe about it being permanent at any rate.

My personal opinion that it requires almost daily study, constant questioning, an open and real committed relationship to one main teacher for a specific period of time for real spiritual growth to lead to insight into one's real nature. Like in any aspect of life, fundamentals and preparation are essential as the fundamental ground or springboard to maturation. Of course, there are exceptions (unfortunately, if you're reading this, you're probably not one of them) and the spiritual process is a very personal affair, and there are no rigid formulas. But in my experience, people want to get to graduate school without a whole lot of grade school or high school. This attempt at a spiritual bypass of fundamentals can simply lead to more indigestion and malabsorption. And there are no magic enzymes to speed up the process!

Lookout, Ugly Questions and Free Advice

My two cents is that if you're a person that jumps at the opportunity when yet another teacher arrives on the scene, or if you find yourself confused by the various contradictions and differences between different teachers and teachings that you encounter, you may want to look at what you're doing. Is it being effective? Is all this running around to various teacher really getting to the root of your suffering? Does sticking by one and only teacher or teaching frighten you? What is it that you are looking for in all these teachers and teachings? What would happen if you just stayed with one teacher for six months, one year, two years? Would you be missing out on something? Is keeping the backdoor open for other possibilities and alternatives a form of withdrawal, faithlessness, desperation, or neurotic seeking?

Hopefully this little essay has done something to expose the nature of seeking in all of us. We have millions of choices to make until we realize that we haven't any choice. Best of luck to you!!