Years ago I began to realize that I didn’t have to be a lapsed Catholic. More accurately, I began to see that I wasn’t alone in my home-grown theory about what else might be out there in the Universe. It’s just that when you peer out that tiny slit of a window from the brick cell that is the faith you grew up in, it’s sometimes difficult to see more than just a few slices of the big sky. You have to step out that brick cell in order to get a fuller view.
That’s what I did years ago, when I began to study in earnest other faiths. Some, I actually practiced, again, in earnest: not like a spiritual tourist, but like one who is hoping that by digging one might hit the spade into a treasure chest of secrets. Each time I picked up a new practice, it was with the hope that I had found “the one.” When I moved on to a new practice, it was usually because the old practice had opened a door for me, and new and deeper truths revealed themselves to me.
Fast forward over twenty years later. Have I found “the one”? It’s hard to say, but for the last few years I have been gravitating through the same three sisters of truth-systems: Taoism, Buddhism, and Yoga. I will add a fourth one: the new physics.
But science isn’t a religion, you say. But I’m not looking for religion, I say. I’m looking for a way to understand the Universe, for a way to determine whether we’re all at the mercy of randomness or whether there is something grater than the sum of our parts. And is there a way to attune our minds, actions and words to live in such a way as it harmonizes with that grand thing, whether you call it God or the Higgs field?
When I was in my thirties I practiced devotedly a form of Buddhism known as the Nichiren Diashonin Buddhism, through an organization known as the Soka Gakkai. Nichiren Daishonin is split into two sects, and the unpleasantness that arises out of this split as well as this form of Buddhism’s hostility towards other Buddhist sects (and vice versa) eventually wore out my faith, and I turned away from the practice more for personal reasons than for the things I learned from Bhuddism, which were lots, some of which have to do with string theory and the Higgs field.
The Soka Gakkai Buddhists do not meditate, except through chant. They are focused, and very insistent on, chanting the words of a mix between Sanskrit and ancient Japanese. They chant a part of the Buddhist scripture known as the Lotus Sutra, but their “core practice” (their words, not mine) is the mantra Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo, which loosely translates to “devotion to the Lotus Sutra” The words Myo and Ho, however, are interesting concepts to revisit now that we know a lot more about our Universe thanks to, quantum physics, string theory and the recent discovery of the existence of the Higgs Boson.
From the Soka Gakkai: “Myo refers to the very essence of life, which is “invisible” and beyond intellectual understanding. This essence always expresses itself in a tangible form (ho) that can be apprehended by the senses. Phenomena (ho) are changeable, but pervading all such phenomena is a constant reality known as myo. Myo also means to open, to revive, and to be fully endowed with the qualities we need to develop our lives.”
In western languages we have words to describe existence and nonexistence, but in Eastern philosophy there exists a third state, that of latency, which is neither existence nor non-existence. In our words, it may be loosely translated as “infinite potentiality.” In Taoism, the concept is known as “WU” as in the WuJi posture, the basic posture of Tai Chi. Wu represents the state of absolute potential: the moment that precedes creation, which needs CHI (the life force) as it interacts to create KU (the creation). In that moment or space (and relativity tells us space and time and matter are hopelessly bonded together), there exists an infinite potential for all sorts of manifestations and realizations of matter and energy.
We can thank the quantum physicist for proving that such a state of “neither existence nor non-existence” really “is”: in the famous double slit experiment, when scientists managed to break down electrons and send them through a plank that had two slits, forcing the electrons to “choose” either one slit or the other before ending on a screen behind the plank, scientists somehow discovered that there was a moment during which the particle was “in all places at once” waiting for human observation to decide whether the particle had gone in one slit or the other, often making this “decision” retroactively, disregarding the laws of time.
Similarly, when in an “entangled” particles experiment, they discovered that two particles that had been bonded together, making them “entangled,” could communicate their position and location to each other instantly regardless if they were located near one another or separated by infinite space. (Click on the links to get a better and more articulate explanations of these concepts of complex physics).
When I practiced Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo I had no knowledge of quantum physics. It wasn’t until the movie What The Bleep Do We Know that I actually started to realize that there was a scientific field out there for studying these strange things.
But one thing that I learned from the Buddhists was that chanting really did seem to have an effect, not just on manipulating my reality, as the Soka Gakkai insistently claim, but on helping me to see my life from different eyes. This form of Buddhism places great emphasis on our individual ability to affect our attitude and our environment.
I began to see, by chanting, that much of the woes I blamed on circumstances, bad luck, and other people, were in fact caused by my own behavior and by my attitude. Moreover, and I hate to say this because I know how it sounds, but towards the end of my practice I began to really manifest things.
I learned to chant “the right way”: making the sound of the vowels resonate in such a way that they created what in music we call “harmonics“. It sounds, like throat singing, like more than one set of vocal chords is ringing at the same time. You can produce the effect by plucking the string of a guitar and to very, very lightly, rest your finger on the string. The plucked guitar string will resonate in more than one octave.
If I could produce “harmonics” while chanting AND if I was able to maintain focus on the certainty that I was causing my own effects, my own scenarios in life — in other words, that I was the actor, the creator of my Universe — AND if I could, at the same time, with this certainty firm in place, focus on a desire, I would see concrete, measurable results.
Could I ask for a Ferrari and get one? Definitely not. But not because the chant doesn’t work, but because, simply put, I just don’t really want a Ferrari all that much. More often than not, I’d start chanting for something, and I’d soon realize that what I was convinced I really wanted at the moment I began to chant wasn’t what I wanted at all. It’s amazing what modern media can do to our will power: until I really focused on it, I realized that most of the things I thought I wanted were simply symptoms of other, more important emotional needs.
For example: I chanted to win the lottery but found that I really wanted a steady job, and a place I could call home. Months later I received a job offer and moved to Savannah. I wanted a person to have a steady relationship with but I realized that the reason I hadn’t had one was because the men I dated were attractive to me precisely because of their lack of commitment. I began to chant to change my needs towards men. Months after chanting, I met my husband.
So, you ask, why did I stop chanting? Much in the same way that once I started chanting, I realized that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not make myself desire a Ferrari passionately enough to manifest one, so with Soka Gakkai, I realized that it wasn’t answering my spiritual needs in the way that I needed them realized. But I have nothing against chanting. Chanting is okay with me.
While I’ve studied Taoism and Buddhism with deliberate will, I cannot say the same about Yoga. Yoga chose me.
Yoga was smiling at me the whole time I was a Buddhist, winking at me in bookstores through the eyes of a picture of Parhamhansa Yogananda prominently displayed, it seems, only on days I was specifically browsing the Religion & Spirituality shelves, not by bookstore employees but by some driven soul who, by synchronicity, decided to pull out these books from the bottom shelves and display them with the cover facing outwards in front of Buddhist books. This didn’t stop happening until I bought the book. Then suddenly Yogananda went back to the bottom shelf.
Yoga waited for me after work with the free classes offered by the University where I worked, with a fantastic teacher whose equal I have yet to meet. She introduced my stubborn Buddhist self to basic concepts of yoga through the philosophy behind the practice: “Every pose is Shivasana,” she’d remind us when we struggled to remain balanced and strong on our one foot. “You have to find the relaxation and release even in the midst of your highest discomfort.” When we were in Shivasana, she would say, “This is the most difficult yoga pose you’ll ever practice. Find where your muscle are tense. Find where your thoughts are still engaged with the world. Then try and not try to be here, only be here.”
Like many before me, I am also someone who would find herself crying desperately after a yoga class, feeling an emotional release burst out from sources that up to then I didn’t even know existed. Every yoga class delivered more than just the simple message that I was out of shape and really, really inflexible: it also pointed out how much of this rigidity had a corresponding emotional block, or deep-seeded fear.
Once, when I practiced one pose with my feet touching the top of my head I re-experienced the fear of birth, and my teacher had to talk me down and assist me out of the pose, or I might have broken my back in panic while also screaming, as I was, in helpless terror.
When we meditated in Shivasana, I once expressed my misery to that nothingness that makes our thoughts roam, and Lakshmi appeared to me behind my closed eyelids like someone had turned on a tv set in my head. She asked me why I thought my banal misery mattered. I answered her that it matters because everything affects everything else: the small insignificant miseries of the individual translate to the mass suffering of the world. She liked my answer. She smiled and came closer, so close that I could see the jeweled details of the thick gold necklace around her neck and the bangles on her six floating arms, until her unimaginable beauty and the splendor of her jewelry brought me back to real life: “Holy shit! I’m talking to Lakshmi.” And just like that, Snap!, she was gone.
When, at the end of practice, my teacher asked us to close with the now iconic “OM” she did not chant OM. Hers was an AUM. The difference in sound is splitting hairs. But AUM is the original form of OM, and it is “the word” of the creation, representing into its four syllables and the silence at the end the four different stages of human consciousness, from awareness, to dream state, to deep sleep, to yoga, which means unity, with the whole.
Yes, silence in yoga, like the relaxation pose in Shivasana, is as important as action. My yoga teacher also taught me that an action begins with a word, and a word begins with a thought. Every violence originates with a thought. In Yoga, it is the same to think a violent thought as it is to act out on one.
When I was having doubts about my being yogi, guilt about abandoning my birth religion, a book fell into my hands by complete chance: a translation of the Lord’s Prayer and of some of Jesus’ words from the original Aramaic. Written by a scholar with brilliant credentials, the translation argued that the word now commonly accepted as “Father” in the Christian tradition could also have been translated to mean “Unity” (Yoga) — facts that might give credence to the fairly well-supported theory that Christ learned his healing arts from yogis in India.
We learn in Christianity that in the beginning was the Word. In Hinduism and Buddhism that word is AUM/OM. As an inquisitive young woman, I used to think that “word” was a mistranslation: it had to be thought, an idea that would set into motion the breakup of nothingness into matter. But now I understand the difference: Word is the Thought made matter. AUM is vibration. The Word is vibration. Vibration makes things happen. Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo. Or if you prefer, Om Namah Shivaya, or if you like, Ave Jesus.
Years later the scientific community introduces us to String Theory: the universe, matter and non matter, is made up of tiny things that act and look like strings on a violin. It’s their vibration that create mass. String theory explains gravity and reconciles the split between Newtonian physics and Quantum Mechanics, one which tells us that the big objects in the Universe work like part of a mechanical clock, predictable and same, while the other tells us that small objects in the Universe work without predictability, in jumpy, nonsensical ways.
Years later, the scientific community are also able to prove the existence of the Higgs Boson particle. We revisit the theory of the Higgs field, and are one step closer to proving that there is indeed an “aether,” space that is filled with potentiality; space that, through simple interaction, creates all matter in the Universe.
This concept of “aether” was already in vogue well before the Greeks, from at least 1300 BC when the Rig Veda, one of the many mind-expanding Hindu scriptures, described this Akasha as the fifth element, sonic space, that from which all things are created and to which all things return.
Like many Hindu words, Akasha has no real correspondent in our western language. It was ascribed the word aether from centuries ago when we had no words to describe or understand such abstruse concepts as the Higgs field or string theory. Yet we know that Akasha is Brhaman (the essence of all creation), that its representation is sound. From Akasha, all matters arise, and, yes, I repeat, it is sound.
When years ago a yogi, Sri Shivabalandanda, came to Savannah to lead a meditation, I put out an earnest desire for awakening. Shortly after receiving my Vibhuti dust on my forehead, I felt as though someone was shining a light very directly into my eyes, even though my eyes were closed. Afterwards we chanted. I began to tear up, unable to withstand this. I felt like someone was sitting right in front of me, looking at me, but there was no one.
Then suddenly it happened. Difficult to explain with words, like all things mystical. Light was physical and it was pressing hard against my skull. In response, some energy that I had never before experienced shot up from just under my solar plexus with such strength that it caused my whole body to jolt forward and vibrate. Tingling pervaded me and my body acquired what felt like a lightness so tangible that I began to fear I was going to lift off. Unlike my meditation with Lakshmi, there were no visions, and I was so excited that my heart was thumping fast. I was now not meditating, but “aware” and I was afraid that being aware was going to stop this wonderful, jolting vibration from going through me up and down. But it kept going and going and going.
This feeling lasted for months until it settled, and now only comes to me when I meditate or when I ask for it. For a few weeks after this event, I found it difficult to talk, as the pleasure this wave of energy was producing was difficult to contain, making my eyes tear up and my voice falter. It was a feeling that filled me from inside to outside: it was love. It was such a love as I had never felt before. It was a love that came without conditions and without restrictions, a love untainted by desires or possessive feelings. It is unmistakable.
When you feel God, you know it’s God. You don’t ever need to question it. God comes with no doubts. His love is not conditional and has no caveats: you do not need to be a certain type of person to receive this love; you do not need to be sinless or to practice anything. Once, when I was irritated by some fundamentalists and arguing with “god” in my head, I felt suddenly as if God was laughing at me, and it occurred to me, why would God care what people practice? God is not an intellectual concept. Nothing that comes from the mind belongs to that love. Though certainly, others around you will try to tell you otherwise.
I know how this sounds. Honestly, I don’t care.
The last book on religion that I read was the Vashista Yoga. Sri Shivabalananda said to read it, and so I did. The Vashista Yoga talks about the Universe in ways that only now quantum physicists and the new sciences are beginning to explain. Thousands of years ago yogi understood multiple universes, higher dimensions, macrocosm and microcosm, the flexibility of time and its unbreakable bond with space and matter. They also understood nuclear war and flight and many other things that we are just now beginning to explore. They describe these things in such minute and poetic details that most scholars have simply ignored them. The words themselves are too specific to refute, so they’ve been left out of the argument altogether.
When you read the unabridged version of the Vashista Yoga, one of the things that might strike you most is its structure: it is written like a double helix. One story opens into one story with a transition like the sage Vashista saying, “Let me tell you a story, young prince Rama” and before that story concludes, another story opens, and another and another.
We get to the core of the Vashista and we are met by difficult, complex, dry theory, but just when you think you cannot take another word, there the last story reappears and offers an ending to the tale. Its closure brings us back to the narrator in the penultimate story, and then we get the end to that story. That penultimate story in turn opens the door back onto the story that preceded it, and so on, until we meet back with the opening story, that of Rama sitting in front of Vashista, the sage. Rama now understands why people suffer. The Vashista concludes.
The first written copy of the Vashista Yoga that is datable is confirmed to have appeared around 500 AD, but many claim not only that it existed in oral form well before then, but that written copies date to millennia before.
It was the last book on religion that I read because I needed nothing else after that. Now when I want a spiritual book, I read about science, about quantum dilemmas, about neanderthals. It doesn’t really matter what we read, anyway. Spiritual satisfaction doesn’t come from the pages of a book, although it’s a nice place to start.
Twenty years after I stepped out of that comfortable brick cell that was my Catholic faith, I have glimpsed such a beautiful, wondrous sky, that I cannot bring myself to step back into any other brick cell, regardless how comforting, regardless how beautiful or popular. Even scientists are caught in a brick cell if they can’t at least consider the possibility of something larger. I think we needed Newton, and we needed Einstain, as we now need Higgs and will need others in the future, to understand the world we live in. But I think it would be a mistake now to cling only to the past, to refuse to acknowledge that there are great surprises awaiting us, if only we would have the courage to step out.