We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.-Martin Luther King, Jr.
The essence of the term “Tantra” evokes the image of a loom, for it points towards the way in which the lives of everyone and everything are intricately interwoven in the tapestry of life.
When I was younger I was definitely not interested in spirituality. In fact, I would say I was quite hostile to organized religion. I still have my criticisms, as I’m sure many of us do. In retrospect, though, I realize that studying African-American History, especially the Civil Rights Movement, was an early introduction to awakening. The struggle for racial justice is about awakening the conscience of a nation divided against itself.
It’s a lesson in the pain that comes from betraying our own most cherished values, in how that treachery not only harms the direct victims but also damages the soul of all of us. If we’re paying attention closely we can see that when we harm others we harm ourselves. The guilt and shame we feel when we harm another is itself evidence of our own Buddha nature: like all sentient beings we wish to be happy and to avoid suffering. Problems arise from our confusion about the true causes of happiness and genuine well being.
African-American history is also a teaching in how the purpose of life is to turn towards and cut through our fears, to embrace and transform our suffering through artistry. This connection between suffering and creativity is surely in part why so much of the best art in American culture comes disproportionately from African-American culture. American history and its current unfolding is a powerful reminder of the inseparable ways in which our karma is interconnected.
Before I understood the meaning of the term “Buddha,” which means “awakened one,” I encountered the power of that archetype through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was not only full of love and compassion and forgiveness–the Jesus archetype–but he had the equanimity, the balanced state of mind, to be present with the intensity of suffering without getting overwhelmed by it.
Yet what’s most remarkable about the Civil Rights Movement isn’t even the heroes like Dr. King or Rosa Parks. It’s actually the ordinary yet extraordinary women and men, whose names history can’t all celebrate, that made up the movement. For people who have lived in much easier times, it’s hard to fathom the level of courage of which human beings are capable when circumstances compel them to rise up and confront that level of injustice.
Many years later, as I reflected on this encounter with The Buddha archetype, Dr. King, I realized this was my problem when I was younger: it was not that I lacked empathy or compassion, but I lacked the equanimity to be present with pain and suffering without getting overwhelmed by it. Many people experience this issue. It’s why we don’t know how to be present with other people’s pain, even simply discomfort.
Out of fear and discomfort, many of us turn away from the suffering of the world, in ways big and small, which deprives not only others of our love but also ourselves of the chance to evolve.
Look directly into your own experience and consider if this is true: we wish to surround ourselves with pleasant experiences and objects, to hide from the poignant reminders of impermanence and our own mortality.
In addition to the truth of impermanence, another critical teaching to understand is that of interdependence. This touches the core of any path of awakening. When we come to recognize how the conceptual mind carves up the world into objects, and creates the sense of separation, we start to lay the groundwork for the path to liberation. The default mode of consciousness, the dualistic mind that perceives through the lens of subject and object, is this acute feeling that “I” am an independent, permanent, singular sense of self across time.
As we start to look more closely, we can see that all of the facets of this play of consciousness, including the sense of self, arise interdependently, not independently, from the union of light and space, emptiness and clarity, of Shiva and Shakti.
For example, we look at the world and we describe what we see: a tree, the ground, the sky, the sun, the rain, the stars. Of course, you can’t have a tree without the ground, or either of them without the sun and the rain and the stars. You can’t have the roots without the trunk without the branches. None of these truths to which the concepts point are in fact separate from one another; these mind created objects exist only through interdependence. But language habituates us to the illusion that these things exist separately from one another, including the sense that “I” am separate from the world.
Consciousness is like a mirror. Objects are appearances in the mirror. So is the process of assembly and disassembly that is the ego. The subject, this sense of I, me, mine, is itself just an appearance that shows up in various and subtle ways, arising and ceasing, over and over again.
Below the level of thoughts, the ego is, on a basic level, a contraction. It’s either grasping after what’s pleasant, pushing away what’s unpleasant, or getting lost in boredom when encountering experiences that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Cultivate a genuine sense of not knowing, a curiosity that keeps the mind wide open to the mystery of the question “Who am I?”
- What is it that can observe the body?
- What is it that can notice sensations?
- What is it that can be aware of thoughts?
Rest the mind in the space between thoughts. Perhaps that gap will lead you a little closer to the answer, which is ultimately ungraspable, for space, like light, is not an object that the mind can grasp. This is the very nature of the mind: the union of light and space, of clarity and emptiness, of Shiva and Shakti. These are the basic elements of the mirror, a metaphor which itself is limited because it’s a concept; it can only point towards, not capture, the true nature of the mind.
Awakening from that illusion of separation is the heart of the path. As you deepen in stability of recognition of the nature of mind, a mind not grasping after appearances in the mirror but resting in its own place, love, awe, devotion–qualities such as these naturally arise.
This is the mind that can clearly see the tapestry in which all of us are connected, in this inescapable network of mutuality. For this reason, awakening is ultimately a collective endeavor. This is why bodhicitta, the intention to wake up for the benefit of others, is essential for continued unfolding along the path.