To Participate Fully in the Flow of Life Itself (1988)

All living things are constantly involved in a dynamic process of exchange with their environment. When we-through our inner work-penetrate that process by dissolving all boundaries within and around us, we find only one thing: the infinity of Life Itself.

The nature of the highest reality is consciousness, which we also call the Self. Consciousness is the essential nature of the highest reality, of all things-of Life Itself. What is this consciousness like? It is characterized first by its absolute freedom and second by its joy, both of which it expresses with infinite creativity.

The Self is also conscious of Itself, just as a person can say "I" am conscious of "me." In other words, it has Self-knowledge. In its state of pure freedom and joy, the Self is like something pregnant, containing everything that is to be but not yet having given birth to it. In this aspect-known in Kashmir Shaivism as Shiva-it is totally dynamic, but also still. Everything is there, but in a latent, potential form.

Yet the Self also has the power to bring this potential into manifestation-we could say, to give birth to itself. The power to do this, in the language of Kashmir Shaivism, is called Shakti. Thus, "Shiva" and "Shakti" are two ways of talking about the same thing, the Self. Shakti is that aspect of Shiva which takes on form, manifesting itself as the cosmos, and as everything and everyone we know.

Think of it this way. The Self, being dynamic, cannot be inert. After all, we know from our own experience that life is not inert. Instead, it is continuously pulsating-a pulsation that has no center but that is a total vibration. This is something like the ocean with all its different currents, which also have no center.

Like currents, these pulsations (called spanda) interact with each other, giving rise to different vibrations. The fast ones are extremely fine; the slower ones, in a process of contraction, become more and more dense. At the densest, slowest level, we have matter.

The stages of this process are known as tattvas. This is a way of talking about how it is possible for a chair and a cloud to be two different aspects of the same thing. One just happens to be moving at a faster rate of vibration than the other. Still, both have as their essential nature the energy of Life Itself.

Human beings are no exception to this. We are just one of the many forms of contraction taken on by the Self. This is why we can say that consciousness is the essential nature not only of the highest reality, but also of all things, including ourselves. As human beings, we are microcosms of the universe-not just metaphorically, but also materially and in our very essence.

But because we also exist as a denser, more contracted form of that energy of Life Itself, the true nature of the Self gets clouded over. We forget. We mistake the appearance of the material reality for truth. Then we take our responses to this material reality seriously-we get caught up in our sensory reactions and get trapped in our desires. Because of this, we suffer.

This doesn't mean that the essential consciousness that we are ever disappears. In fact, not only is it always there, it is also self-liberating. Not only does it contract, it also expands. It is what first moves us to look for ways to grow and become aware of our true nature.

Puja offeringAt this level of understanding and experience, we see that all living things appear to be in a constant process of dynamic exchange with their environment. Everything that lives is, by its very nature, not static but rather is always taking something in and giving something off. Nothing exists without continuous participation in this give and take with its environment. So we could say that, at the level of appearances, life and exchange are essentially the same thing.

This is not such a strange notion. Scientific investigations into the material world show us more and more of the intimate relationship between each organism and a total environment. Furthermore, in this complex, interdependent whole, human beings are neither the highest nor the lowest form, but simply another part of a dynamic mechanism-one in which all the parts exchange and share their elements, and in which all have an impact on each other.

This degree of interconnectedness, expressing itself as a process of exchange, represents the nourishment that we need to survive and grow. For example, the exchange of oxygen is essential to our existence, as are the exchanges of fluids and other elements that keep our bodies alive. Indeed, the process of exchange itself continuously reorganizes the internal content of everything that participates in it. Nothing remains isolated and unchanged.

On this most basic level, we experience exchange particularly through the processes of eating and reproducing. In fact, the horizon of most human beings is limited to variations on this level of exchange, which leads them to think of life as a process of acquisition.

Such people assume that acquisition will somehow ease their pain or at least somehow satisfy their need for recognition. (Something like, "If I can't get recognition, I can at least get a television. A new toaster oven. An ice cream cone.") What happens, however, is that their awareness locks itself into this elementary level of exchange. They don't understand that the yearning they feel is actually a limited expression of a much deeper yearning to know the Self.

This orientation represents a kind of crystallization in the interchange between the currents of energy. Once a person begins to think primarily in terms of getting instead of giving-in other words, once he or she gets caught up in the game of life-then there can be little true flow, but only just enough exchange happening to keep the body alive in the most limited way. This is a game where everybody loses.

Spiritual Growth Means Taking down the Barriers

Spiritual growth starts with taking down the restrictions we create to block our own experience of, and participation in, the process of exchange. Only in this way can we come to a more profound understanding of the reality underlying it all.

Many people think that in order to do this, they must first understand why the obstacles are there in the first place. However, this is not so. In fact, any such identification with an obstruction simply feeds it by channeling more energy into it.

Instead of attacking or even identifying an obstacle directly, we cultivate the flow of creative energy within us. By unfolding that, all the blocks and obstacles are dissolved and carried away in that flow. Then, once again, a true process of exchange can occur.

Real spiritual growth has nothing to do with withdrawing from this process of exchange. After all, can you really withdraw from the world? I don't think so. Suppose you leave your home and go live in a cave. All that you have really changed is your lifestyle. You still have to eat (not to mention breathe), which means that you must still, in some way, engage in an exchange with the world. There is no possible way to withdraw from that process.

So spiritual growth has nothing to do with withdrawal at all. It has everything to do with slowly transcending and dissolving the tensions that constipate our hearts and congest our minds, and that leave us stuck in the conviction that this body, this mind, and this personality are all there is to life.

It is, instead, a total participation in the process of exchange which allows us to recognize the increasingly subtle levels of energy that are going on all the time. It is a continuous expansion of our awareness, and thus of the field in which we participate in the process of exchange.

Chakras and Flow

If our spiritual work involves dissolving the obstacles to exchange, how are we to do this? We begin with our own most immediate means of knowing the world, our senses. Like the roots and leaves through which a tree enters into exchange with its environment, so our senses represent the mechanisms through which we interact with ours. They play a part, as well, in the exchange of information, and in intellectual and emotional exchange.

At the core of our senses are the chakras (energy centers) and the subtle energy that flows through them. Our exchanges with our environment both nurture and extend that energy. When we learn to control our senses, we then have a different kind of mastery over the flow itself. As we develop an awareness of the chakras and of what is going on in them, we are also refining our awareness of the very mechanism which most deeply involves us in the exchange with everything around us.

My point is this: the energy of the chakras expresses itself in the world through our senses and their actions. At the same time, it also resonates with the larger energy that is the source of the world and of all things. Thus, we experience the world in both ways.

This means that it's important to pay attention to these energy centers and to begin, intentionally, to open them. Think about when we feel life contract around us. Where do we feel it? In our head, our throat, our heart, and our gut-we feel it in these chakras. When they tighten, we learn in a spiritual practice to go inside ourselves, to open to whatever pressure is having an impact on our system, to feel for the direction that energy is trying to follow, and to flow with the pressure so that it will support us.

By doing this, we learn to go inside ourselves instead of reacting to a situation and instead of fighting the pressure. Instead of resisting a real exchange with the energy behind the pressure, we open ourselves to it and absorb it. We take in the energy in such a way that the balance changes, the energy reorganizes us and then flows out again.

Doing this transforms the fundamental field that we are, and removes every kind of restriction and block. More and more it puts us in contact with our essential nature, which is far deeper than the appearance of ebb and flow we encounter on the surface.

Not long ago I was talking with a group of people about the extraordinary power that resides in the energy center in our chest. I was saying that a person should really try to open the heart every single day. Someone there said, "But I've always thought I was supposed to protect my heart."

Many people feel this way, whether consciously or not. What this means, in practice, is that they are constantly trying to protect themselves from the process of exchange-that is, from the flow of LIfe Itself. But is this really possible?

I would suggest that it is not, and that the whole notion of protection is really a substitute for self-control. But even this ends up being not really possible. When we try to close everything up and hold everything in, instead of really protecting ourselves we usually leak out the sides. Then all we're doing is acting out all these things on an unconscious level-we don't even understand our own motives and we never recognize or deal with them as parts of our own program. Because the point is, we are part of the process of exchange whether we want to recognize it or not. Our systems certainly know it. They move in that direction even when we're telling them to do something different.

Further, it is possible that the most powerful force that exists within our being-the most essential component of our existence-truly needs protection? I don't think so. I think, instead, that the whole discussion of protecting our heart is really a way of trying to isolate ourselves from life.

We do this when what we're really trying to avoid is having to do inner work and undergo change. It is a way of trying to sustain the illusion that we can have a meaningful life without having to do any work, and of avoiding the reality that life is essentially hard work-it's hard work to be open and to participate fully in the flow of Life Itself.

The only other option, however, is crystallization-that is, something other than life. When we allow crystallization to set in, we become so caught up in psychological and emotional complications, such as our desires and our objectives in our worldly life, that for all intents and purposes we are not really living, but only existing.

Appreciate the Profound Interconnectedness

This means that opening the heart-along with all our other energy centers-to the process of exchange with everything around us is the only way to experience our quiet inner work as part of a process of endless renewal. It is the only way that this work becomes the unfolding of the deepest, finest resources which are the essence of our existence.

In doing this, we begin to appreciate on deeper and deeper levels the extraordinary interconnectedness of everything. To appreciate it is to observe it extending itself not only in our immediate surroundings but throughout our entire environment, whether that be an apartment, a workplace, a community, a country, or beyond.

Because we appreciate this profound interconnectedness, we treat it carefully. It then has the capacity to expand and reveal itself to us in all its marvelous and amazingly diverse ways. Furthermore, by appreciating it we are lead to respond to all participants in an exchange with love and respect, in the form of ethical and moral behavior toward others.

Properly understood, the place of ethical and moral behavior in a person's spiritual discipline is for one thing only: to promote mutual satisfaction in the process of exchange. This doesn't mean that everyone should all benefit equally, or that they should all benefit in exactly the same way. Neither is necessarily possible. In fact, to aim for an equal measure of benefit for everybody probably denies satisfaction for all. The issue is, rather, to determine what it is that will allow each party to leave an exchange feeling satisfied, by what they put in as well as by what they draw from it.

To do this well requires us, first of all, to have worked to transcend our own tensions and resistance to exchange. It then requires us to cultivate our own capacity both to feel within ourselves and to extend our feeling to others, in order to learn exactly what it means to satisfy them in a simple way.

When we do this, the power of the process itself - which takes on the appearance of exchange - guides us to extend the field of our awareness,allowing it to fill us and to fill others. To do this is to engage in a spiritual practice, through which we make an effort every day to extend our awareness of this process of exchange.

I don't mean that we should extend our awareness of it in the sense of trying to analyze it intellectually, or even of trying to understand the nature of these experiences. Rather, I mean only that we should simply notice the distinctions between them and, in doing so, begin to extend the range of our awareness, becoming more sensitive to the qualities of the energy in which we are participating.

As we do this with increasing concentration and steadiness, we start to be aware of the varieties of psychic interchange that take place. By "psychic interchange," by the way, I do not mean seeing auras or finding a soul mate. Instead, I am talking about it in terms of the varieties of vibration which we encounter. In other words, we become increasingly sensitive to the flow of currents and pulsations in the energy. Each one of these presents new challenges to our practice because just as external stimuli attract people, so, on a finer level, do the vibrations we encounter on a psychic level.

The real test here is the way in which we respond to the exchange of these subtle stimuli. We can fall into asking about any and all of them, "What is the meaning of this?", "How does this play, how does that work?"-or, the big one-"Is God trying to tell me something?" The answer is no. All these questions are only a trap set by the mind. There is a whole universe of psychic experience that we encounter as we begin to awaken to different levels of what we are. As that happens, the mind still wants to play. It does so by trying to evaluate and analyze every experience it has of the energy.

In the long run, however, this is not different from a basic materialism, because underlying all the analysis is the question, "Is this good or bad for me? How will this affect me, and what will I get out of it? Will it make me any more money?"-and so on. Then we may think we've advanced but, in fact, we have only gotten trapped in old questions at a new level.

Therefore, we must resist the tendency to analyze the substance of the energy, and instead understand that all of it-in the form of every experience that comes into our life-is there for us to grow. (How can it be otherwise, if everything is some expression of Life Itself?) Only by really exposing ourselves to life in all its forms, whether pleasurable or painful, can we penetrate to the level where we begin to see that it is all just different energies exchanging with other energies.

When we not only begin to understand, but also to experience this, then we see that we're constantly exchanging not things, but energy with one another, and that it is this energy which provides the essential form of our nourishment. This frees us from the idea that we are here to exchange material goods and from having the process of physical, intellectual, or emotional exchange be the limit of our horizon.

As we further refine our understanding of exchange as energy, we begin to recognize and experience that it happens as though between two poles that are constantly interacting with each other-but that are also united in some way. In other words, we start of experience these energies, which are interacting and exchanging with each other, as alternately finer and denser vibrations of the same thing.

For the person who really wants to grow spiritually, the issue then is not whether something is a good thing or a bad thing (which usually translates to mean that something either feels good or is painful), but rather which things nurture the finest parts of us, no matter how painful the experience may be.

Through participating in life with this finer awareness (we could say, by awakening to the real nature of our movements in the world), we begin to cultivate and develop discrimination. This refines our sensitivity toward finer and finer expressions of the energy, and we persistently turn toward these. Then sometimes, with a sudden flash of great insight, we go beyond the limits of our mind and become established in the experience of fulfillment-the realization of the highest Self.

In Fact, There Is No Exchange At All

At that stage, we understand our practice to be the process of totally releasing ourselves into the flow of energy, discovering there the simple, profoundly pure essence of Life Itself. Then we see that what we have previously taken to be the release of tension is, on a deeper level, spiritual nourishment, and, on this highest level, nothing but our own soul.

We see that learning to dissolve tensions has taught us to release all obstacles to exchange to the point where we can now recognize that, in fact, there is no exchange at all. Finally, we see that all those things which appeared to be exchanging were, in fact, all emerging from the same thing-as are we ourselves.

This is what makes any talk about a complex and total process of interaction and interdependence somewhat misleading. It is certainly a way of describing appearances, which is a level on which we must all, in some way, operate. But it is not really how things are. When we start trying to take apart that complex of interactions, what we cover is that there is really only thing happening.

This, in fact, also represents in a general way the insights of modern physics, as people have begun to examine the interrelationship of the giant particles that make up all of outer space that's visible to us. The same is true of the explorations into microspace, as we look more and more into the essence of all particles.

What we discover about both the macrocosm and the microcosm is that it is all essentially one thing-on every level. For example, there are molecules in our bodies that could only have been created in red suns, the nearest of which is about four hundred light years from here. This articulate existence that we have is drawn from the whole universe. And isn't it interesting that people thousands of years ago were searching for insights into the essence of all things by looking inside themselves, unlike most scientists of today who look outside themselves?

What we do see, whether we look outside or within, is that there is only one thing functioning, and that is the power of consciousness. To experience the process of exchange on the most profound level is to become established in the awareness of that one thing.

One of the roots of the term yoga is union. Another way of viewing it is as communion. The experience of God-realization is really communion with God. It is to become so completely one-pointed in the process of exchange with the highest that we in fact merge into the divine. Having examined carefully the process of exchange and its very essence, we come to understand the nature of Life Itself as being beyond exchange.

It's like this: if we look at the surface of the ocean, we notice all the waves interacting. Are they interacting in a process of exchange? We might think so - we might well think that they are at least exchanging energy. From one perspective we can look and say, yes, there's an exchange happening. But when we really think about it, can the ocean exchange anything with itself?

When we go beyond a perception of duality to experience all things as one thing-when we go beyond exchange, beyond coming and going, beyond being born and dying, beyond gain and loss, then we are pure and complete and infinitely free. We see ourselves in everything, and everything in ourselves. This puts an end to fear, because if there is only one thing, then what do we have to be afraid of? Thus we come to understand that the fundamental source of all energy in the world is also our own source. To understand this is to become completely happy and totally satisfied. It is not to be filled with a philosophy, with techniques, or with things that we've memorized. I am talking about levels of experience and about an understanding that cannot be arrived at outside of actual experience or without persistence in the practice of meditation.

Recently, in an article in The New York Times, several scientists were discussing the role of intuition and luck in the history of scientific discovery, and the process of developing our understanding of the world around us. Their contention was that it's impossible to think beyond the current paradigm, and so, intuition and luck are the essential features of scientific discovery.

We have the same understanding. In order to escape the Catch-22 presented by the current pattern of our existence, it is necessary for us to establish ourselves in contact with that pure, formless potentiality that exists within us beyond the mind. It's necessary, in order to allow a shift to take place in the current pattern of our life-a shift that arouses a different understanding within us and allows us to have an expanded view of the multifaceted, dynamic reality that is both within and around us.

Take Time for Your Practice

We call this act of plunging ourselves into the depth of our own being kundalini yoga or Shaiva yoga. It is this meditation on our own creative power-our own soul, if you will-which allows us to see the artificial categories we ourselves create and sustain in our own minds as the basis for our description of ourselves and our world.

As we establish ourselves in this meditation, we become strong enough to see the artificiality-the superficiality-of these categories, and their power as a limitation is dissolved. It is in this sense that the crystallization or blocks are released, and our experience of the process of exchange-which we have always believed sustains us-is transformed into a recognition of the divine universal power as the very foundation of Life Itself.

So try to take some time every day for your practice, even though perhaps in the beginning it seems somewhat complicated. As you work at it, it becomes a smooth, single effort. The breathing, the flow, the opening, and the Presence together all form one simple movement. Take time for your practice and discover within it the one simple movement that continuously takes you from struggle and crystallization to the flow of creative energy and into the pure presence of Life Itself.

There we discover ourselves to be living a life of love and respect not only because we have to, in order to create around us an environment in which we can really appreciate life, but also because that's the way Life Itself is. Since that's how it is, that's how we have to live. Then there is a continual, reciprocal relationship between the most pragmatic level of our dualistic functioning in the world, and the finest, highest, and most beautiful aspect of Life Itself, in which we participate and of which we are a part. To discover this is an endeavor which brings benefit and satisfaction to us and to the live of all those whose lives we touch. It's the only thing I've seen so far that's really worth the effort.