Released on March 20, 2019, this touches on ideas that are explored more fulsomely in The Yoga of Pain, the second book in The Yoga Trilogy. Forever on my mind, I like to treat life as a game, rather than a burden. Seems like there’s a bit more truth to that.
Maya and Lila
Serious business. That’s what life is. There is much over which to fret, much to cause worry and suffering. And certainly – on a level this is true. People the world over are hurt, maimed, killed, tortured, raped, beaten, brutalized, murdered, and made to suffer on a daily basis. Many of us living in Western countries live in a modern sort of ignorant dreamland, consuming and consuming without any concern about what kind of impact it has on our fellows and our environment.
More personally, we are told from birth that we ‘have to make something of ourselves.’ As soon as we are speaking and ambulating reasonably well, we are thrust into educational facilities to be fed information about how the world is and what we must do, mostly related to the production of wealth. This is preceded by the same sort of thing, in a less regimented way, perhaps, from our parents.
The overall picture is grim, then. Life is serious. It is nothing overly controversial to state that many people consider us a degenerate species. One need only boot up Facebook or the news for messages about what kind of bastards we are to both one another and our environment. Our leaders are the worst of the lot, engaging in utterly dishonourable behaviour that astounds and leaves one shaking their heads, if we pay these people any attention at all.
And I suppose that this is the rub of life. For all its wonders, it is very convincing in what it shows us. And it shows us things that seem just utterly awful and hopeless. A cynic delights in assessing the misery, and there are no shortage of the grandiose poo-pooers. And yet, there are those of us that remain hopeful, even in the wake of acts of terror and unbelievable cruelty. Some of these people will say they have found God, or spirit, or just faith in the universe, faith in humankind – properly understood, these all mean the same thing.
How does this even happen? How do people find an answer to the question that plagues many of us from birth? How do we let go of all of our suffering? No matter the practice, that is what we are trying to do. That is yoga. There are other names for the apparent work that we do – yoga is just so succinct. As a verb, it means to unify. Even seemingly unrelated subjects in the spiritual field, like Jesus telling us to love our enemies, can be linked back to it.
Jesus didn’t seem to have to practice yoga. By the time he was chatted about in the Bible, he had already achieved Self-realization. What he did do was try to show people how they might do it for themselves. Like any guru worth his salt, Jesus taught yoga practices, offering his own experiences as a doorway into the Self. And chief among them is the practice of loving one’s enemy.
If you have an enemy, it’s because of something that they did to you in the past. Or there is a person who is threatening to do something to you in the future. But still, absent the villain advancing on you with dagger in hand, you have no enemies if you cannot link anything back to the past or towards the future. In the present, there is nothing but possibility. And Jesus’ admonition was that we should choose love, rather than its opposite, no matter what.
Perhaps your enemy has repented and no longer wishes you harm. But if you are judging someone based on past actions, there remains a barrier between you and that person. They remain an enemy, as they might visit upon you in the future what they have visited upon you before. Unless, of course, you forgive them. There we go – another suggestion from ye olde Christ. Forgiveness wipes the slate clean, to a degree, because it is breaking attachment. Attachment to a poisonous emotion, like anger or betrayal. It’s better we leave that stuff in the past. And shed a little bit of the illusion of separation in the process.
There is another, darker possibility: that this person is and will remain your enemy forever. Still, that is about the other person. What about you, in your heart? Can you find the courage to love that person, even if they apparently do not like you or even wish you harm?
This is where things start to get extremely murky. For it does require courage to love someone who actively hates you, because you could be risking your personal safety, or your possessions (if they are a thief), or your life itself. And it does require faith that there is something beyond this world. Because if there is nothing beyond this world, better that we exterminate the wrongdoers. Better that we exercise the kind of thinking that creates the enemy mindset in the first place. It is born of a desire to control - circumstances, others, the outcome of events. We would rather have no enemies, and if we could control other people at all times, we wouldn’t. Violence and murder: this is control taken to its apotheosis. A dead person cannot act in a way with which you do not agree. Could loving one’s enemies be a fancy way of telling us to let go of control?
The only thing we can control in this world is how we respond to what happens around us. We have absolutely no control over most events. Certainly, there is a large swath of the population that thinks that individual human minds are in the pilot’s seat, but to me, that indicates one thing above all: that certain people are more swayed by the illusion than others. But what illusion? What the hell did Jesus see in other people, such that he was ready to die for (seemingly) everyone else?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘maya’ means “the sense-world of manifold phenomena held in Vedanta to conceal the unity of absolute being.” I would say that is pretty concise, but what does that even mean? For one, ‘sense-world’ is what most people would call ‘the real world.’ It is what appears to be consensus reality, the one in which we grow up. ‘Vedanta’ simply means the ancient religion from which modern Hinduism has evolved. The most important phrase of all, though, is this: ‘the unity of absolute being.’
Unity. That is what is being hidden by maya, the illusion of the real world. So, what is its substance, this illusion? Well, what is the opposite of unity? Separation. The illusion of maya is one of separation. According to maya, I am here and you are there, reading this. And we are separate beings. That is the illusion. To break free of the illusion, we have to unify. We have to complete our yogas.
The unity involved here is definitely not what we might think it is before we experience it in its fullness. I am talking total, utter wholeness that permeates every element of experience. Which brings into question all kinds of things. Like, why does metaphor carry truth and literal understandings seem hollow? Why does synchronicity exist? Why do each of our experiences seem tailor made for each of us? This unity is consciousness itself. You, your true Self: that is what is hidden by the maya. And there is only one all-encompassing thing.
If you accept the truth of unity, then you have to accept that everything is you, in a very real way. Every. Single. Thing. The great and beautiful things, like a baby’s laughter and a bright summer’s day filled with friends and wonderful fellowship. But you also have to accept that things like Hitler or Stalin or Genghis Khan or Josef Fritzl, the man who kept his daughter captive for 24 years, raping her repeatedly and having seven children with her in the process, are You. Where Jesus is your spiritual arm, Fritzl is your spiritual toe.
Utterly repugnant, no? It could not possibly be that you are the same thing that those monsters are. Oh, but it could, except for our judging minds. And, yes, there is a problem with judgment – all judgment, not just the kind that sees us demean each other for our love of Dungeons and Dragons or obesity or problematic acne. Or judgment of our own apparent selves, these illusory bodies and minds in which we seem to live. The hardest thing to accept is that judging people as ‘good’ – more enlightened, more brilliant, more in control, more at ease with themselves – causes problems. For example, Jesus is viewed as a deity rather than a dude by many adherents of the various Christian sects, and more than one person has been put to the sword as a result.
The problem with judgment is that it enforces separation. When we judge, we seek to create separation. It is inherent in the very act itself. As long as we see things as dual, rather than unified, as long as there is an evil to a good, we stay trapped in the illusion. We cannot get free unless we emancipate ourselves by throwing judgment by the wayside. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzche, we have to go beyond good and evil.
And so, if we do love our enemies, if we forgive, if we give up all judgment, well, you might get to that place. All this boils down to is denying the illusion of separation. We love ourselves, do we not? And we would forgive ourselves? And we do not judge ourselves? Caveat: we indeed do this when we are very firmly stuck in the illusion. But even if we were in that hole of self-hatred, wouldn’t we prefer that we didn't hate ourselves? I know - I was there. I hated myself more than anyone else I hated. There were a few of them. And I was living in pure hell.
Jesus was a yogi and his recommendations were universal – they help us complete our own individual yogas. He was a man, but he survives as a mythical figure. Like any good bit of poetry, his story transmits something that goes beyond our minds and directly into our hearts. And through that process, we come to understand that it’s not all that serious. That is indeed the wonderful part of the illusion: when it is dispelled, we see the world exactly for what it is. It is a complete fiction, a fairy tale, a fantasy. You learn that you have been playing hide and go seek with your Self and you have finally won the game. The higher Self is pure love, immortal and beyond all suffering.
It is also completely alone. Absent maya, there is no ‘other,’ apparent or not. Imagine that. Totally, utterly without anyone or anything else. It’s just you, bored and lonely. Doesn’t sound very fun, does it? Could it be that the symbolic death that occurs in all these myths and metaphors from around the world – whether it’s Jesus dying on the cross, Odin hanging himself from Yggdrasil, Osiris being killed by Set – is an experience of this dark side of enlightenment? And what of the final step of the Hero’s Journey? The return with divine knowledge – the metaphorical resurrection? Can we come back to the world of separation after experiencing unity? Can we live in two worlds at once? Can we look to each other simply as human beings and see through a glass brightly?
If there is a reason for the world, this fiction of maya, it is this: it is an antidote to loneliness. Certainly, the world is full of problems, but it is also filled with wonders. Your lover, your baby, your community, the laughter and fun and beauty – it is possible only because of the illusion. There is also death, disease, loss of those loved ones, infant mortality, environmental collapse, and all the rest. And we should live in full compassion for that misery. But, in the end, what does finite suffering matter to an infinite being, simultaneously playing all roles across time? If the part we think we are playing is a sad one, then death sets us free to play out another universe.
Because that’s what life is: a play. The old rishis, the ancient Hindu sages (those rascals), had a word for this. Lila. It means the divine play. From a more Western perspective, one of our own rishis, Bill Shakespeare, said this: “all the world is a stage, the people, players.” And plays mean fun. How can something so horrific be fun?
Just ask any fan of Game of Thrones. Or Pulp Fiction. Or A Clockwork Orange. Or the work of Irvine Welsh. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Conscious of it or not, we are simultaneously the actor and the director. Enlightenment is having a peek backstage and rejoicing at what you see. But it is completely unnecessary for enjoyment of the play. In fact, it would wreck many a great villainous part if everyone suddenly became enlightened (at least at this juncture in time). This is only possible because of the illusion. The maya is the fuel for the lila. The purpose of maya is quite clear: like good actors, we have to believe in our roles. We have to believe that we are separate from one another. We have to make our beliefs so robust that we are willing to die, and rape, and maim, and kill in the name of the illusion.
Otherwise, it would be no fun. Without evil, good could not exist. It would be as it was in the beginning – unity. There would be no song of life. Without dragons, there would be no heroes. Without Josef Fritzl, there could not have been a Buddha. Without you, there could be no me. And vice versa.
If that's not comforting, how about this? In the end, when the grand operatic story draws to a close and we simultaneously (remember – time is part of maya) draw our final breaths, everyone gets an Oscar.