Released on March 17, 2019, this essay was a long time coming. Now that The Yoga of Strength is in (some of) your hands, I feel like I can discuss this.
Whoever you are, you matter. Whoever you are, your worth is inestimable. Whoever you are, you are perfect.
Risk. What a concept. Inherent in the notion are two more ideas: danger and reward. When we risk, we are putting something which seems to belong to us on the line. In its most base form, gambling is a form of risk: we put money in limbo, one that could either see us lose it or grow it, and hope that the latter is the result. Beyond cards and dice, though, what is risk?
From a spiritual perspective, risk is about courage. When we put our treasured items in danger for the promise of something ‘better,’ we are exercising courage. But how is courage spiritual? Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian Hindu saint, Ram Dass’ teacher, once told his student that ‘courage is a very important thing.’ But, again, why?
I have already explained why I think that courage is a yoga practice, something that brings us closer to self-realization, in another Reflection. You can read it here. But what I think deserves a closer look is the risk element of the courage bargain.
I have a one-year-old daughter, Iris. She is quite the little peach, a light in my life that never fails to warm up the old cockles of my heart. Beyond her sweetness, though, I am fascinated in watching her develop. Recently, she started to walk. And I realized in watching her that this was one of the first times she was called to risk her safety in order to grow.
After Iris started to stand up, which took a little while, she did not immediately start walking. Instead, she would hold on to the sides of the coffee table and drop onto her butt whenever we tried to coax her away from the safety of her perch. She did fall a few times in the early days, bonking her head on the table or otherwise hurting herself. By those later moments, she had learned the potential cost of risk gone wrong.
Iris was into her sixteenth month of life before she started walking regularly. Based on a highly scientific Internet search I just ran, that is normally the latest it will take for babies to become accomplished bipeds. Most babies figure it out by thirteen months or sooner. The thing is, I am pretty sure Iris could have gotten there earlier. I watched her take a few tentative steps between two different places - letting go of all safety holds in the process - when she was much younger. She could stand up without support months ago. So, really, what might have been the problem?
The risk of it. I suspect that is what my daughter was concerned with. Knowing the pain that was a potential outcome, she was not ready to risk her physical health until she was as surefooted as a mountain goat. But risk it she eventually did, and now she has grown as a person.
That is the payoff to risk. Growth. We cannot grow as human beings unless we take risks. Sorry to tell you, folks, but this is just the God’s honest truth. Besides, I am sure all of you reading have figured this one out by now. In fact, it is as trite as the day is long. But, this is child development. What about a spiritual sense?
Now we get into something a little trickier. Spirit is something that is deeply personal and completely unseen to the world around us. When I was a kid, arrogant and certain of my own materialistic preconceptions about the world, the notion of spirit would have elicited scoffs and scorn in equal measure. ‘Bullshit,’ I might have said. Now, though…
The thing about awareness of spirit is that it is almost like developing a new language, a new perception, a new appendage. A third eye, to use the ancient symbol. In my case, it occurred in my late twenties. I experienced things that completely defied my heretofore extremely concrete understanding of reality. This is the metaphorical idea of a miracle – something that is completely impossible and yet occurs (stay tuned for a Reflection on this topic). And when it does occur, a person has two options: they can either ignore it, laugh it off, say it was some wild coincidence, or… actually believe that there might be something more to it.
This is where it gets dangerous, folks. Because to actually believe in something beyond the world of the five senses has quite a few pitfalls. No clear physical danger (like striking your head on the coffee table), there are potential negative outcomes. For one, it could all be in your head. You might be going insane. Completely off your rocker, it would be better to ignore the little peek behind the curtain of reality. Just stay with consensus reality and laugh the inexplicable off. Use your rational faculties: don’t talk about it, don’t think about it – bury it.
Another pitfall is a sense of shame. In this society, spirit is given a rather short shrift. People are leaving churches in droves and taking up a very devout form of materialism as their religion. Scientism is a thing (I used to be beholden to it). To believe in something greater than one’s self is to out yourself as a gullible fool, in many ways (author’s note: let those freak flags fly, people!). People are actively hostile to religion these days, something that is clearly evident every time you turn on the news. That said, what I am talking about has less to do with religion and more about the personal experience that saw people found religions.
Drinking the Kool-Aid – that is the other risk, related to the first one. Rationality has a touchpoint in the real world. Science is real and true and demonstrable. You can prove things to yourself. With spirit, though, it is all belief. Could you actually kill yourself or others over belief? You would have to be asleep under a rock for your entire life to not realize that it happens and has happened over the entirety of human existence. An easy litmus test for this, though: if someone is telling you how it is and you have not experienced it yourself, then you can and should call ‘bullshit.’ Plus, if unconditional love for all beings is not the answer, you are asking the wrong questions.
So, those are the potential negative outcomes. But, say you do risk it. To believe that the coincidences are actually breadcrumbs leading you somewhere. Once you get moving down the rabbit hole, the anchors of the ‘real’ world seem to disappear. You are tested – sorely tested. You open yourself up to a deluge of spiritual final examinations that seem unconquerable. The inexplicable gets even harder to explain - rationally. You get by on pure faith alone. This is the real faith, the one that is born of the miracle that cracks you open like a walnut. You cling to your belief like a life preserver and manage to stay afloat.
But what of the rewards, then? Well, one payoff is that you will actually remember who it is You are. And realize that it’s looking back at you when you gaze into your daughter’s big blue eyes. I mean, that’s a big one – Self-realization. Not in an abstract way, either, the way you might nod along when someone tells you that ‘it’s all One, man.’ I am talking a deep, earth-shattering personal experience of recollection. This is enlightenment: this is what the seeker seeks.
There are many other rewards. An end to questions like, ‘what is it all for?’ ‘Why is there injustice in the world?’ ‘What if something terrible happens to me?’ We are told over and over again that we cannot find the answers we seek in this world, but that has not been my experience. I am not saying you suddenly know everything about everything all at once (I certainly am not claiming that myself), but the questions cease deep in your heart. Acceptance and grace flow into your life like a tide, and you paradoxically get sucked along with it.
This is not nihilism. Paradoxically, it’s about compassion. You experience so much of it. You stand against the injustice that you always knew was wrong, you treasure honour and courage, you love without reservation. You experience life the way you felt, deep in your heart, that it always should have been experienced.
Nor is it never-ending bliss, though there is plenty of it. There is laughter, pain, joy, sorrow, love, and anguish in equal measure. Life becomes a thrill. There is a reason that we look to art for stories of adventure, why we crave them so much. It is also why we say that art imitates life. Life – true life – is risk. It is risk and growth and, yes, eventually death. But a life without risk is a hollow shell. To me, this is the true death. And once you experience the true life… well, I guess like Morpheus told Neo in The Matrix (who was incidentally named for the Greek god of dreams), there are some things that need to be seen to be believed.
As it turns out, the risk is flipped. By not heeding the call of the sychronicities and miracles, we are risking much more than public ridicule and insanity. What we are risking is not living life the way it was meant to be lived. Our culture teaches us so much about how we should behave: grow up, get a job, work, retire, die. Like cogs in a machine, I used to think that this was a raw deal because it was forced upon me. A prison in the vein of The Matrix (a wonderful modern myth). But what I did not realize for a long time we are all the Neos of our own stories. And once Neo gets free, he heads right back into the Matrix. Liberation is this, then: like that famous quote about enlightenment, we still chop wood and carry water. But those roles that we thought were blasé or predictable or boring - we realize that they are full of wonder and mystery and awe. And we get the reward of conscious choice. Like willing actors in a play that we are also directing, we choose to participate in the game of life, rather than being compelled into it by a seemingly cold and unfeeling universe.
Freedom. No matter where we are. That is the big reward. We have to risk all that we thought we were to become who We are. And who We are is unbound, loving, and full of grace. And does the laundry, goes to work, pays the bills, and cooks pasta for his daughter.
Sounds like the hand to go all in on, no?