The Christmas Mistake

People make a frequent mistake about Christianity, and it’s most often perpetuated by Christians themselves. It’s this idea that the notion of God is self-evident, and that we somehow deduce the divinity of Christ because he checks off the boxes on some pre-determined set of prophecies and characteristics. Works miracles? Check. Born in Bethlehem? Check. Obviously, you *should* believe once we’ve *proved* it to you.

This is baloney.

The biblical authors were not hanging around to see who matched all the checkboxes and who they could declare “The Chosen One.” What happened was that people with a set of religious and political expectations met this character named Jesus, and he stunned them with the way he loved people and moved through the world. And they realized, or rather it was revealed to them, that the character of God *must* be like this dude, or the whole concept of God and religion (among other things) is trash.

(They were *not* completely unique in this experience — there was already plenty of precedent in Jewish tradition that was critical of religion and practice.)

So when I meet folks who believe that the whole concept of God and religion is trash, or who have been convinced that Jesus is made up, my perspective is that *they* *actually* *get* *it* *better* *than* *most* *Christians*. That God is already present and God’s kingdom already active is hardly a self-evident truth. It is not obvious that all the struggle we experience, both as individuals and society, is the labor pain of something new being born in our midst, and when you learn these truths they come upon you not as an insight you’ve worked for and earned, something you’ve gritted your teeth to believe in, but something revealed to you, hidden from the beginning of time.

The forces of domination and oppression in this world—which includes many forms and instances of Christianity—reject this revelation of the character and personality of God, and their goal is to distract, delay, deny, or destroy. (But that’s the Good Friday story.)

This Christmas story is about the incarnation and the image of God. We tell it as if it is frozen, like a snapshot in time. But it is an ongoing revelation, echoed in the birth of every child in the midst of human struggle and in camps that cage refugees, an unfolding that tells us as much about who and what God is *not* as about who and what God is. The Ground of Being, God, our Source and Mother and Father, the Great Mystery which defies definition — has a character, a “personality,” and it has broken through to us in the life of Jesus.

That, from this preacher’s perspective, is the story of Christmas.

(Originally posted on Facebook, December 2019).

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 41: The Two Paths

 
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Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

 

This Supreme Lord who pervades all of existence, the true Self of all creatures, may be realized through undivided love. There are two paths, Arjuna, which the soul may follow at the time of death. One leads to rebirth and the other to liberation. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Krishna goes on to describe the transmigration of souls. Those who have come to know and see Brahman, that the Lord of Love is everywhere and in all creatures, are able to finally shed the endless cycle of rebirth and join with God in ecstatic, eternal unity. The rest of us have to schlep back to the beginning and have another go.

But though we are all trying to escape rebirth, having another life is not really so bad. As Stevie Wonder puts it:

I’m so darn glad he let me try it again / Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then /Gonna keep on tryin’ / Till I reach my highest ground.

Biblical authors largely reject the idea of reincarnation. When they do speak of life after death, they favor the idea of bodily resurrection. Martha says at the death of her brother Lazarus, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Hebrews 9:27 puts it succinctly: “People are destined to die once and then face judgment.” New Testament authors probably knew that the Greek philosopher Plato had written about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. They knew about reincarnation—they just didn’t believe in it.

Some folks point out Jesus’s reference to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:14 as support for reincarnation, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come,” but it isn’t clear that Jesus actually means reincarnation. The second coming of Elijah was a widespread belief because Elijah had been taken bodily into the heavens (2 Kings 2:11), so people expected him to return a similar way. When Jesus says, “If you are willing to accept it,” he’s asking the crowd to interpret Elijah’s “return” metaphorically, since John the Baptist hadn’t dropped out of the sky.  

Today, nearly a quarter of American Christians also believe in reincarnation (see the Pew study here). Many conservative Christian leaders are alarmed by such findings. It’s probably not a surprise that I’m not alarmed by these unorthodox views. I think spiritual tinkerers (Robert Wuthnow’s term) who create a bricolage of theological beliefs are responding to toxic Christianity. I suspect many Christians prefer the idea of reincarnation because the two paths they were taught—heaven and hell—seem arbitrary and unloving. They’ve heard from fundamentalists that people who die without knowing Jesus are bound for hell, and they’ve rejected that worldview because it contradicts the notion of a loving and just God. They prefer the notion of reincarnation because it only seems right that people would be given another chance. (Although, I also wonder—couldn’t that be a kind of hell?)

I prefer to have metaphysical humility when it comes to these things. I don’t know exactly what happens when we die. We have first-hand accounts of near-death experiences, but since those people are still with us, I don’t take it as empirical knowledge.

There is so much we do not know about consciousness itself. I am skeptical even about this notion of myself as a separate entity from the rest of creation. There is a part of my brain that creates this sense of separateness, and it can be suppressed. So I question this notion that my soul is a unit that travels somewhere. Sometimes I suspect that we are already there, and the life we are living is actually a vivid remembering.

I take this as a challenge to remember a better life.

Prayer:
God, You are the Beginning, the Destination, and the Journey itself.


PS: I don’t think it’s an accident that Carrie Underwood’s video for Love Wins uses both Holi and gospel choir imagery. I think it’s pretty clear that the response of spiritual tinkerers to toxic fundamentalist Christianity is to reach toward other traditions. I think cultural appropriation is part of what happens when we realize our culture

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 39: How to Die (Part 1)

 
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Waiting for the afterlife, by Pedro, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being. Therefore, remember me at all times and fight on. (BG, 8:5-7) 

Hogwash.

Excuse me—I generally try be circumspect about critiquing the theological or metaphysical claims of other traditions, and I will get around to how I interpret these verses tomorrow. But in this case, I need to start with an objection. I’ve heard this same line of reasoning among Christians, and I’ve seen the harm it does. Some Christians live in perpetual fear that between the time of confessing their most recent sin, being forgiven, and then being killed in a car accident, their last words or last fleeting thought might be, “Oh, shit.” Then they would wind up in hell, because they died with unforgiven sin (which was simply their amygdala trying to keep them alive). In this system, what occupied their mind at the time of their death would disqualify them from salvation.

It’s the same principle in both Christian and Hindu circles: your afterlife depends on your achieving equanimity or an ideal state before you die. 

Don’t get me wrong: I think meditating on our mortality and thinking about the way we want to die is helpful. I think our faith and practice should help us approach death with a sense of peace instead of dread. But I don’t for a minute believe that the last state of consciousness of a person determines their destination in the next life. I reject this line of thinking for two reasons. First, I don’t think time exists for the dead in the same way it exists for the living. Second, I believe in grace—that God is love and it is that love that holds the universe together and draws all things towards God.

I’ve already shared a bit about how God is not limited by time. In both Hinduism and Christianity there is the hint that all times are available to God. Here on this planet, in this plane of existence and this timeline, we consciously experience the movement of time as one moment after another. But many meditators and pray-ers say that in moments of transcendent awareness, time ceases to exist. In mystical experience, we can live a lifetime in thirty minutes, or download experiential wisdom in an instant. To God, all moments are now. Even now, Moses is being placed in a basket. Even now, Buddha is sitting down to meditate under a tree. Even now, our great grandchildren are wondering what our lives were like.

The notion in the scripture above is that one should launch one’s soul with a good trajectory into the life to come. I do not question that this is a noble ambition. I question the idea that where you land depends on the skill of your throw. In the timeless realm of pure consciousness, we are already with God, just as God is with us now, in the “past.”

What Krishna describes in this section has its roots in the Upanishads, and I will explore it in the next post. I think there is more going on here than the surface meaning. I just feel it’s important to start with my objection in this case because, as I said, I’ve seen this line of reasoning do such emotional damage. People worry about victims of suicide being bound for hell, for example, or about minor infractions of scruples in the moments before death. How we die is, hopefully, a reflection of how we live. It might be related to our character. But we don’t get to choose how we die. Just for comparison’s sake, remember that for the Vikings, death in battle was the ideal way to die—and a guarantee of a good afterlife!

We may die “better” or “worse” than we lived, but either way we still die. I take hope from Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus turns to a thief on the cross and tells him they will be together in paradise that very day (Luke 23:43). I also consider that people in the first century thought crucifixion or hanging were signs of God’s judgment, but Paul reframed that notion: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed” (Galatians 3:13). I know that I certainly hope to die in the mindful way Krishna describes in the passage above; but I also have faith that however I die, I will live in God.  

I felt it important to share how I disagree with the surface meaning of this passage first. I will share how I understand its deeper meaning and purpose next.

Prayer:
Help me live as if I will die tomorrow, and help me live as if I will never die. Help me die as one who has fully lived, and help me die as one who will live in You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 38: Stages of Faith

 
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An emerging Tamarind tree seedling, Kerala, India, by ManjithkainiFrom Wikimedia Commons

 

Yesterday I shared this passage:

After many births the wise seek refuge in me, seeing me everywhere and in everything. Such great souls are very rare. There are others whose discrimination is misled by many desires. Following their own nature, they worship the lower gods, practicing various rites. (BG, 7:19-20) 

Regardless of faith tradition, we all go through different stages of faith development (see James Fowler’s stages here). Some have a toddler’s understanding of their faith: They must follow the rules and not get caught! Some have an older child’s view of their faith: That right and wrong and belief in God are about something more than consequences; there is a Truth that demands a response from us. Some who have an adolescent faith recognize the social function of religion; they develop a sense of belonging, and believe that faith makes them better people (or not) and helps society function (or not). Fewer people reach an adult faith: the language of multiple religions is how we all talk about our experience of the sacred and transcendent. Fewer still have wisdom: that faith is about the mystery of being, and sometimes the best language to describe it is silence. We often find ourselves transitioning to another stage of development when we experience a crisis, or have a mystical experience, or learn something new that rocks our world, or simply realize our old worldview no longer suits us.

Hinduism extends this understanding of faith development over multiple lifetimes or incarnations. We may go through many lifetimes and repeat many stages before we come to enlightenment. The scripture above points to what Fowler calls “universalizing faith”: One eventually realizes that the words and systems we use in religious language are simply mental models for something indescribable, beyond words, beyond institutions, and beyond formal systems of theology. The wise “see me everywhere and in everything.”

This is not just an intellectual leap. There is a difference between accepting a formal doctrine that God is omnipresent, and truly seeing God everywhere and in everything. One is a proposition and the other is a perception, a change in our state of being.

To someone with a synthetic-conventional (adolescent) faith, someone else who is questioning or outgrowing the religion and the doctrines they grew up with looks like a “backslider,” even though they are maturing in their faith. And it is easy for someone at a more “advanced” stage of faith to look backward with contempt—especially if they haven’t fully integrated their understanding of previous stages. As we go through the stages of development, we don’t exactly leave one behind and fully inhabit another. We carry each stage with us into the next.

Someone who is truly wise can also appreciate the simplest expressions of faith. It is easy for us to think we have matured in our faith, when really we have just scratched the surface of a new stage, or “rearranged our prejudices,” (to quote Bishop Oldham). The wisest also seek “faith like a child” (Matthew 18:2-4).

Prayer:
God of all living, growing things, help me to appreciate my own growth and the growth of others.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 37: Don’t Compare Their Worst to Our Best

 

Detail of Palau de la Música Catalana Symphony Hall, Barcelona by Ron Sterling, from Wikimedia Commons

 

I once heard an evangelical Christian missionary describe his work among Hindus in India. This was the way he framed his work: “There are over 3000 gods and goddesses in Hinduism, and it is impossible to please all of their various deities. You are constantly terrified about making one or more of them angry, and then you will be doomed to be reborn. Accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior frees you from that oppressive system.”

This is a stunning mischaracterization of Hinduism. Hear this passage from the Bhagavad-Gita:

After many births the wise seek refuge in me, seeing me everywhere and in everything. Such great souls are very rare. There are others whose discrimination is misled by many desires. Following their own nature, they worship the lower gods, practicing various rites. (BG, 7:19-20) 

The above passage from the Gita is an internal critique within Hinduism: “There are some practitioners of our faith who don’t understand the point of it, who obsess over rituals and worship lower gods.” Both the missionary and the Gita agree that this is a problem; they disagree—sort of—on the solution.

In many faith traditions there are people whose grasp of their faith is little more than superstition. They believe that if they pull the right cosmic levers and get lucky that the universe will spit out a jackpot of blessings. But this is not a difference between Hinduism and Christianity—it’s a difference between immature faith and mature faith.

I’ve heard the same kind of ignorant Protestant rhetoric applied to Roman Catholicism, claiming that Catholics worship Mary and the saints. And out of hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics, it is certainly possible to find a few who practice this way, whose faith is rudimentary. Again, this is not a difference between Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, but a difference between immature and mature religion. If you live in the Bible Belt, you also know that among evangelical Protestants there are also many immature, hate-filled Christians who wouldn’t know Jesus from a hole in the ground, who think of God as a cosmic policeman.

You can find plenty of ex-Hindus, ex-Catholics, and ex-Evangelicals who detest the legalistic, guilt-ridden way they were raised. It is not fair comparing the worst of one religion with the best of another. Krister Stendahl made this one of his main rules of interreligious study.

This is also one reason why when we read Jesus’s words about the Pharisees or “the Jews” (in the Gospel of John), we need to hear him criticizing Judaism from the inside. When Jesus complains about religious legalism, he is making the critique as a faithful Jew. Too many Christians receive Jesus’s words a criticism of Judaism, instead of hearing them as a criticism of immature, self-serving religion.

When some people outgrow the immature, literalistic, legalistic version of their faith tradition, they will reject faith altogether, or embrace a different tradition. Others will find resources and wisdom within it. These are all signs of faith development. More on this tomorrow.

Prayer:
God of Growth and Life, as flowers bend toward the sun, help us grow toward you.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 36: Many Paths, Many Stories

 
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The Morning Prayer, by Ludwig Deutsch, 1906. From Wikimedia Commons.

 

Good people come to worship me for different reasons. Some come to the spiritual life because of suffering, some in order to understand life; some come through a desire to achieve life’s purpose, and some come who are men and women of wisdom. (BG, 7:16) 

We don’t all seek God—or enlightenment—for the same reasons. This is a truth Hinduism has folded into its philosophy from the beginning. Human beings are born different. We have different spiritual antennae and resonate to different things. Some of us are looking for love and acceptance, others of us are looking for knowledge; some of us are driven by achievement, and others by freedom from expectations. This is not an exhaustive list. Through experience—which entails a lot of frustration and disappointment—all of these paths lead to wisdom, and toward a greater intimacy with God. 

Judaism expresses these differences in story. Jacob was a cheater who got cheated, but through wit and struggle learned the suffering love of a husband and father. Moses was a privileged young man who started off thinking of justice as retribution, but through exile and an encounter with God learned that justice is about the complex, frustrating work of liberation and healing. Naomi was a widow, bitter at her loss, feeling abandoned by God, but found grace and provision through her relationship with her foreign-born daughter-in-law.

Feuerstein’s translation of the above passage describes the four kinds of people as “the afflicted, the desirous-of-knowledge, [those whose] object is the welfare of the world, and the knower.” I can easily think of people I know in my own life who fit all of those categories. They all have different personalities and stories, and their flavor of faith may look slightly different—but they radiate a quiet confidence in God and an acceptance of the world. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan mystic, often says that the three paths of spiritual growth are great love, great suffering, and contemplation. And as the Bible stories illustrate, great love almost always entails great suffering.

Krishna goes on to say that wisdom is the superior path, but Krishna has this habit of contradicting himself every few minutes. He will say “selfless service is the better way,” and then will say “meditation is the better way.” Whatever subject he’s speaking about at the moment, he will say, “this is the best.”

I suspect there is a tongue-in-cheek truth to this inconsistency. I met an ex-prisoner who referred to himself as “God’s favorite child,” but he was quick to say that it was true of everyone. I’ve heard stories of multiple members of the same family who were convinced they were grandma’s favorite because she told them each—in private—that they were her favorite. I think that as God considers Jacob, or Moses, or Naomi, or you or me, God would tell each of us that the way we came to know God was the “best” way.

Prayer:
God, I’m glad that I am your favorite. Bless my path, and the paths of all of us pilgrims.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 35: Two Natures

 
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An artist’s depiction of the binary star series, J0806; by NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

 

In these two aspects of my nature is the womb of all creation. The birth and dissolution of the cosmos itself takes place in me. There is nothing that exists separate from me, Arjuna. The entire universe is suspended from me as my necklace of jewels.  (BG, 7:6-7) 

We looked at the feminine imagery of this passage yesterday. Now let’s take a brief dip into metaphysics.

Krishna has been talking about “two natures,” a lower nature and a higher nature. In Hindu philosophy these are usually called prakriti and purusha, or “the elements” and “pure consciousness.” Here, Krishna calls the higher nature jiva-bhuta, or life-force.

These two natures don’t map directly onto Western categories like human and divine, or matter and spirit. We’ll notice a difference when we start listing the elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect, and ego. The “elements” in this system include both tangible and intangible aspects of our world, including our own thoughts, feelings, and narratives. The experience of our subjective selves, in Hindu philosophy, is very much a part of the material world.

There are three gunas, states or forces, that act upon the elements: tamas (tending toward disorder, delusion, and inaction), rajas (tending toward desire, the ego, and passion), and sattva (tending toward enlightenment and unity). These are the forces of evolution and change.

Krishna is saying that both changeable realm of prakriti and the unchangeable purusha are part of the divine dance of creation and destruction. There is a place where we experience time and change and separateness, and there is a place where we experience Oneness, where all times are now. These two places are connected; they are part of the same reality. This divine dance is “The Womb of Creation,” Krishna says.

This mystical awareness of the unity of all things is difficult to put into words, and metaphysics is our attempt to do so: to try to describe how our essential unity—we are all part of the same reality—can be experienced as separateness, as me and you and dog and tree and rock and ocean, as thought and emotion and this Self that is neither, both, and more. Trying to understand the elements of reality is like putting creation under a microscope so that we can understand the big picture.   

When Krishna says There is nothing that exists separate from me, I also hear Paul quoting a pagan poet, saying that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). The Womb of God is such a powerful metaphor, especially because even though we are “born,” we are still present in God. There’s nowhere we can go and be “outside of God,” because all of creation is still inside, and still part of God, and God is in every strand of creation’s DNA.

Prayer:
God in Whom we live and move and have our being, overcome our illusions of independence.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 34: The Womb of Creation

 
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The Babe in the Womb, by Leonard da Vinci. From Wikimedia Commons

 

In these two aspects of my nature is the womb of all creation. The birth and dissolution of the cosmos itself takes place in me. There is nothing that exists separate from me, Arjuna. The entire universe is suspended from me as my necklace of jewels.  (BG, 7:6-7) 

I want to talk about these feminine images: the womb and the necklace.

In Christianity, we are so used to Father language that we often miss places in the Bible where God is a mother. Consider:

From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? (Job 38:28-29, NRSV)

and:

Before the mountains were born, before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—from forever in the past to forever in the future, you are God. (Psalm 90:2, CEB)

The Hebrew word translated as “compassionate” or “merciful” also shares the root for womb, as when God is described as being “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, NRSV).

Our English language and sexist traditions prevent us from seeing these feminine images of God. Even though the Bible starts off in Genesis 1:27 by telling us that both man and woman are made “in the image of God”—implying that God is both—religious authoritarians reject or obscure this feminine image at every turn.

Eastern religions (in general) are more comfortable with female, gender-bending, or queer images of the divine. The bodhisattva [divine sage] Guanyin, or Avalokitasvara, appears as male, female, and androgynous.

And while a necklace in the above passage is not explicitly feminine (men wear necklaces in both the Hebrew Bible and Indian literature), the idea of the universe as jewelry for our divine Mother is certainly provocative. The sense of all these images is one of continuity and dependence. God births the universe, and so the universe (and we humans) contain some divine DNA. Our moment-to-moment existence is sustained by her. Our universe de-pends (the English verb mean to hang, like a pendant) from her like jewels on a string.

There is some metaphysical stuff here, as well, which I will dig into tomorrow. But for now, listen and reflect on these feminine images of God: The womb of creation. A necklace of jewels hanging from her shoulders.

Prayer:
Merciful Mother, hold us close.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 33: Abide in Me

 
V0033382 Christ as the vine; the Apostles and Evangelists as branches

Christ as the vine; the Apostles and Evangelists as branches: Wellcome Library, London.  images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

I am ever present to those who have realized me in every creature. Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me. They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me. Wherever they may live, they abide in me.  (BG, 6:30-31) 

Compare it to these words of Jesus:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5, NRSV).

There are three big ideas here: 1) that the Incarnate One is always with you, inside of you, 2) that you can abide, or dwell in the Lord of Life, and 3) that what you do, the fruit you bear, is the life and activity of God being expressed in you.  

Sure, we say, “God is everywhere,” but omnipresence is something we sort of take for granted. That God is in my neighbor, I can imagine with a little effort. That God is in my dog, or a fruit fly, or a piece of rotting fruit is another. In everyday life, we come to regard the world as disposable. It is far from sacred because it is so ordinary.

I think that’s why Jesus uses the vine metaphor. There is nothing “ordinary” about life or existence itself, about the fact that this strange divine energy is being pumped into us all the time, without our even being aware of it. There is only awareness and unawareness of this ceaseless miracle.

Becoming aware, mindful, is what is meant by “abiding.” Once you become aware, stay in this space. Cultivate awe. Linger over beauty. Allow yourself to be amazed by human beings. Stay curious about God’s infinite diversity in the world. The fruit fly and the rotting fruit both have something to say. So does your dog. So does your neighbor, even if he is kind of a jerk.

If you stay in this space of constant wonder, viewing each moment as a miracle from God, then your action cannot help but become divine. You’re not just going through the motions of living—you are an expression of God’s limitless love. Washing dishes? Miraculous. Writing a paper? Miraculous. Disciplining a child? Miraculous. Holding the hand of a loved one? Awe-inspiring.

Abiding is not a passive thing. We have the capacity for so much more wonder and awe. With attention, the sages say, we could walk around through life totally gob-smacked with the goodness of God. Wouldn’t that be a great way to live?  

Prayer:
Abide in me abiding in You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 32: Meditation Posture

 

Amitabha, Tibet, 145 CE. Photo by David Barnhart, taken at the Encountering the Buddha exhibit at the Smithsonian

 

Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass. Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts. Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified. Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering. With all fears dissolved in the peace of the Self… sit in meditiaon with me as your only goal. (BG, 6:11-14

Krishna shifts to telling Arjuna some specific steps in meditation.

I share this section because there are two truths about meditation posture: the first is that your exact physical posture isn’t important. The second is that your physical posture is very important.

If you go to a meditation class or speak to people who have practiced for years, you’ll learn that most practitioners have options: cushion, bench, or chair; walking meditation or lying on the floor; hands clasped, open, or in mudras; eyes open or closed. It was in watching a video of an old woman meditating near a stupa that I finally realized: just do whatever works. She was sitting on the ground, leaning on one arm. The other rested across one raised knee. Her eyes were fixed at a middle distance on the ground. She was smiling softly. She looked comfortable but alert, something I rarely achieved in my own meditation posture. But she wasn’t hung up on having her legs in the lotus position or her arms just so.

There’s a balance here. Once you understand the purpose of meditation, posture may not be so important. But for the novice unlearning a lifetime of bad posture habits, physical position can be a hang-up. We are physical beings and how we orient out bodies in space can help or hinder our mental and spiritual experience. If our attention becomes fixated on our comfort, seeking the least distracting position can become a distraction itself. This is part of what hatha yoga is intended to do: prepare you for meditation. You move and stretch your body because sitting still in meditation is hard work!

Yesterday I said Easwaran’s translation in this chapter feels a bit too focused on willpower. Listen to the active verbs he uses in the above passage: strive, hold, keep. I think these verbs reinforce “achievement” spirituality. Compare it to the Feuerstein translation, which has only one active verb, sit:

Holding trunk, head, and neck even, motionless, and steady, gazing [relaxedly] at the tip of his nose and without looking round about, [with] tranquil self, devoid of fear… he should sit, intent on Me. (6:13-14).

The trick in meditation, as with life, is to find the balance between effort and relaxation, active attention and passive noticing. For me, it’s not so much stilling my thoughts as letting them play, like active toddlers, until they come to rest naturally. It’s not helpful when my achievement-oriented brain is yelling at them, “RELAX!”

And the same is true with the body. I begin with an awareness of my body, because until I become intentionally aware of my body and appreciate its posture, it will become a persistent distraction.

Prayer:
Embodied, Incarnate One, you made, for me, a body; You made me as a body;
You made me more than a body.