Flying out of LAX a week ago, I had a seven-hour layover in the international terminal to ponder the flaws and cracks that undermine our damaged world and the wayward human beings in it.
Three days before I had watched a documentary, Sukhavati, in which renowned late mythologist Joseph Campbell eloquently bares his heart to speak about the eternal teachings of sanatana dharma, myth, and the times in which we live. Toward the end, he makes the statement that our species is on its way to extinction by our own undoing.
“We are falling,” he said.
Campbell is one of many wise men who have issued this warning and who continue to warn humanity that the end times may be upon us. Mulling this over, I walked from security check toward my gate, bombarded along the way with images in the duty-free boutique stretch. I’ve walked this corridor in airports countless times over the years; in Los Angeles, the City of the Fallen Angels, this bardo is amped up to a fevered pitch.
All images speak to us, going in at the level of archetype, symbol, dream. Some of these, as in the mythic stories of all cultures, contain spiritual information that may teach us something about the sacred way of life. Others, like the images designed by the high priests of profit, have a different effect. Before we even know what has happened to us, images weave a spell for the undefended, unconscious mind, while they sound a wake-up call for the vigilant.
As a traveler, it’s good to bring awareness to places like duty-free sales in airports, where we have the opportunity to test our inner stability— “neither attracted nor repelled,” as another wise man advised. It’s easy to not be attracted, but to not be repelled? Attraction pulls in one direction, repulsion pulls in another. Either way, we are off balance. The best way to proceed is down the middle of the royal road, steady and calm.
Remaining calm but mildly repelled (I must admit), I glanced at the surreal display that flashed its lights in larger-than-life images representing the feminine mystique: A series of wraith-like, frail children-as-women arrayed in the symbolic language of clothes, perfumes, hairstyles—a discourse on identity, freedom, sex, love, fulfillment. Or women wearing angular, dark, militaristic clothes with chopped hair, red nails and lips, hard eyes and purple eye shadow, reflecting a different tone of identification with the sorrows that pulse at the heart of the world.
I asked no one in particular: Where is the hope of the world, the vessel, the grail of womanhood? The mother of our species? Where is embodied woman, full, confident, rooted, knowing? Where is her dignity, her grace, her wisdom, her relationship to earth, mountain, sea, river, tree, animal, child, garden, harvest, moon, tides, stars and sun?
It is a serious question for our world today. Where is the Goddess? Parvati, Inanna, Oshun, Spider Woman, Isis, Radha, Astarte, Brighid, Kali, Saraswati, Tara, Ceridwen, Morrigan, Athena? Where is Diana, bounding free through the forests, bow and arrow in hand, dogs yelping in ecstasy at her heels? Where is Durga, standing triumphant, trident in hand spearing the head of the buffalo demon, her foot resting on its head? Where is Mary, star of the sea, shining with the light of ten thousand suns, the crescent moon beneath her feet, divine child cradled close to her breast?
Reflecting thus, I sighed, remembering the flow of images I had seen on an immense screen that reached far above our heads while I waited with other travelers in the queue for security check—a captive audience being prepped for the boutique bardo to come. The advertisements we watched were produced courtesy of Dior, Hermes, and other name brands of prestige.
What got my attention was a film vignette featuring one of my favorite actors, Johnny Deep, perhaps the last Hollywood iconoclast and symbol of freedom of our particular times. He was selling a new Dior perfume for men, called “Sauvage.”
“Wild” as the perfume touts, is hardly what Mr. Depp looks like at this point. The raw, authentic edge that drew so many to his work as an actor seems to have been eaten away by the phantoms in the prison of his own making. Another tragedy of creative brilliance brought down by its own success.
Equally pressing, then, came the question: Where is the true man, the steady, noble champion and protector of Life? Where is the man who will honor woman and her offspring? Where is the man who is just, wise, insightful, merciful, compassionate, potent, fierce in defense of truth, both strong and soft, who is heroic and chivalrous, who loves?
Maybe Joseph Campbell is right. We are falling and soon to be extinct. The very idea of human beings becoming extinct chills me to the core—and yet, many of my fellow human beings are cavalier about the extinction of countless other species, brought about by the momentum of our own fall. Checking out the area around my gate, looking for a place to settle for the long wait ahead, there was nowhere in the airport that offered any sanctuary for the notion of impermanence on such a cosmic level.
Seeking to assuage the sting, I turned to the teachings of the ages—impermanence is the law, and yet, there is something that endures. Still, it is a question of such power that there is no easy fix, no making it nice. There is only the urgent necessity for something real to the bone, an echoing call for the inner work of transforming darkness into light.
The Norwegian Airlines flight to Paris finally boarded and, after a long flight hurtling through the night at over 500 mph, flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet above the landmass of North America and then the Atlantic deeps, I arrived in an overcast Paris in the late afternoon. Met by my European companion, we rolled my bags through the airport to the TGV station then trained to Tours. His car was parked a few blocks from the train station, so after a short hike through night-shadowed parking lots, across streets and along broken sidewalks dragging (still!) my luggage, we then drove an hour and a half to our destination in the sleepy countryside of France.
Sanctuary at Last
Finally we arrived at a small, jewel-like ashram where the food is simple and pure, the grass is thick and green, and the woodstove is the warmest place in the salon of the three-hundred-year-old stone maison du la métairie. The next day people began to arrive for a meditation retreat—a weekend of sitting and walking meditation and chanting Sanskrit mantras.
Meditation and mantra are the method in the madness, the means of choice in the Kali Yuga to fortify our souls for life in the world today; they are medicine for moksha or whatever longing haunts the backwoods of a voyager’s heart, rather like mining for gold in the hidden veins of the holy mountain whose ever-changing, changeless façade we struggle to climb.
And so, I had arrived in the countryside of France for an extended stay just in time to participate for the weekend. The first morning, after formal sitting practice, we engaged an exercise to bring awareness to our bones—the human skeleton as it exists within each of us. One of the retreat facilitators read a short essay from a recent newsletter of Dr. Robert Svoboda, written in honor of his mentor, the Aghori master, Vimalananda, on the importance of contemplating bones—the very reason that sadhus and yogis have been going to the smashan grounds and cemeteries for thousands of years: to confront the reality of impermanence.
As Dr. Svoboda pointed out, Ayurveda informs us that the function of the bone tissue is dharana, or support. The Sanskrit word dharana is related to the word dharma, another kind of support—that which upholds, supports or maintains each and every created thing and somehow even that which is uncreated. Sanatana Dharma is the eternal truth that upholds the very cosmos, the Universe itself. Dr. Svoboda writes:
Looking at others as their bones makes us understand the true nature of Reality: that all of us are destined to depart from these our temporal bodies. This doesn’t mean that we no longer appreciate our humanity, for we can even learn to love one another from our bones, instead of our loins or our heads or even just our hearts, each of which can mislead us; the bones will never mislead.
We all know, instinctively, that bones are connected to truth. We say things like, “It cut to the bone,” or “the bare bones of it…” When all else rots, the bones are what is left, and these can last for a very, very long time—even a million years, under the right conditions. Like the truth, bones are enduring. Like the ossified remains in the catacombs of Paris, bones know the secrets of the ages. They have a lot to teach us.
It is good to take heart from our bones. Bones are the very stability and support of our physical lives, the earth element from which we may build the subtler depths of stability that will steady our progress through whatever strange, awesome worlds of experience we may traverse. We become more stable in the simple act of breathing into our own bones, bringing prana or life force and attention into our deepest place of support, allowing prana to work its magic.
Meditation is essential to the development of stability, and bones are essential to sitting meditation practice. To find our meditation seat, one must first locate and rest upon one’s sitting bones—the bones that touch the earth. It may be that the fruition of our sojourn through this life depends upon how rooted or grounded in the earth we become. Belonging fully to the earth, we can soar freely in vast space. Once, long ago, the disciples of the Buddha asked, “Master, how do we know that your enlightenment is true?” He touched the earth with one hand and said, “The earth is my witness.”
Contemplating bones brings to mind another icon of Buddhism—a vajrayana deity called Cittipatti, the dancing skeletons. Also called “The Lord and Lady of the Cremation Grounds,” this pair of skeletons are ecstatic, smiling, dancing with joy and even glee. In Tibetan Buddhism the dancing skeletons are dharma protectors: sublime, supernatural beings whose purpose is to uphold, preserve and protect dharma on behalf of all sentient beings. They have transcended the fear, sorrow and anguish that permeate our conventional experience of death and therefore of impermanence. Instead of weeping and tearing their hair, they dance, laugh, rejoice.
Contemplating bones over the course of the weekend, a friend told me an interesting story about a painting of Cittipatti that she had acquired many years ago. In love with the image, when she asked Lee Lozowick, teacher of Baul sadhana, what the symbolic meaning of Cittipatti could be, he replied, “Objective Love.”
Cittipatti tells me that dharma is protected, held, and innate within the holy bones of the body, existing as the root cause of everything. LOVE. A pair of primordial opposites, man and woman, Cittipatti gives a symbolic hint, pushing awareness toward love, the interplay of the nondual with the dance of duality, that which endures beyond impermanence. Love, the substratum, the force that holds together the world, the universal glue behind the scenes of Nature, the original bond of all things.
Love in the Bone
On the first morning of retreat the fog was so thick we could not see beyond the terraces of the frosted vegetable garden. The valley, river, and hillside opposite were cloaked in white mist. Four hours later, the sun had finally burned away even the faintest wisps of that impermanent netherworld. Now it was time to be outside under the blue sky, and that is where we took our meditation.
As my feet traveled along a path unknown to the mind, the silence resounded with the power of the mantra we had sung, Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram—victory to the Beautiful One, Ram. Breathing in and out, one foot moved before the other, slowly, over soft green grass. Others passed nearby along their own invisible trajectory. Thoughts came and went, whirled, churned, disappeared, revealing themselves empty as the sky.
Beauty assailed my senses, taking shape as a wordless contemplation on the luminous sheen of sunshine in chill air, moist earth and rooted trees, fog alchemized to a shimmer of silver on moss, flowers, grass. A long swath of white snowdrops bloomed beneath the bare thorny limbs of hibernating roses. Here and there the purple patches of crocus hummed in cosmic union. Lush anemones bloomed, hanging heavy petals from thick stalks; an unpaved road under a tunnel of bare trees, soon to burst forth in leaf, lured me on.
The bones of feet, spine, pelvis moved, carrying me on toward nowhere with each breath, coming and going, bringing prana to simple awareness, present and then passing, then present again. Bones, strong and resilient, porous, infused with light; bones spun from the substance of love that holds the human body, the world, the Universe, together. Love, the support of all that is. Love, the essence of dharma.
Love, we may ask, in times as bitter and threatening as these? Yes, love. This thought brought another teaching from Sukhavati to mind. Joseph Campbell said, “Humanity is falling. There are so many sorrows.” Yes, it seems there is little hope for tomorrow. What to do?
“Make the fall voluntary,” he urged his audience. “Make it a joyful participation in all the sorrows.”
Ah! He was talking about loving from the bones—about love in the bones. Love taking form as compassion for our frailty and our glory, our impermanent nature, even for our fall from grace. Love as mercy. Love as the only stability in the midst of chaos and change. As the great Buddhist teaching tells us, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. There is a reason that it is called the Heart Sutra.
At least for the moment, gratitude took over, a suffusion of joy scattered the remains of lingering doubts and questions. Sun warmed my back, its rays bright in cool spring air. Bliss wove through my world, a moving transparent film of light. Through it all, the burgeoning sheer presence of early spring, rebirth coming out of death.
Amazed, I heard the bell ring, ending the walking meditation. But then, meditation does not end but carries on into the next moments. Back in the house, rocked in a temporary cradle of peace and quietude, I lingered, hands out to warm at the fire that burned in the woodstove. Tumbled streaks of revelation danced through like newborn stars. Snowdrops and bare branches. Death and birth. Joyful participation. Love in the bone, then would endure …