The Time is Right to Revisit Health Care for All – A Review of Dr. Quentin Young’s Everybody In, Nobody Out: Memoirs of a Rebel Without a Pause

“The time is always right to do the right thing.”

― Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

The US response to the public health crisis of the pandemic and extremism has been sorely lacking. While these two infections may seem unrelated at first, there are ways that they are interconnected.

Institutional policies of inequality lead to poorer medical and social outcomes (see Wilkinson & Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger). Inequality is also leading to higher death rates from “diseases of despair” from overdoses, suicides, and the consequences of alcoholism (see Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Case & Deaton). In areas with higher rates of deaths of despair, there have also been “votes of despair” for nationalist, racist, authoritarian leaders.

Health is health. All health is holistically interconnected – physical, economic, social, political, moral, and spiritual.

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, I would like to give a brief review of the work of Dr. Quentin Young (9/5/1923 – 3/7/2016). I was familiar with Dr. Young’s work when I was a medical student and resident in Chicago (1989-1997) as described in Everybody In, Nobody Out: Memoirs of a Rebel without a Pause (2013). I saw him speak on Physicians for a National Health Plan and I would hear him occasionally on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. He was a champion of Cook County Hospital and reading his book takes me back to my time in Chicago and my fond memories of clerkships at the old Cook County Hospital, Fantus Clinic, and Jorge Prieto Clinic where I did my family practice, general surgery, surgical oncology, and plastic & reconstructive surgery rotations as a medical student.

Over the past five years, I have felt a growing responsibility as a physician and a professional to speak up on what I have seen as public health risks from the attitudes, statements, policies (and lack thereof) of this presidential administration that is now in its last few hours. I have written on the need for physicians and professionals to have an identity that includes public, social, and moral responsibilities that go beyond the doors of the consulting room. (See Medical Activism: A Foundational Element of Professional Identity).

Dr. Quentin Young embodied the archetype of the physician as medical activist. He was Dr. Martin Luther King’s doctor when King was in Chicago – writing that he “became my hero…and my patient,” (53). He marched alongside Dr. King and tended his scalp laceration after being hit with a rock – after which Dr. King said, “I have to do this―to expose myself―to bring this hate out in the open,” (65). Dr. Young championed Cook County Hospital and sought to strengthen its network of community clinics when he was Chairman of Medicine there 1972-1981. Here is what he said he learned at County, “I am convinced that until we, as a nation, have a system of universal health care, including everyone―everybody in, nobody out―until we provide that, we as a society must provide care through a system like County,” (36).

Dr. Young was an active member of many different civil and human rights movements, including the Medical Committee for Human Rights where he marched and provided medical care in the South, he marched in Chicago with Dr. King, he provided medical care on the street at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he was the founder of the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, he served as president of the American Public Health Association, and national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program – to name just a few organizations. Throughout his career he worked for racial justice, universal health care, and improving the health care of the poor and marginalized. His work was as a doctor, an activist, an organizer, and a change-maker – in short, a medical activist par excellence. Dr. Young was not afraid of a good fight and his work brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee before it disbanded in the late ‘60s.

Medical Witness

I had heard of the term, bearing witness, from my background in trauma work. Dr. Young writes that the term, medical witness, was used in the Civil Rights movement. The work of the doctor in the Civil Rights movement was, “we bore not only our doctor’s bags, but witness,” (57).

“‘Medical witness’ was a term used in the movement to refer to bringing focus to an issue of indignity or an issue of inequity: visiting doctors offices that had ‘colored’ and ‘white’ waiting rooms, hospitals that had segregated wings and the very obvious disparities between the African American population and the white populations,” (74).

The Good Fight in the Name of a Good Cause

Dr. Young summarized a few teaching points on the good fight (pages 171-172).

  • Don’t be afraid to say the same thing over and over again to lots of different audiences
  • Always use sarcasm and humor
  • Draw on every literary and artistic device you can from Shakespeare to the Smothers Brothers
  • Always connect lots of different struggles: from struggles against racism to struggles to end the war to struggles to get resources for the community
  • Always remember to draw on and recall past great heroes such as Dr. King
  • Don’t be afraid to take on established offices of power, to struggle against them and make them become enabling resources for the movement
  • Yes, there are great risks of selling out, like becoming the boss at County, but in this there is also opportunity to inspire and catalyze and gain support for the struggle from below
  • Know when to move on
  • Sometimes you need to strike a balance between long-term commitments―which are lifelong―and tactical strategies―which have to be constantly rethought
  • Don’t be afraid to be labeled a radical or a socialist

Health Care in the USA is a Failed Experiment with Market Forces

Mardge Cohen and Gordy Schiff write of working with Dr. Young. For him, they say, “Organizing for political demonstrations, lobbying politicians, disrupting visits for key phone calls and meeting outside of the office, were all part of how he appreciated and served patients,” (177). They describe that Dr. Young saw that doctors and patients have to work together, saying

“the personalization of the individual and the destruction of the community, the emblems of our time, are conspicuously manifested in the role models enacted in the healthcare settings. A revised concept would envision changes in the role of physicians, nurses, and other health providers and in the role of the patient who would come to be regarded as the keeper of his or her own medical health,” (177-178).

Cohen and Schiff quote Dr. Young as saying about health care in the USA, that the “diagnosis is clear, we have a failed experiment with market forces,” (178).

Medicine is Only One of the Determinants of Health

John McKnight writes in the book,

“[At] that time Quentin and I had worked in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with Ivan Illich, the radical critic and social historian. Illich emphasized that health was not the product of medicine. Rather, medicine was one of the numerous determinants of health and that it often misled people to believe that there was something called a ‘health consumer.’ Illich argued that you could ‘consume’ medicine but it was primarily the social, cultural and economic environment that ‘produced’ health,” (199).

Everybody In, Nobody Out (203)

Dr. Young was one of the early supporters of Physicans for a National Health Program (PNHP), founded by Drs. David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler. This is where I first, personally, encountered Dr. Young, seeing him speak at a conference and I quickly became a student member of PNHP. My thoughts about a national health program have fluctuated over the years. When I ran a private micropractice for 5 years, I became aware of how vast and intercalated into the health care system the insurance industry is. I also became aware that the insurance industry describes paying for someone’s health care “a loss.” This is a fundamental philosophical and linguistic problem. If health care is viewed as a loss then the obvious thing to do would be to try prevent loss – in other words, the primary motive health insurance companies is to prevent health care from occurring – that is the bottom line of health insurance companies.

Living and working in New Zealand for 3.5 years I had a chance to work and receive care in a nationalized health care system. I received care in the public and private systems (at the time around 5% of health care in New Zealand was through the private systems and private health insurance was closer to the cost of car insurance in the US). I had national health insurance, even when I had the equivalent to a green card, when I was on the permanent residency track (incidentally, as a functioning participatory democracy New Zealand law requires all citizens, permanent residents, and even those on the permanent residency track to be registered to vote). For primary care, there was a small copay based on how wealthy the community you lived in. The system worked great and people were happy with it. Everybody was in, nobody was out.

The pandemic is teaching us how “great” the US health care system is―it is not! The United States ranks 37th in the world in health care, despite spending far and away the most. Also see the arguments of PNHP for a single-payer plan. The pandemic shows us that the health of all depends upon the health of everyone. If the virus is spreading through the community, it doesn’t matter who you are if you get exposed to it. The health of the individual is the health of the community and the health of the community is the health of the individual – you cannot disconnect these things, we are all in this together. The time is right to work for health care for all. It is time to Make America Healthy Again.

Dr. Young’s Final Words: “The future can be bright, but only if we work to make it so

“The health system isn’t working in this country―fiscally, medically, socially, morally,” (216).

“Health care is a human right. There should not be market solutions in a life-and-death game,” (217).

“We need to redouble our efforts to extirpate racism from every aspect of the U.S. life,” (240).

“We need to pass single-payer national health insurance, an improved Medicare for all. We cannot rest until everyone, without exception, has unimpeded access to high-quality care,” (240).

“We need to radically reduce the huge wealth disparities in our country, where the vast majority of our economic assets are controlled by the ‘1 percent,’” (241).

“We need to get big money out of politics and elections,” (241).

“And we need a more rational, humane foreign policy,” (241).

“Over the years, I’ve been accused by right-wing circles of being ‘un-American’ for having advocated for a more humane society. These charges have left me unfazed. I am merely an American who has exercised my constitutional rights. I remain unbowed,” (241).

“To a certain extent this book chronicles, from a health viewpoint, the evolution of the tension between these two trends―toward justice or injustice. Whichever trend prevails will define the 21st century.”

“I retain a terrible reputation for excessive optimism. The glories of humankind’s ingenuity and inventiveness have not yet been exhausted. The future can be bright, but only if we work to make it so,” (242).

A Great Pair of Books to Teach Kids about Living in Harmony with the Earth!

Si’ahl and the Council of Animals: A Story of Our Changing Climate for Children and Their Parents

Si’ahl & Friends Activity and Coloring Book

Jane Lister Reis and her sister, Margie Lister Muenzer have created a great book for kids on listening to the environment and caring for it. When the animals of the forest begin to suffer from the changing climate, Si’ahl, a bald eagle, calls a council of the animals. (The authors engaged in dialogue with the Duwamish Tribe about using the name Si’ahl, which is the Duwamish name of Chief Seattle, and honor him with this story). When the animals cry out for help, one family learns to listen to the animals and to work to care for our common home, Mother Earth. The book is illustrated with line drawings by Andrea Hoitis and it could be used as a small coloring book – although there is a larger “Si’ahl & Friends Coloring and Activity Book,” that is a great companion to the story book.

The Activity & Coloring Book has puzzles, mazes, even a grid for backyard birdwatching!

Jane Lister Reis lives in Seattle and is the founder of First Light Farms & Learning Center in Carnation, WA.

The Journey of a Seeker & Visionary – A review of Guided By Spirit, by Michael Pedroncelli

Mike is a friend of mine whom I met through Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) and he gave me a copy of this book and I would like to return the gift by writing this review.

Mike is a sincere and compassionate seeker and this book tells the story of his journey building the Circle of Light Peace Chamber. Mike followed his dreams and visions to bring them into reality and he has many spiritual adventures along the way. I would say that Mike is a gentle soul.

Like many mystics, Mike’s journey takes him from a sense of an isolated ego to the experience of interconnected being – “Being awake and open to All,” (205).

He learns about the meaning and purpose of life and the importance of attending to inner visions and bringing them into material reality, thus becoming a Liminal Being, or, as Joseph Rael might say, an “In-Betweener,” or a “hollow bone.”

“What you need is to let go of all the fear and let go of all the pain in you, and then you are not competing and you know you are on your soul’s journey and living your purpose – when you are that pure love that you are. Just trust in the love that you are, and you’re always living your purpose and on your path,” (166).

I have been to visit Mike, and his wife Marie, several times after meeting him at the book release and 80th birthday party of Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) in 2015. We featured a picture of The Circle of Light Sound Peace Chamber in Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD, (page 95 – I still feel bad about the typo of your surname in the caption – sorry about that Mike!).

My sister, Karen, and I met with Mike & Marie in October, 2018 and filmed them talking about the construction of the chamber. You can watch the video of that, here. And see other videos of my work with Joseph Rael here, and here.

Mike & Marie Pedroncelli, Circle of Light Sound Peace Chamber, photo K. Kopacz (2018)

Amazon Review of Catafalque: Carl Jung and the End of Humanity

I recently wrote a short Amazon review for Peter Kingsley’s Catafalque: Carl Jung and the End of Humanity. I have been working on a longer review, but I’ll post this for now. This book is a great tapestry of wisdom, weaving together the work of Peter Kingsley, Carl Jung, and Henry Corbin.

This book reads like a mystery, following the path of Peter Kingsley as he follows the paths of Carl Jung and Henry Corbin. We think of the mystery genre as starting with a death and then a puzzle to be solved. The word “catafalque” represents a framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person, so there is an element of a crime mystery to the book. Kingsley’s subtitle “The End of Humanity,” tells us that perhaps the victim of the crime is humanity and the plot of the mystery is to find out who killed humanity. There is another mystery genre, older than the crime mystery, and that is the pursuit of the ancient wisdom mysteries. One entered those mysteries through initiation, and this book is a kind of initiation into wisdom.

The book is published in two volumes: the first is the text, itself, the second volume is endnotes. I am enough of a geek that I would carry these two volumes around and read them side by side. This gave the act of reading both a scholarly and a sacred aspect. It encourages the reader to approach the text on multiple levels, with Kingsley providing the text and its own exegesis. Being a mystery writer, Kingsley does not reveal the important things directly, but often buries them and interweaves them within the spaces of the text. In the ancient mysteries, the most important things were not what was revealed, but what was hinted at, pointed to, or was intuited. Carl Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self,” (197). Mysteries take us around in circles. In the crime mystery genre, everything is revealed in the end. In the ancient mystery genre, there is a continuing circumambulation around the center, everything is not revealed, but, perhaps, everything can be understood as one becomes the mystery which one was seeking.

I have to mention, Amazon took 3 months to deliver the book to me. I originally received it much more quickly directly through the author’s website. I bought a second copy for a friend through Amazon and that took 3 months – that is a bit of a mystery as the author apparently has copies in stock. One always has to be careful with the source of where one is seeking wisdom.

A Review of Ruzbeh N. Bharucha’s Dancing with Swans: A Book of Quotes

cover Dancing with Swans

This is a book of short prayers and aphorisms. Ruzbeh Bharucha states in the foreword of the book that 2018 is the 100th year anniversary of Baba Sai of Shirdi’s Maha Samadhi – his enlightened departure from the Earthly realm. Bharucha dedicates the book to “my dear Master, the Fakir of Shirdi; You, The One in whom reside The Goddess and The Lord and the Oneness Family,” (v). Further, Bharucha writes that it is nonsense that Shirdi Sai Baba is gone, “You live in the hearts, minds, breaths and sighs of countless of Your followers and lovers. So how could You ever leave Your body as everything of ours is Yours and if all of ours is Yours, then You reside in millions of us,” (v). The book is thus dedicated to Shirdi Sai Baba as Guru and non-dual Oneness.

shirdi_sai3.jpg

Sai Baba of Shirdi, By Kifayat Hidayat Mawal

Ruzbeh N. Bharucha is the author of many books in which the protagonist walks and talks and jokes (often irreverently) with God in the form of the Guru, Shirdi Sai Baba: The Fakir series, Rabda, and Ice With Very Unusual Spirits. These books remind me of an Indian Richard Bach, filled with humour and love as they explore the relationship between the wayward devotee and the spiritual teacher. The books are earthy and teach that one does not have to be boring to be spiritual. In fact, it is often the outsider aspect of the protagonist that leads to the spiritual relationship.

Ruzbeh N. Bharucha - Copy

Ruzbeh N. Bharucha

Bharucha has also been writing works that are not spiritual fiction, but more of an autobiographical and non-fiction approach, for instance The Aum of All Things, The Perfect Ones, and The Musk Syndrome. The current book, Dancing with Swans: A Book of Quotes, is in this vein, a book of quotes that came to the author whilst he was in meditation/communion with Shirdi Sai Baba. Bharucha was guided to meditate “after sunset for a certain number of weeks,” (ix). He portrays himself as a slacker, falling asleep, and meditating only a few minutes, but then he would write down the inspired wisdom he received. Bharucha summarizes the book in the following way:

“The theme of this book, in reality, is very simple. Give your best to each moment and leave the rest to The One and after that accept your lot with joyous acceptance. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be a bit crazy. Try not to be an adult. Be childlike but not childish. Be mature, not cynical. Don’t judge. Live and let live. Spend time in work, prayer and play. We are the makers of our own destiny through the use of fee will in our past lives, this one and the future…When life is rubbing our noses in the ground, inhale the fragrance of Mother Earth. When life is tossing us in the air, try and gaze into the sky. All is as well as we want it to be,” (x).

Swan through bushes, St. James

What follows is some 280+ pages of inspired quotes, roughly divided into different topical sections. To me this is solidly a good book, but not great in the way of The Fakir series is. Nevertheless, there are some gems in the book, such as in pointing toward non-duality, “You are the one praying to The One within you. So you are chanting and being prayed to. You are the one chanting and being chanted to. You are The One,” (14). Or, the following:

“Often sadness or emptiness within is a reflection of the yearning of the soul to move towards The One. Those who understand this, move into silence and prayer, or spread joy and compassion. That’s the only antidote to fill the void within,” (16).

Bharucha teaches a path of living spirituality. “Not the path of religion,” he tells us, “but that of spirituality comes from loving God,” (38). Further distinguishing religion and spirituality, he states that, “All that is spiritual leads us to Oneness. Earlier, being religious and spiritual meant the same. Now nothing divides one brother from another as surely as the false interpretation of religion,” (88). Bharucha often illuminates the hypocrisy of religion, ritual, and conservatism, showing that it is those who step outside societal norms and expectations who are the true lovers of God.

“Till one does not make God, Goddess, Guru—the three Gs—as the sole and soul priority, there are innumerable distractions, obstacles, temptations, confusions, to make life a living hell, this and in future lives,” (39).

There are sources of consolation within the book. Particularly in reminding the reader that emptiness and loneliness are steps on the spiritual path.

DSCN3824 (2)

Path to Chapel of Saint Non, Pembrokeshire, Wales, © D. Kopacz 2018

“The emptiness the seeker feels on The Path is a must. One needs to be empty for the Divine Energy to fill us up. The page has to be blank for the Divine Words to be written on,” (23).

In times of darkness, such as our own, Bharucha advises us that the way forward is through, through embracing our fears, just as in the hero’s journey the darkness of the abyss contains the boon that can transform self and world. “The hour before dawn is the darkest but also the most spiritual—the true meditative Kali; you either fear the darkness or go within and become one with Her radiance,” (131). Rather than denying pain or seeking to avoid it, Bharucha writes that the pain is a way to open us up and make us more compassionate and that our choice of how to react to inevitable pain and suffering is what determines our experience.

“I feel sometimes the cosmos has no other way to make us more compassionate than by making us experience hunger, pain, sorrow, loss and anguish. The wise learn from these experiences and become more understanding. Others waste the opportunity and become negative. Karma means going through an experience, while free will decides heaven, hell or in-between,” (195).

Getting back to his main theme of the book, Bharucha reminds us, “The true role of any individual is to allow the unhindered and uncorrupted Divine Energy to flow through him or her. That, in reality, is our only purpose of existence,” (203). Allowing this “unhindered and uncorrupted” flow does not turn us into pious and staid religious people who stand back and above the fray, rather this Divine Energy makes us all individuals, sometimes somewhat quirky and irreverent, engaged in the world, offering compassion and doing good regardless of whether it is an official holy day or not. And yet as the Divine Energy flowing through us makes us into individuals, we are simultaneously in touch with and at one with Oneness, what Bharucha calls the 3 Gs—God, Goddess, and Guru. The Oneness is the energy that flows through the individual, animating diversity, allowing the many in One.

“Don’t waste time on negative stuff. Don’t. In a blink of a moment, we shall be either old, alone or dead, and then realize what we have let slip away from our grasp. All this shit isn’t worth it. Let it go,” (91).

Swan at St James'

Swan, St. James’s Park, London, © D. Kopacz 2018

 

 

A Review of “When God Is A Traveller,” by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Cover

Following up on my review of Where I Live (2009) by Arundhathi Subramaniam, we will next look at her 2014 When God Is A Traveller (HarperCollins India). This book actually contains 22 poems from the “Deeper in Transit” section of Where I Live, thus there is substantial overlap in poems between books. Still, there are 29 new poems in this book, and it is a beautiful hardcover with very attractive cover art, making it a nice little book of poetry to carry around. The 22 duplicate poems are worth reading again, anyway. “Leapfrog” and “Catnap” were quoted in my review of Where I Live. Writing about gods, goddesses, and heroines as well as daily life, and a favourite topic of writing on writing, this little book is well worth reading and travelling along the various textual references which lead to empty space, which is the terrain of gods, goddesses, and heroines.

Arundhathi Subramaniam

In “How Some Hindus Find Their Personal Gods,” Subramaniam answers AS’s question about ishta devas. With so many gods and goddesses to choose from, how does one find one to have a personal relationship with? She advises:

               “It’s about learning to trust

               the tug

               that draws you to a shadowed alcove

               undisturbed by footfall

              and butter lamps

              …

             A god who looks

             like he could understand errors in translation,

            blizzards on the screen,

            gaps in memory,

            lapses in attention,

           who might even learn by rote

           …

          the awkward Remington stutter

          of your heart,

         who could make them his own.

        After that you can settle for none other.” (43-44)

Personal Gods

© D. Kopacz 2018

The book cover features a rich, blue, green, and gold peacock, feathers spread across about one-third of the cover, flowers blooming on a shrub in another corner, above darkness with the silhouette of a hunter shooting an arrow into a stag leaping in death throes. In “Eight Poems for Shakuntala,” Arundhathi Subramaniam pens some modern lines on Shakuntala whose story is told in the Mahabharata. One day King Dushyanta shot a stag with an arrow and pursued the wounded animal through the forest, when instead of his prey, he stumbled across Shakuntala and fell in love with her and married. Dushyanta gave her a ring, but left back to the palace, saying he would return later to fetch her. In the meantime, Shakuntala, pining for her absent love, accidently insulted a holy man who cursed her, that the man who gave her the ring would not remember her, unless she were to show him the ring he gave her. Time passed and Shakuntala lost the ring while crossing a river and when she arrived to court, Dushyanta did not recognize her. Heart-broken, she returned to the forest and gave birth the child she had conceived on Dushyanta’s first visit. A fisherman found the ring in the belly of a fish, presented it to the king, who then remembered his lost bride and searched for her, finding her again and meeting his son, and thus the family was reunited. Poems 3 and 5 in the series capture the longing of Shakuntala whilst waiting in the forest for Dushyanta’s return.

 

              “But all those nights

               when all you want

               is a lover’s breath,

                              regular,

                              regular,

 

               starlight through a diaphanous curtain,

               and a respite

               from too much wisdom?” (III, 50)

               …

               “Nothing original

               but the hope

               of something new

               between parted lips.

               A kiss—

               jasmine lapis moonshock.

               And around the corner

               with the old refrain,

               this chorus,

               (Sanskrit, Greek, whatever):

               It’s never close enough

               It’s never long enough

               It’s never enough

               It’s never” (V, 52).

357px-Raja_Ravi_Varma_-_Mahabharata_-_Shakuntala

“Shakuntala looking back to glimpse Dushyanta,” by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Subramaniam often writes about the mundane as well as the sublime in her poems, and often there ends up being a poem or two about a cat. In “I Knew a Cat” she writes of the pain of losing a beloved furry friend:

               “I knew a cat

               with a face like a star.

               I waited for her to die

               so my heart would hurt

               a little less.

               Now the nights are darker,

               my life a little easier.” (71)

 

Neo in closet (2)

Neo, d. 2010

In the poem which gives the book its title, “When God is a Traveller,” Subramaniam muses about “Kartikeya/Murga/Subramania, my namesake.” Kartikeya/Murga/Subramania is known by all those names, as well as Skanda, and is the son of Śiva, in some legends of him alone, as Gaṇeśa is born of Pārvatī alone, but also often considered the son of both Śiva and Pārvatī. Subramania is the god of war who is also known as Guhā (cave, secret) or Guruguhā (cave-teacher) as he renounces war in some legends and retreats to the mountains. (For stories of Subramania, see Kartikeya as well as the Skanda Purāṇa and for comparison of various legends, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s Śiva: The Erotic Ascetic). Arundhathi Subramaniam writes in this poem:

               “Trust the god

               back from his travels

               …

               Trust him

               who has seen enough—

               revolutions, promises…

               …

               Trust him

               who recognizes you—

               auspicious, abundant, battle-scarred,

                              alive—

               and knows from where you come.

               Trust the god

               ready to circle the world all over again

               this time for no reason at all

               other than to see it

               through your eyes.” (100-101)

Murugan_by_Raja_Ravi_Varma

Sri Shanmukha Subrahmanya Swami by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to writing about gods, goddesses, and heroines, in addition to writing about love, Arundhathi Subramaniam loves to write about writing. In “Six About Love Stories,” she writes:

               “Some stories have holes.

               Some don’t join the dots.

               Sometimes the only way from middle to end

                              Is the leap.

               …

               Some stories devour other stories.

               I recognize you.” (96)

And in the closing poem, “Poems Matter,” she again writes about writing and about what it is that gives poems their meaning – not so much because of their substance, but because of the space within them that allows for something more than what we can say:

               “It’s taken a long time

               to understand

               poems matter

               because they have holes.” (103).

Crow Flying Through Dark Matter.jpg

Crow Flying Through Dark Matter, © D. Kopacz 2017

 

A Review of Where I Live: New & Selected Poems by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Where I Live Cover

I first heard of Arundhathi Subramaniam in her role as the editor of Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry (2014). I started reading Sadhguru’s Adiyogi: The Source of Yoga, and to my surprise it is co-written by Arundhathi Subramaniam! I was interested in her journey with this spiritual teacher and her blending of rational skepticism with thirst for spiritual knowledge, and it reminded me a bit of my own work with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow). This led me to look to see what else she has written, as I like to read all of a writer’s work once I become interested in one aspect of the work. This led me to the collection of poems, Where I Live (2009) published by Bloodaxe Books, in Northumberland, UK. (Please note that 22 poems from Deeper in Transit also appear in her 2014 book, When God is a Traveler).

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Image from Neil Astley @BloodaxeBooks tweet, 10/10/17

Where I Live contains selections from Subramaniam’s earlier works: On Cleaning Bookshelves (2001) and Where I Live (2005). The back cover describes her poems as exploring “various ambivalences – around human intimacy…myth the politics of culture and gender, and the…existential journey…the desire for adventure and anchorage; expansion and containment; vulnerability and strength; freedom and belonging.” This is an apt description of poems that often have a tension within them, exploring the places between contradictions and ambivalences.

The collection opens with “Blank Page” which sets up the Indian writer as a “conquistador of the blank page,” with its “white autocracy of silence,” juxtaposing creativity with conquest. The poem raises the power and omnipotency of the writer over the blank paper, and perhaps the reader as well, who possibly fears that she will “surge/into your frontiers/and claim for my own/the sleeping mohenjodaros of your mind,” (11). Mohenjodaro (c. 2500 BCE) is an ancient city, now an archaeological site, perhaps the home to the ancestors of Dravidian peoples living in the Indus Valley prior to the arrival of the Aryan migration into India. The poem immediately raises issues of race, culture, history, power, subjugation, and creativity in a few short lines, without any sense of resolution.

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I love the poem title, “On Cleaning Bookshelves” which brings up the practical issue of the bother of what to do with piles of books, yet also speaks to the organization and categorization of knowledge. I particularly relate to this poem as I recently had the brilliant idea of turning all my books on their side so as to pack more of them on to the shelves, which is very efficient, but not very practical, as they are now very difficult to extract. The poem starts with the advice: “Begin by respecting the logic/that governed earlier conjunctions,” (30). As the narrator of the poem arranges her books, we get an idea of the breadth and scope of her reading, which spans the globe. She describes rearranging books as a chance to “match-make” which allows

“Kerouac

to nudge familiarly

at Milton,

Mira at Shankara,

watch Nietzsche sniff suspiciously

at Krishnamurti.

And listen close,

as Ghalib in the back row

murmurs drowsily

to Keats.”

There seems to be a conference of books happening, everything is coming together and jumbling up East and West. New possibilities seem to arise from these conjunctions. Goethe’s Faust came to my mind, “Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation,” (cited in Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 196).Yet the poem ends by throwing this off-balance and raising the possibility that the gaps cannot be bridged:

               “And amid the whispers

               of reunion and discovery,

               the hum of interrupted conversations

               resumed after centuries

               know that it is time

               to turn away.

               And accept finiteness.

               Accept exclusion.”

I read “On Cleaning Bookshelves” a few times, both excited and disappointed by it. Eventually I had to move on and read about the inevitability of inner and outer changes with ageing in “By Thirty.”

“By thirty,

you know you want to walk

away from ruined empires of fermented dream

towards lands vast and unchoreographed,

where every step ahead is adventure,

and every step ahead, anchorage, (42).

And then on further to “Arunachala (at the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, Triuvannamalai)” which has, perhaps some hope: “It feels like given time/I could understand something here,” but instead, it is time to move on, “But for now this enough,” (43), ending with:

               “For somewhere here, I know,

               is something black,

               something large,

               something limpid,

               something like home.”

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Sakthiprasanna (2015) Wikipedia, “Arunachala”

 

We then move on to Arundhathi Subramaniam’s newer poems. “Where I Live” begins with, “I live on a wedge of land/reclaimed from a tired ocean/somewhere at the edge of the universe” and ends with “where it is perfectly historical/to be looking out /on a sooty handkerchief of ocean,/searching for God,” (49-50).

Subramaniam writes about writing in the collection, from the first poem and throughout. “First Draft” writes about the “old fashioned” way of using pen and paper for writing before putting the words of a poem through a word processor. The handwritten words on paper are compared to spaces in the world: a stream, an alley, a glacier, a chasm. But, eventually, the words must go from individual to mass-produced:

               “when a page I dreamt piecemeal

               in some many-voiced moon-shadowed thicket

               flickers back at me

               in Everyman’s handwriting

               filaments of smell and sight

               cleanly amputated –

   Times New Roman, font size fourteen,” (73)

In the beautiful poem, “Leapfrog,” she states that she does not want to write “scripture,” but rather would capture with words the movements of life, invoking frogs, birds, and childhood memories:

“that allows words

to spring

from the cusp of breathsong,

from a place radiant

with birdflight and rivergreen.

Grant me the fierce tenderness

of watching

word slither into word

into the miraculous algae

of language,

untamed by doubt

or gravity,

words careening,

diving,

               swarming, un-

forming, wilder

than snowstorms in Antarctica, wetter

than days in Cherrapunjee

alighting on paper, only

for a moment…

before

leaping

for some place the voice

is still learning

to reach.

Not scripture,

but a tadpole among the stars,” (104-105)

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s collection of poems, spanning 9 years of work at the start of the millennium, captures the moods and understandings of a traveler in the world and brings together, like a jumbled collection of books on a shelf, different, shifting conjunctions and disjunctions of the profound and the mundane. In “Catnap” she quotes the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness/Emptiness is form,” and of how her cat, “Pukka sahib/learns/to purr,” in a shoebox (117). In the final poem, “Swimming,” Subramaniam compares the thrill of carnival rides with a sense of identification with Lord Śiva’s dance of creation and destruction of the cosmos:

               “Because for a moment

               you could even be Him

               the Lord of Tillai,

               birthing, juggling,

               slaying universes

               in an inspired mayhem

               of limb and lust.

               Because deep within your seashell heart

               you hear it again,

               the oceanic roar

               that reminds you

               that it’s happening

               right now.

               Life is here,” (126).

Siva

 

 

Review of the Taittirīya Upaniṣad: Ancient Wisdom that is Much Needed for Modern Times

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This short book follows the course of the Taittirīya Upaniad with commentaries by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad. The reading requires a moderate degree of concentration and has technical Sanskrit terms that are well-defined (and includes a 12-page glossary). A major theme in this, as in many Upaniads, is that the seat of the Divine is within the heart of the human being. The concept and experience of human-Divine Oneness leads to a very practical and much-needed change in our current world culture in which separateness and division lead to war, suffering, and discrimination.

The book is part of the Rediscovering Indian Literary Classics series published by D.K. Printworld out of New Delhi, India. This series is reasonably priced and attractive, with some of the larger editions in hardcover (as is this one, at 200+ pages). They include the original Sanskrit text, the Romanized transliteration, and the English translation. The Taittirīya Upaniad is the 16th in the series. The translator of this ancient text is Swami Muni Narayana Prasad, who is of the lineage of Nataraja Guru and Narayana Guru.

The Upaniads (which Swami defines as “secret wisdom,” 25) consistence of 108 texts. Ten are considered “major” or “principle” (Mukhya)   Upaniads, which includes the Taittirīya. There is a Wikipedia page (“Muktikā” meaning “deliverance”) that lists all 108 texts. They were written across the centuries, dating back as far as 6th century BCE, and as recent as 15th century CE.

In his preface, Swami Muni Narayana Prasad writes,

“Indian spiritual tradition is a great banyan tree…the Upaniads are the flowers having the fragrance and beauty of the philosophy of non-dualism, blossomed on the vast banyan tree of the Vedas which in turn are enlaced by the complexities of rituals. The Taittirīya Upaniad is one of the best among such flowers.”

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Chestnut Tree Flowers, Hever Castle, UK, © David Kopacz, 2018

Swami describes the text of the Taittirīya Upaniad which is in three chapters. The first chapter has two parts: the first part focuses on śikā (“the art of correct chanting of Vedic hymns with proper intonation”) and the second part includes instruction for a disciple leaving gurukula education (a period of time living with the guru). These instructions are “meant for leading an ideal worldly life, show clearly that Brahmavidyā or Vedānta is not merely escapism. Rather it insists on making the life in this world perfect with the guidance of the wisdom of Vedānta,” (7-8). The second chapter focuses on Brahman “directly perceived by one in his own being, as the Self,” (8). This chapter follows a “gradual interiorization” which “begins from food and ends with ānanda (Bliss or Value),” (8). From a non-dual perspective, all nourishment is spiritual nourishment. The last chapter follows the seeker’s journey toward Brahman.

I will give a few highlights of the text from here on.

“One who knows Reality…sees himself or herself in everything and hence loves everything as one loves oneself,” (18).

In discussing the “science of pronunciation,” Swami describes the non-dual relationship between sound, meaning, and spirit:

“Knowledge, when expressed through language, has three basic elements: the uttered sound (śabda), its meaning (artha), and the mysterious power of a sound to contain a meaning as its own (śakti),” (21).

Rather than approaching material reality the way that Western science does – by a process of objectification and separation – this Upaniad teaches that all that manifests as diversity is, in reality, part of One non-dual Reality, which is a complementary and opposite approach to Western science taking everything apart into pieces. Swami reminds us of his guru’s guru, Nārāyana Guru’s prayers to Subraḥmanya [one of the names of Kartikeya, son of Śiva], “Please grant me the favour of the intimate merging of you and me,” (37).

One of my favourite parts of the Taittirīya Upaniad is the discussion of God being in the heart. This brings together the microcosm and the macrocosm in non-duality. The journey to the Ultimate is through the centre of one’s own heart. I am reminded of Abhishiktananda’s discussions of the guhā, the cave of the heart (Joseph Rael and I write on this topic in our forthcoming book, Becoming Medicine). The word “guhāyām” does appear in the text of the Taittirīya, translated as “secret cavern” in the phrase “the transcendental space within the secret cavern,” (84). Here is Swami’s description of finding the Truth (“AUM, maha, Brahman, ātman”) in the space within the heart:

“To make the placement easier to conceive, the Truth is called purua (Person) in this section. The seat of that Person is within the heart. The heart here is not to be understood as the organ which pumps blood to all parts of the body. It is rather an imaginary locus of the psycho-physical entity of the individual. While the heart is the locus of the individual, space (ākāśa) is that which gives room for the universe to exist. Here the Person is described as seated in the universal space within the heart,” (49-50).

Heart Meditation

Heart Meditation, © David Kopacz, 2014

Swami unpacks nihitam guhāyām in a section entitled “Placed Within the Cavern,” which examines the non-duality of the individual and the Self that is found within the unitary centre of the heart.

     “We could conveniently say that the Self is hidden in us. This hideout could be poetically imagined to be the darkness of a cave. Hence the Upaniadic ṛṣis, at the beginning of their inward search for the Self, imagine it as seated in the darkness of the cavern of every being. We can see the same imagery in the Kaha Upaniad (II-20) as well. Nārāyana Guru also, when he defines the Self, refers to its being in darkness. He says, ‘the Self is that which knows while sitting in darkness’.

     It might sound strange that the consciousness that hides in darkness is bright. Moreover, what was thought to be inside turns out not to be inside. Really, it is neither inside nor outside. Truth subsists equally in what we call interior and exterior,” (93).

Swami tells us that education and experience in the ordinary view of the world lead us away from this place of the heart which contains the seat of the Divine, we thus “forget our real nature,” (68). Similar to my writings on re-humanisation in medicine, Swami tells us we must reconnect with our hearts in order to understand our real humanity.

“Thus we become alienated from ourselves through our educational process. The only remedy for this is to remoralize our education so as to make all the knowledge we accumulate an outgrowth of the main trunk of our real humanity. Knowing our real humanity means knowing the oneness of all humans, and seeing those we call ‘others’ as not different than ourselves. Living with a full awareness of this oneness makes us really human, and our life becomes peaceful,” (68).

The way to peace is through realizing that we are not only all interconnected, but we are all actually One. This oneness leads to compassion and peace. Thus, this esoteric, mystical doctrine of non-duality leads us back to our responsibility for each other, for humanity, and for the planet.

 

Review of Aitareya Upanisad

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This short book follows the course of the Aitareya Upaniad with commentaries by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad. The reading requires a moderate degree of concentration and has technical Sanskrit terms that are well-defined (and includes a 6-page glossary). It contains timeless non-dual wisdom that has modern applications of decreasing our sense of separateness from each other and from the Earth, whose ultimate goal is the achievement of the experience of Oneness, non-duality with all things.

The book is part of the Rediscovering Indian Literary Classics series published by D.K. Printworld out of New Delhi, India. This series is reasonably priced and attractive, with some of the larger editions in hardcover. They include the original Sanskrit text, the Romanized version, and the English translation.

I have been looking for a set of complete translations of the Upaniads. Juan Mascaró’s translations for Penguin Classics is still a great place to start and his introduction is like an Upaniad, itself. However, it only includes a selection of Upaniads, and does not include the Aitareya. Mascaró sought to capture the poetry as well as the technical translation of the works, writing that the “composers of the Upanishads were thinkers and poets…and the poet knows well that if poetry takes us away from a lower reality of daily life it is only to lead us to the vision of a higher Reality even in this daily life, where limitations give way for the poet to the joy of liberation,” (Mascaró, The Upanishads, 11).

The Upaniads consistent of 108 texts. Ten are considered “major” or “principle” (Mukhya)   Upaniads, which includes the Aitareya. There is a Wikipedia page (“Muktikā” meaning “deliverance”) that lists all 108 texts. They were written across the centuries, dating back as far as 6th century BCE, and as recent as 15th century CE.

 

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The Aitareya Upaniad is the 9th in the series, a short (80 page) paperback, which for $4.15 is quite a bargain. The translator of this ancient text is Swami Muni Narayana Prasad, who is of the lineage of Nataraja Guru and Narayana Guru.

The foreword is by Sadhu Suhakara Saukumarya and he gives a short description of what the Upaniads are and that Swami Muni Narayana Prasad “employs his knowledge of psychology, philosophy, modern science, and above all common sense,” in his discussion. Saukumarya writes:

“The Upaniads are unexpected mines of contemplative spirituality. It is uttered in the moments of ecstasy in mellifluous poetic diction by Indian seers. A seer or a guru of that order represents in his person the throb of the Absolute,” (v).

Swami Muni Narayana Prasad gives the background of the word Aitareya, meaning “born of Itarā,” as the work can be traced back to Aitareya Mahīdāsa, who born of a low caste mother, “testified the meaninglessness of caste-based social concepts and prejudices,” (2-3). Swami writes that “What all the Upaniṣads try to do is to reveal through the medium of words the Supreme Wisdom that is really ineffable,” (3).

“The present Upaniṣad…portrays in a rather poetically picturesque way how the mysterious phenomenon of the world and life, with their universal and particular aspects of existence, get unfolded from the one primeval causal Reality (ātman), and finally how ātman perceives itself as the one underlying substance of all such phenomena,” (3).

Swami describes an organizing structure or framework that can be used by the seeker in her or his search for Truth. In this way the Upaniads are a kind of science – a method for perceiving and understanding the Universe. Their method, however, is not through the perception of objective reality, but in passing inward, through subjective reality, to reach the mystical oneness of Absolute Reality.

“Searching for Reality is what sciences do, each having their own field of enquiry whose bounds no science is willing to cross. The result is that an indepth knowledge of each science endows us with a different notion of life, none providing us with an over-all vision. Once an integral vision becomes available and attained, all the different fields of enquiry and the notions they provide achieve unity, each becoming a view of Reality from a particular angle, while adding to the holistic vision, each science thus gaining a new dimension, a new value,” (10).

 

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This describes what we have today, a plurality of sciences, each based on the scientific method, but resulting in a fragmentation of self and reality if there is no over-arching integration. Swami describes the Upaniads as providing a “Science of sciences” that brings the fragments of sense perception and objective measurement back together into a meaningful whole.

“The science this Upaniṣad [Aitareya] teaches — brahmavidyā — is the Science of sciences, that holds together all sciences, as belonging to one whole, each thus making life more meaningful. If such a Science of sciences is lacking, different sciences go different ways, one vying with another and each sowing a different seed of peril. The freedom man has to choose, may be the greatest bane in human life, but also the greatest of boons,” (10).

We can see this bane playing out in the human pursuit of technology and development without any restraint. The cost of unrestrained development is degradation of the environment as well as the expendability of the poor at the profit of the wealthy. Unrestrained “development” of the environment and consumption of resources is only possible because we view ourselves as separate, isolated individuals, rather than as interrelated aspects of the larger environment of the Earth and cosmos.

“Man, having no existence of his own apart from the cosmic system is an inseparable part of it. Any attempt to know oneself as an entity existing on its own, therefore, results in no proper understanding of oneself. Man is part of the world; his life is part of eternal flux. The proper knowledge one acquires about oneself should therefore be the knowledge of the everchanging world as well…the world and I are not two. Oneself and the world together, when considered as an object of enquiry, is signified by the word idam in the Upaniṣads, literally meaning ‘this’, but rendered here as ‘here’, (14).

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The mystical has practical applications because it influences the way we perceive ourselves, each other, and the Earth. The mystical goal of the teachings of this Upaniṣad is a sense of unity between the individual and cosmic Reality.

“The one who sees himself as ātma embodied will see others also in exactly the same light. All being thus one in essence, nothing will be seen by him to be spoken of as ‘the other’. He sees ātma alone in all beings. Ātma meaning oneself, he sees himself alone in all beings. Ātma means also the substance that underlies one’s own beingness. The same substance that underlies all beings in all the worlds, is called Brahman, literally that which constantly grows. One who sees oneself as ātma, he sees himself as Brahman in essence also, as he sees Brahman alone in all beings,” (53-54).

Consider what it would be like instead of seeing people as separate and different from you if you saw them as part of yourself! Where would you build a wall if you were trying to separate yourself from yourself? Swami Muni Narayana Prasad describes how this perspective leads, inherently to goodness.

“A visionary who perceives Brahman alone in each and every specific entity, and who exclaims, ‘Now I see it!’ is given the name of Idandra. Literally, it means, one who runs up to whatever can be referred to as ‘this’ (idam)…one becomes free of the good-evil duality, reaching a state of absolute goodness. Idandra in that sense is considered sat (good) here,” (54-55).

Achieving this mystical state of non-duality, one becomes a real seer. This transforms the cravings and desires of the individual. Rather than perceiving oneself as empty and having desires to fill oneself with “objects” in the world, one perceives oneself as already full of everything in existence.

“A real seer, a jñānin, sees only one Reality in everything, everywhere. Who, then, desires what? Desire itself then becomes meaningless. Desireless, the attainer of wisdom feels the satisfaction of having fulfilled all desires in life,” (64).

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A Review of the Work of Jaideva Singh: Dualism and Non-dualism in Indian Philosophy & Spirituality, PART I

PART I: Introduction

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This is a review (and expanded discussion) of two short books by Jaideva Singh (1893-1986), Indian musicologist, philosopher, and translator of many texts of Kashmiri Shaivism. Singh blended two careers in music and as a translator and philosopher of sacred texts. I could not find much in English about his life, the same biography appeared in Wikipedia and on a number of other sites. There is an edition of Sruti Magazine devoted to his life (Sruti, e-Issue 17, November 2013 – note that the page numbers are not always sequential in the pdf and some page numbers appear to be missing, e.g. #34). Dr. M.R. Gautam writes in an article, “A Great Savant of India,” that Singh was born in what is now known as Uttar Pradesh and that his grandfather, Udit Narayan Singh was beheaded by the British, his father was also supposed to be killed, but at 2 years of age, Gopal Narayan Singh was hidden under burnt wheat chaff in the village (21). During the course of Thakur Jaideva Singh’s studies he came under the influence of Theosophist, Annie Besant, as well as Babu Bhagwan Das, and that he became a vegetarian. In an odd twist, similar for Gandhi, it was through a Westerner that Singh came to a deeper study of Sanskrit and original sacred texts. He met a German scholar who encouraged him to study Sanskrit, which in fact he did. His life-long love of music led him to be the Chief Producer at All India Radio for about six years. In retirement he got down to studying and writing. He began to study tantra and yoga under Mahamahopadhyaya Pandit Gopinath Kaviraj. He also studied with Swami Lakshman Joo and this collaboration led to English translations of a number of Kashmiri Shaivite texts, including: Pratyabhijnahrdayam: The Secret of Self-Recognition, Vijnanabhairava or Divine Consciousness: A Treasury of 112 Types of Yoga, Siva Sutras: The Yoga of Supreme Identity, Spanda-Karikas: The Divine Creative Pulsation, Para-trisika-Vivarana by Abhinavagupta: The Secret of Tantric Mysticism. The two books that this review will focus upon are Vedanta and Advaita Shaivagama of Kashmir: A Comparative Study and An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy. Both of these books are far more accessible than the major translations listed above.

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Gautam writes:

Thakur Saheb was a voracious reader. His thirst for knowledge was so great that he wished to study the great works of renowned scholars on mysticism, music, philosophy and other subjects in their original versions. Therefore he learnt Greek, Latin, Persian, French and German in addition to English, Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati and Urdu…and his library consisted of 6000-7000 rare books, (Gautam, Sruti, 24-25).

Singh was a true scholar of world religions.

He found a striking closeness of spirit between Christian and Hindu mysticism, as also Sufism. His mind was thus marked by the openness and universality which are the signs of great spirits. Being rooted in his own tradition, he accepted the truth, from whichever source it came. This, his openness, was also connected with the fact that he was deeply influenced by the thought of A.K. Coomaraswamy, with whom he entertained correspondence, as well as by Rene Guenon and the traditionalist school. Besides, he was a theosophist of a very free and non-sectarian type,” (Unknown author as previous page missing in pdf, possibly Dr. Bettina Baumer, Sruti, 35).

I came to reading Jaideva Singh after a conversation with Richard Miller, PhD, the developer or iRest (Integrative Restoration), an adaptation of yoga nidra which has been studied with military veterans and active duty military personnel as well as other populations. After reading Richard’s books (Yoga Nidra: Awaken to Unqualified Presence Through Traditional Mind-Body Practices and The iRest Program for Healing PTSD: A Proven-Effective Approach to Using Yoga Nidra Meditation and Deep Relaxation Techniques to Overcome Trauma), I was curious as to the historical background and spiritual tradition that the concepts came out of and Richard mentioned a few different sources, including those of Jaideva Singh. I made my way, slowly through Pratyabhijnahrdayam, Vijñānabhairava, Siva Sutras, Spanda-Karikas, Para-trisika-Vivarana. These texts are dense with layers of the original Sanskrit texts (generally from around 800-1200 CE), commentaries by ancient sages, and then modern commentary. I found them difficult, but worthwhile and found various gems throughout. I then turned scholarly texts by Western professors on the subject and found Paul Muller-Ortega’s The Triadic Heart of Siva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non-dual Shaivism of Kashmir and Mark Dyczkowski’s The Doctrine of Vibration: An Analysis of the Doctrines and Practices Associated with Kashmir Shaivism illuminating.

There are a number of contemporary authors studying these same ancient texts and offering contemporary translations for a more general, than academic and esoteric, audience. Daniel Odier’s Yoga Spandakarika: The Sacred Texts at the Origins of Tantra is very readable and accessible. I have recently read once through Lorin Roche’s The Radiance Sutras: 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder and Delight, and this includes a review of previous translations and tracing the lineages from Lakshman Joo, including Jaideva Singh’s Vijñānabhairava. I am currently making my way through Christopher D Wallis’ The Recognition Sutras: Illuminating a 1,000-Year-Old Spiritual Masterpiece, which is strikes a middle ground between academic rigour and accessibility.

Why have I spent so much time reading through these translations of ancient texts of the Kashmiri Shaivite tradition? This tradition is also one of the major sources of the concept of “Tantra,” which is a more popular term. Tantric traditions are found in various branches of Hinduism and Buddhism. Two of the primary reasons I have immersed myself in these writings and teachings are: non-dualism and sound mysticism (the relationship of sound, word, creation, and reality). The primary focus of this review is on non-dualism, we will have a brief aside on sound mysticism and then focus on non-dualism and two of Jaideva Singh’s books for the remainder of the review.

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Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) & David Kopacz

My work with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), a Native American mystic and visionary, who comes from the Southern Ute and Picuris Pueblo cultural traditions, has led me to expand my studies into various cultures and traditions to try to understand and contextualize some of his teachings. Joseph teaches that the sound energy of the word contains meaning. The signifier (the word sound) is not separate from the signified (the meaning of the word). Joseph teaches me to listen to, rather than think about, reality (this is a challenge for me as an academic and Westerner). Joseph often speaks about the differences between Western languages which are noun-based and focus on people, places, and things – this is great for science and for dividing reality up into separate pieces, but it loses something of the heart and soul and living spirituality of verb-based languages. Many indigenous languages are verb-based – they focus on processes, flow, and relationship rather than on fixed, separate objects. This has profound and far-reaching consequences, the most tangible being the European view of land as a “thing” to be owned” rather than Mother Earth being a living being who is our source and to whom we are all interconnected and interrelated. The most esoteric, and yet perhaps the most fundamental, of Joseph’s teachings is: “we do not exist.” This is a koan-like statement that I continually turn over in my mind and heart and which I have come to understand in many different, multi-layered ways. One way of understanding this statement that we do not exist is that we do not exist as nouns (as fixed, concrete, boundaried objects), but that we do exist as a kind of continually changing, flowing, and pulsating verb that is in relation with everything. The Native American concept of interrelation is quite well-known, for instance the Lakota saying mitakuye oyasin, often translated as “we are all related.” Joseph takes this interrelation a step further to the point that we do not exist in separation, but we do exist in a kind of unity in which there is no difference between the individual and what Joseph calls Vast Self (God, Creator, the One Being creating and observing reality).

Joseph is very interested in science and is always giving me references to articles he reads in various science magazines about dark matter and dark energy. These are forces that “don’t exist” from the perspective of our everyday senses, yet we can infer through scientific observation and study that these unseen forces do exist and influence visible reality. This parallels Joseph’s teachings around ordinary and non-ordinary reality. Ordinary reality is perceptual reality and non-ordinary is the reality that we can reach through intuitive and spiritual methods that exists in a different way. Much of his teaching with me has been on being able to move into a state of non-ordinary reality and then back. My sense is that, ultimately, non-ordinary reality is the source of the momentary manifestation of ordinary reality.

Sound is one way that we can travel from ordinary to non-ordinary reality. Ordinary reality is not separate from non-ordinary reality, it is a manifestation of it. The sound we hear with our ears contains within it esoteric teachings about reality. Joseph speaks of principle ideas that various sounds contain and that more complex concepts are created out of the building blocks of the principle ideas contained within the sounds. For instances, when Joseph teaches the medicine wheel each direction has a vowel sound associated with it and each vowel sound manifests a principle idea. A (ah) is east, mind, spring, purity; E (eh) is south, emotion, summer, placement; I (ee) is west, body, autumn, awareness; O (oh) is north, spirit, winter, innocence. Thus, the outer direction of east corresponds to the inner direction of mind, these are not two separate things, but inner and outer manifestations of the principle idea of purity.

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Joseph Rael’s Medicine Wheel, Rendition by David Kopacz ©2016

The four inner and outer directions of the medicine wheel are interrelated, just as the four seasons are interrelated – they are different “things” in a way, but they do not exist in and of themselves, but only in relationship to each other, just as what we call “winter” cannot exist without a relationship with “summer.” Joseph says that the reason we have war and violence is because we misperceive ourselves as existing and separate from “others,” whereas we do not really exist as separate beings, but only in relationship with others. We talk about the medicine wheel and coming home from war to peace in our book, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD. Using the four directions of the medicine wheel, we can bring ourselves back into harmony internally and externally, bringing peace to ourselves and to the world as we come back into interrelationship and interbeing.

The next level of work I am doing with Joseph starts at the end of Walking the Medicine Wheel and continues on in our forthcoming book, Becoming Medicine. This is the movement from interrelationship to oneness and unity: non-duality. After walking the four inner and outer directions of the medicine wheel, there is a further journey – which is the journey of the mystic, the visionary, and the shaman – into the center of the medicine wheel, the very heart of reality. Joseph teaches that the sound of the center is: U (uu) center, heart, carrying. Moving into the heart of the medicine wheel first comes to the level of our personal heart, but as we go deeper it is revealed that our personal heart leads to the universal heart and it is through the universal heart that we are not only interconnected with all of reality, but we are one with it. This is a place of non-duality.

Becoming Medicine

© Joseph Rael

There is a common tension between the spiritual concepts of immanence and transcendence that seems to be found in all major religions. Immanence is the concept that all materially reality contains spirit within it. Transcendence is the concept that there is a spiritual realm that exists above and beyond material reality. As with all dualisms, immanence/transcendence leads to violence and we see this throughout the history of humankind and the history of religion. The ossified teachings of most religions teach that material reality is sinful, evil, or irrelevant (e.g. maya, illusion). The Fall in Christianity teaches us that the body is sinful and evil, that we are trapped in matter that is constantly trying to lead us to sin and that salvation leads to rejecting or controlling the body and being “good” and getting to heaven after death. In dualistic versions of Hinduism and Buddhism, material reality is considered maya, illusion, and that the religious path is found by detaching from the physical and focusing on the spiritual. We can look at secular materialism as a form of radical immanence (without the recognition of the sacred). Capitalism that is unbalanced by another belief/value system teaches us that the ultimate good and goal of life is to accumulate as many things and dollars as possible. Much of the blending of Christianity and Capitalism results in a dualism with a dissociation of business (Capitalism, Materialism) and spirituality (going to church and being “better” than those who don’t go to Church and being “better” than non-Christians). It is a puzzling observation that the “founders” of religions are generally mystics and visionaries, but later on the followers lose the mystical thread of living spirituality and fall prey to dualistic conceptions of us/them that leads to so many inequalities and wars. Consider the fact that Jesus in the Bible cannot in anyway be considered a Capitalist or Materialist. He is far more of a Socialist, but ultimately he was a renunciate (an anti-Materialist) – who rather than amass wealth and belongings taught that we should love one another and not cast the first stone of dualistic judgment. Sufis, Tantriks, Christian mystics all broke down the boundaries of dualism that divide us and separate us from the Ultimate spiritual Reality. Native American teachings highly value immanence, the sacredness of the physical world, which includes our physical being. Joseph Rael also includes transcendence, that physical reality is sacred, but it also does not exist and that there is another, non-ordinary reality, which is hidden within ordinary reality. He does this in a way that does not create dualism, but rather is non-dualistic.