Still Crazy After All These Years
The mystics remind us that we can’t escape this world; we can’t disentangle from the tangle of our karma, and we can’t overcome the mind on the merits of our effort alone.
And we know this, don’t we? This is actually a “spiritual” experience, we understand. If we have tried to meditate, we know that we are not able to do it with our own strength, our own intellect, and our own will power. Many of us can’t make sense of the spiritual path on our own, and although we know that meditation is a cornerstone of the spiritual path, it appears to be an impossible task. We know we need to do it. We try to do it. We try and try and try. And yet, it seems, we just can’t do it.
After some time on the path it can come as a shock that we have not made any tangible progress in meditation, and that we are not any better at it than we were when we got initiated. It is very difficult when we come to the realization that we can’t meditate, and that our mind is a complete mess. Even after many years of following the vows, going to satsang, doing seva, going to Dera, and seeing the master when he comes to our country, most of us feel like nothing has happened. We may even feel worse off than we were before we started following this path.
The Buddhist teacher, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, says:
Somewhere in this process, you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and helpless.1
What an image of the mind! An out-of-control-insane asylum on wheels barreling down a hill. In the song Still Crazy After All These Years, the popular American musician, Paul Simon, says,
I seem to lean on old familiar ways.
And I ain't no fool for love songs
That whisper in my ears –
Still crazy after all these years,
Oh, still crazy after all these years.2
We have our old familiar ways of understanding the spiritual path, we hope against hope that we will hear the love song of the Shabd whispering in our ears, and yet, at some point, we come to terms with the realization that we are still completely crazy after all these years.
What are we to do with this still crazy awareness? If our effort to meditate doesn’t bear fruit; if we don’t have the strength or intellect to do the one thing the master has asked us to do – now what?
Soami Ji addresses this very problem in Sar Bachan Poetry. He says, “...every moment I am beside myself with grief…
One thought consumes me every day –
that my condition gets worse by the moment, O friend,
and no one is there to help…
... and though I try
I cannot follow the path leading to him.
Dark and fearsome is the uphill path,
and no one is there to hear my cries of pain.
I do not know what else to do; I feel demoralized,
for I cannot win my Beloved’s heart…
How unfortunate I am –
I haven’t caught the melody of Shabd!
I am in the grip of lust, anger, and maya.
I cannot even practise the path of Surat Shabd
that has been granted to me…3
This is a heartbreaking passage, but the mystics describe these experiences out of compassion for us. They know what we struggle with and how difficult it is for us to comprehend the spiritual path. Soami Ji, writing from the perspective of the disciple, says that things get worse by the moment and it feels as if no one is there to help. He says that, although the path of Surat Shabd has been granted to us, we can’t practise it. We feel demoralized, and we don’t feel we can win the Master’s heart. It’s as though we feel the Master doesn’t love us.
How many of us have not felt that way at some point in our journey? Demoralized, defeated, alone, a failure, unloved. How often does this come up in the questions put forth to the master?
In another Shabd, Soami Ji says,
Why do you not listen to my cries?
I just cannot understand the working of your will…
You do not protect and save me,
even though I’ve always lived in your company.
Deeply perplexed, I cannot understand it –everyone
says there is no protector but the Master.
I wonder what bad deeds I have done
that I should go through this never-ending misery.4
At times we really do feel abandoned and alone. We don’t understand the path or the master or the teachings. We are trying to meditate, but with no noticeable success. We ask the master for help, hoping secretly that when we ask for help, he will do it for us. But the master, knowing our deeper needs, tells us that we have to find our own intrinsic motivation. We have to know ourselves, and we have to know how much we need meditation. When we know how much we need it, we will meditate automatically. Maharaj Charan Singh says:
You have been given the technique of meditation. You have to help yourself. You have to make your own willpower strong to go through all your fate karma. Master helps you to some extent, but you have to mainly help yourself by meditation.5
This puts the mind in the frustrating state of cognitive dissonance. How can we use our own willpower and motivate ourselves to do something we know – we really, really believe from our own experience – that we can’t do? And even though we believe we can’t do it, we are told over and over to keep doing it anyway, day after day, year after year, with no success, no seeming encouragement, no tangible progress.
What a dilemma! What a conundrum. What a predicament. We have committed ourselves to this path and yet we are in limbo. We don’t feel we are moving forward. We want to stay on the path, but we don’t feel the path is going anywhere. We can’t see a clear way out of the fog.
Maybe, thinks the mind, we should just practise mindfulness, or do yoga, or go to church, or the gurdwara, or the mosque, or maybe we need therapy. These things can all be beneficial and helpful, but we are still left with our vow to do bhajan and simran. The mind begins to wander, and to wonder… Maybe this isn’t the path for me! Maybe I can’t do it in this lifetime! Maybe I was just supposed to be exposed to the path this time around, and maybe I’ll be better placed to meditate in my next lifetime! Maybe there is another path, an easier one! Maybe there is a master who will help me more, who will work with me more closely,who will give me more spiritual experiences! Maybe, maybe, maybe! No clear way out of the fog, and no other viable solution.
And yet, the mystics do give us a way forward, the way of grace. This is sensitive and unfamiliar territory for the intellect and the personal willpower. It is a place of vulnerability, of feeling exposed and defenseless. But Maharaj Charan Singh explains that we can follow this path only by the Lord’s grace:
We can escape from this realm only with the Lord’s grace. If you say we can escape by our effort, by our intellect – it’s impossible. We can do it only by grace.6
In an answer to another question, Hazur Maharaj Ji explains,
We can only worship the Father by his grace…Nobody can worship him without his grace, without his pull from within. So even when we attend to meditation it is nothing – it is not so much our effort, but just his grace that we are attending to meditation.7
And he explains that we can’t achieve anything – that nothing at all can happen on the spiritual path except by grace:
Everything is done by the grace of the Father in this world. A seeker can achieve nothing without his grace. Without his grace, a seeker would not even know about the Father, what to say of reaching the Father, what to say of trying to reach his destination…Everything happens by grace. Without his grace, nothing can happen. Unless he wishes, nobody can reach him. We are all blind, groping in the dark. He is the only one who can show us the light out of this darkness. And he has his own ways and means to show that light to us. Nobody can achieve anything without his grace at all.8
So, on one hand Hazur Maharaj Ji tells us that we have to help ourselves in meditation and use our own willpower, and on the other hand he tells us that we can’t do anything except by grace, that our effort and our attention to meditation is nothing. Again, the concrete, conceptual mind begins to wonder…Which is it? Is it grace or is it effort? Can we meditate or can’t we? Is all in the Lord’s hands or is it up to us? We just want to know, we want the answer in a simple, straightforward way. Please, master, can’t you just spell it out for me clearly?
But the mystics don’t always accommodate the conceptual mind that wants concrete answers. Ajahn Chaa, a contemporary Buddhist master in the Thai forest tradition, often said things to his students that were contradictory. One of his American disciples describes an interaction with Ajahn Chaa.
Someone came to him complaining of all the conflicting advice he gave to his students. Sometimes he would suggest one thing and then later just the opposite. Ajahn Chaa replied: It’s like this. If I see someone walking down a road and about to fall off into a ditch on the left, I’ll shout, ‘Go right!’ Later, if the same person, or someone else, is walking on the road and about to fall into a ditch on the right, I’ll say, ‘Go left! Go left.’ It’s always about staying on the path.9
The master sometimes says things that seem to contradict our “old familiar ways,” our understanding of the teachings, and our misconceptions. But he says these things to keep us on the true spiritual path and to help us mature. Sometimes we have to “go right” – we have to put in effort. Sometimes we have to “go left” – we have to lean into grace. On the spiritual path, we have to do both because it’s the going right and the going left that begins to bring us into balance. It creates humility. But sometimes the mind just cannot stand the ambiguity and becomes frustrated with the whole process. It says, “Master, you told me to go left, so I’ve gone left. Now you’re telling me to go right. How can you do this to me?” The mind really gets ticked off.
When the Buddhist teacher, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, described the mind as a “shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and helpless,” he went on to say:
No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way, and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not. So they feel relatively comfortable. That does not mean that they are better off. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation. So don’t let this realization unsettle you. It is a milestone actually, a sign of real progress. The very fact that you have looked at the problem straight in the eye means that you are on your way up and out of it.10
Even though we feel like we are still crazy after all these years, like we’ve made no progress and are worse off than we were when we got initiated, we have actually come a long way. This still crazy awareness is a milestone! By coming to terms with our inability to meditate, with the “shocking realization” that we are completely crazy, with the ineffectiveness of our intellectualizing and efforting, we have made real progress. We are looking the problem straight in the eye. How would we know that we couldn’t meditate until we tried so hard to do it and failed?
Soami Ji says,
“I lie at your door, weary and defeated,
for who but you will protect me?11
After struggling, feeling demoralized, feeling perplexed, and not understanding the master’s will, Soami Ji says that the disciple comes to the master’s door weary and defeated. The key is that the disciple has finally come to the master’s door in humility, asking for the help he really needs. The disciple has become authentic and real, asking for help from the deepest part of his being. He has realized that the ambiguity of the meditative process is in his best interests, and has accepted that the master knows better than he does what his real needs are.
Does the master condemn us as we struggle and fail? Is he displeased with our inability to meditate? No, never.
He never judges, he always loves. He knows our struggles. He knows that we can’t do it, that we have it all wrong, that we are still crazy; that we are mixed up and confused and bewildered. But he continues to love and encourage and hold out his hand in support.
Maharaj Charan Singh Ji says:
Let me assure you, we never displease him. How can we displease him? We can only displease a person when we do something which he never expected. When he knows how helpless we are, what victims we are of our mind, that at every step we are full of failures, it’s nothing new for him to know about us; he already knows us...the question of displeasing the master doesn’t arise at all, but definitely we can please him by living the Sant Mat way of life, by attending to our meditation. This definitely pleases him, but nothing displeases him.12
Baba Ji often explains that life is a learning process and that we need to get comfortable with ourselves. Part of getting comfortable with ourselves is realizing that we don’t know what we’re doing, that we really know very little about how to live a balanced and peaceful life, that we don’t know how to love, and that we don’t know anything about the path. This is a surprise to us, but it’s not a surprise to him.Hazur Maharaj Ji says:
He comes to create love, to strengthen love, to help it grow and to absorb a disciple within himself…there is nothing to fear because he never sits in judgment. He doesn’t judge anybody. What is there to judge? He knows us. We are all struggling souls, full of weaknesses. What is there to judge? We are all imperfect. That is why we are here.13
When the disciple finally comes to the master’s door weary and defeated, asking for protection, Soami Ji elucidates the Lord’s response:
The Lord then spoke, saying:
Accept my will and stay calm.
Have patience, have faith –
I shall bring to fruition your heart’s desire.14
As we become comfortable with ourselves, we sit in meditation, start our simran and let go – trusting that the Lord will bring to fruition our deepest spiritual yearnings. We accept the Lord’s will, with a mature understanding that the spiritual journey is not going to unfold according to our intellectual understanding. But it will, indeed, unfold. We learn patience and faith. We go right, go left, and come into balance over and over again. We learn to stay calm. We let go of our old familiar ways, we compassionately accept our craziness, and we lean into love and grace.
- Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English, p. 75
- Soami Ji, Bachan 33, Shabd 1, Sar Bachan Poetry, p. 309–311
- Soami Ji, Bachan 33, Shabd 8, Sar Bachan Poetry, p. 321
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Volume II, Q #458
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Volume II, Q #467
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Volume II, Q #49
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Volume II, Q #463
- Goldstein, Joseph, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, p. 51
- Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English, p. 75–76
- Soami Ji, Bachan 33, Shabd 1, Sar Bachan Poetry, pp. 309–311
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Volume III, Q #15
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Volume III, Q # 18
- Soami Ji, Bachan 33, Shabd 1, Sar Bachan Poetry, p. 309–311