Safe and Sound
By Linda Johnsen
It was one of those Spring afternoons so beautiful you could cry. The sun was shining, the temperature was perfect, there was a gentle caressing breeze, and the doctors and nurses sitting outside on their lunch break were smiling and relaxed.
For me it was the end of the world. Inside the hospital my husband was in surgery. He'd been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and his odds of surviving looked grim. Watching the secretaries and medical technicians laughing and chattering outside the hospital entrance, I was overwhelmed by how powerful mayais, the universe's ability to deceive us into believing everything is safe and secure when in fact accidents, disease and death threaten us at every turn. Not even these medical personnel, surrounded by terrible suffering each day at work, seemed to realize how vulnerable they were themselves.
In the Yoga tradition, time is often pictured as a graha, a crocodile. You're bathing down by the river, enjoying the sunlight and joking with friends, when suddenly the log floating past you comes alive. It grabs you by the arm or leg, pulls you into deep water, holds you under until you drown. Then it eats you.
You never know when a crocodile will strike. It seems so placid, floating motionlessly down the river, but when it attacks the graha is astonishingly fast. It can outrun you on land if you try to escape. Even if you get away, you're likely to die from blood loss if the crocodile managed to graze you with its powerful jaws. If you survive that, you're likely to die from the infected wound.
The sunlight and soft breeze cast a spell over our intelligence. They lull us into a complacent sense that our future is secure. The crocodile is reality. It brings injury, deprivation and mortality. Sooner or later each one of us finds ourselves staring into its unblinking eyes. The crocodile is time, promising that after every profitable cycle comes a season of loss.
My husband was in a lot of pain, but he was far more comfortable with the crocodile than I was. To Johnathan life had always been an adventure. He was always ready to move on, to meet the next experience head on, never clinging to the past. Death for him was simply the next adventure. But I wasn't prepared to deal with reality at all. I didn't want anything to change; I wanted our happy life together to go on forever. When Johnathan was diagnosed, I felt as if I'd been pushed out of an airplane without a parachute. I was in freefall, and there was nothing to grab hold of. I was not looking forward to hitting the ground.
The human brain is geared for survival. We recoil at the thought of our own death, or the passing of those we love. In Yoga this is called abhinivesha-the shrillest cry of ego against Spirit. It is oddly comforting to me that when he realized his own gruesome death was approaching, even Jesus prayed that the cup of suffering be taken away. Immediately he corrected himself, "Not my will but Thine be done." That beautiful Spring afternoon I was having a terrible time making peace with God's will.
What is it in us that clings so steadfastly to the illusion of lasting security, the delusion that by doing hatha postures and eating health food we will never get sick; that we'll be fine if we invest wisely with the advice of a professional financial consultant, because surely the value of our house or our stocks can only go up? Why does the universe make us feel so comfortable, then cruelly pull the rug out from under our feet? Solid ground feels so firm, but where I live an earthquake can occur at any time. You never know when the roof might come crashing down.
The Fall from Grace Searching for an answer, I turned to the Bible. It has a special story about security and about the value, yes the value, of living in unhappy times.
It was the most secure place in the world. Adam had been placed in a beautiful garden, where his only job was to name the lush trees and lively creatures around him. His Divine Father gave him a companion named Eve so he wouldn't be lonely, and there was always plenty of good vegetarian food to eat. But there was a booby trap in the Garden of Eden, as there is in every seemingly safe haven. The Father told his human children not to eat from two particular trees. And of course, being human, they soon sampled the forbidden fruit.
We all know what happened next. God came walking in the garden and found the guilty couple covering their naked bodies. Sensing immediately what had happened, he threw them out of paradise. From that point forward, nothing would ever be perfect again. Security slipped away, replaced by the necessity for backbreaking labor, childbearing, and death.
This archetypal story has resonances with all our lives. As young children we play innocently in the yard while our parents protect us and supply all our needs. All we have to do is name the objects around us. "This is my nose, this is my belly button, and there is my puppy Oliver!"
Then comes the day boys and girls start seeing each other in an exciting new way. Our parents may tell us not to do it, but many of us do anyway-we taste the bittersweet fruit. Just as in the Bible, an angry father appears shouting, "All right young man, you're obviously old enough now to support yourself, so get out of my house and get a job! As for you, young lady, nine months from now you'll experience the consequences of your actions!" [Compare Genesis 3:16-19.] Like Adam and Eve, we're forced to head out into the unknown. Yet how many of us wish, consciously or unconsciously, we could return to those childlike days when someone else took care of everything for us? (If only we didn't have to obey their rules!)
Adam and Eve experienced the consequences of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that is, of growing up and facing the real world. Puberty-when Adam and Eve first became aware of their nakedness-forces us to change our priorities, whether we want to or not. In the adult world good things happen, but bad things happen too. Maturing as human beings-and as spiritual beings-means learning to overcome serious difficulties and face hard truths. When the Father expelled the original couple from the garden, he bluntly reminded them that their bodies were made from earth and would return to dust. The Bible is telling us that maturity means honestly facing suffering and mortality. Nothing in the world is secure. Whatever Eden we try to create for ourselves will ultimately go into foreclosure. That's just the way things are. If they weren't, would we ever grow up?
Religious people insist God has a plan. The theologians I studied with in graduate school even admitted that placing the forbidden trees in the Garden of Eden-knowing fully well that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit-was part of the plan. Whether we take the story literally or metaphorically, God didn't want his children to sit in stasis forever, in a pleasant garden that never changed. He wanted them to learn, to become strong, to become masters of themselves, to learn the inestimable value of divine grace from personal experience. That meant letting go of everything secure and entering a world of challenge and change.
But I have always suspected there was more to the story than I learned in Sunday school. Remember, there were two forbidden trees in the Garden of Eden. The Bible calls the other one the Tree of Life. Perhaps our purpose here is larger than merely knowing good and evil. I can't help wondering if we weren't thrown into this world of trouble and travail to prepare us to eat from that other tree, on the day when we're finally prepared to do so and the Father at last signals his permission. Perhaps that will be the day we outgrow our preoccupation with the things of this world and begin to seek the gifts of Spirit.
There is a Tree of Life in the Yoga tradition too. Yogis call it the nyagrodha or banyan tree, the tree whose roots are in heaven and whose boughs extend down to earth. According to ancient legend, only advanced souls were allowed to eat the red figs of this tree. Its fruit was associated with soma, the plant which gives divine knowledge and immortality. For Yoga students the Tree of Life is the sushumna, the column of subtle energy extending upward through the subtle body into the soma chakra at the very top of the head.
Each of us is invited every day of our lives to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We do so every time we put our faith in our physical body, in our stock portfolio, in our government. These things sustain us, but they can also fail us. Or we can choose the Tree of Life, putting our faith in the words of the guru, and turning to the ambrosial inner light, shining like a full Moon in the inner Eden. Making the second choice isn't always so easy, since it demands we look reality in the face, and at times the mask it wears is genuinely frightening. But then, Yoga isn't about consoling us. It's about leading us to truth. Truth is the one completely secure thing in the universe.
Embracing Insecurity My husband survived his bout with cancer, but my naive expectations about life did not. I could never again take a day of life for granted, or pretend that Johnathan and I will never part. I had to look hard at my attachments, and what it is in life that gives me a sense of security.
We crave stability because Spirit is perfectly stable; it's always tranquil and serene. Consciously or unconsciously, we sense that perfect stability is our true nature. But prakriti-material elements and energies-are always destabilizing. As Yoga students we must make peace with the dynamic nature of the universe, and learn to honor it. It's the fleeting nature of every second that makes each one of them so special.
As I watched the medical staff enjoy their lunch break that horribly painful Spring day, it suddenly struck me how beautiful these people were. They worked hard to alleviate the suffering of their patients, and richly deserved these few carefree moments sitting out in the sun. Feeling the breeze caressing my cheeks, as if it was trying to wipe away my tears, I felt acutely how fragile life is, but also how infinitely precious. This moment, with both its beauty and its anguish, was a perfect gift from God. By letting go of my attachment to the way I wanted the world to be, I could embrace the world that was actually appearing before me.
My teacher Swami Rama often explained that enlightenment brings freedom from fear. When we shift our awareness from the world of the senses entrenched in the unstoppable flow of time, to the inner world abiding in eternity, we gain a higher perspective. This allows us to walk through the world like masters, not like victims. This amazing planet is the stage for a great adventure that brings both pleasure and pain, and also (as perhaps our Father intended when he first placed the tempting trees in the garden) inner strength and hard-won wisdom. Those are prizes worth losing everything to win.